Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Indigenous uprising paralyses Ecuador

From February 16, tens of thousands of Ecuadorians poured into the nation's streets and highways in a 48-hour wave of protest, paralysing much of the country. They demanded the resignation of the president, Lucio Gutierrez, and called for an end to corruption and military ties with the United States.
The protests began with up to 20,000 protesters blocking the streets of the highland province of Cotopaxi, which contains a large proportion of Ecuador's 4 million indigenous population, and extended the length of the country, from the city of Loja in the south to the Colombian border in the north.

In the Cotopaxi capital Latacunga, police used tear gas to disperse crowds of thousands, and in Nabon at least four protesters were killed and dozens injured when police used bullets to quell the demonstrations. Throughout most of Ecuador's provinces, highways and roads were blockaded and the economic life in these areas slowed to a trickle.

This wave of protests was initiated by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), in response to the attempted assassination of its president, Leonidas Iza, earlier in February. Iza was attacked outside his home on February 1 as he returned from a meeting in Havana, Cuba, against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA).

While Iza escaped unhurt, his son, brother and nephew were all seriously injured, and his son is still in intensive care. It is widely believed that the government was responsible for the attack, and many people, Iza included, believe in the existence of a blacklist of individuals, especially indigenous leaders, considered politically dangerous to the government.

CONAIE and its political wing Pachakutik have long been critical of Gutierrez and his government, despite the fact that they were instrumental in getting him into power, and were part of the governing alliance until late last year.

In 1999, the indigenous movement led a nationwide uprising that led to the overthrow of the corrupt presidency of Jamil Mahuad. As a young army colonel, Gutierrez played a leading part in this, and later forged an alliance between Pachakutik and his own Patriotic Society Party, which finally got him elected in late 2002. Pachakutik remained a part of the governing alliance, becoming increasingly critical, up until October, when it left in protest and disgust over Gutierrez's policies.

Gutierrez swept to power by making immensely popular promises to fight and destroy corruption in Ecuador, remove the contentious United States military presence at the Eloy Alfaro Air Base at Manta, and free the country from neoliberalism and it's crippling foreign debt. Upon ascending the presidency, however, Gutierrez embarked upon an appeasement strategy with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), signing Ecuador up for a new US$205 million loan. He also began active military co-operation with the United States, which he visited within 10 days of his inauguration, and gave his support to Ecuador's inclusion in the FTAA.

More recently, accusations have surfaced that Gutierrez' election campaign was partially funded by drug-money, and the Manta Air Base has been quadrupled in size, causing national outcry. This base now forms the centre for US electronic and airborne espionage in the region. Finally, when Gutierrez sought an alliance with the traditionally neoliberal Christian Democratic Party, Pachakutik left the government, and began to demand that Gutierrez resign.

Since then, the neoliberal colours of the regime have been shown more clearly. To avert fears that Ecuador's vital oil reserves are drying up, Gutierrez has forced through the opening up of the Sarayaku region for active oil exploration, ignoring the protests and demonstrations of the local indigenous community. Several radio stations, and some newspapers, which have been highly critical of the government, have been closed down, increasing the anger amongst Ecuador's one-third indigenous population.

The increasing military presence of the US is also heightening tensions. Besides rapidly upgrading the Manta Air Base, Ecuador's El Comercio reports that there are plans for aerial and naval facilities to be installed on the world-heritage listed Galapagos Islands, a new naval base in the southern province of El Oro, and the creation of a series of special battalions and military camps in the highland and Amazonian regions of the country.

Ostensibly created to provide Ecuador with stability and security in the event of violence spilling over from neighbouring Colombia, the US military deployment is an integral part of Plan Colombia, designed to bring about the defeat of the left-wing guerrilla groups in Colombia — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). The US wants to enforce its policies in the region, and is using the excuse of fighting a war on "narco-terrorism" to do it.

This policy is beginning to bear fruit, with the arrest of a leading member of the FARC, Ricardo Palmero (aka Simon Trinidad), in Ecuador's capital Quito on January 2, a capture credited largely to the CIA presence now highly active in the country.

This new military co-operation with the United States also includes special training centres, increased joint-operations near the border and millions of dollars in military funding. It is the cause of great concern in Ecuador, where it is feared that far from preventing the spread of violence from Colombia, these actions will hasten it. There are also fears that the increasing role of the military could damage Ecuador's fragile democracy, possibly leading to direct military rule.

After two days, CONAIE suspended the mobilisation amid fears of a military coup and called for a regroupment of its forces, but it maintains its demand that Gutierrez resign, and gave its support to any group wishing to continue the strike. The blockades in Cotopaxi continued until February 20, when, facing threats from the national government to "militarise" the province, the organising committee suspended the protests until February 26.

These demonstrations are likely to be only a first sally. Gutierrez's popularity is down to less than 15%, and, if he continues down the same neoliberal path as his predecessors, Gutierrez may suffer the same fate, and be overthrown by a people frustrated with decades of corruption.

From Green Left Weekly, March 3, 2004.

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