Thursday, April 19, 2007

Ecuadorians vote for radical change

On April 15, Ecuador voted overwhelmingly to ratify President Rafael Correa's proposal to convoke a Constituent Assembly with the power to re-write the constitution with the intention of weakening the stranglehold on the country of the traditional wealthy elite.
The proposal, which originated in the demands of the country's powerful indigenous federation CONAIE (40% of Ecuador's population is indigenous) and social movements, received 82% of the vote — a major victory for Correa and a devastating defeat for the corrupt elite that has dominated Ecuadorian politics for decades.

The process leading up to the vote revealed the degree to which the Congress and the nepotism of the organisations it harbours have been sidelined by the Ecuadorian people, who are demanding a truly participatory democracy.

Correa, a leftist economist and university lecturer who received his PhD from the University of Illinois, first came to national fame in 2005, in the aftermath of the overthrow of President Lucio Gutierrez. Gutierrez had followed the path of his predecessors by promising radical reforms and then backing down in the face of US and International Monetary Fund (IMF) pressure within days of being elected.

After Gutierrez became the third president in a decade to be ousted by popular unrest, Vice-President Alfredo Palacio took over, appointing Correa finance minister. Correa's stint was cut short, however. Within a few months he was forced to resign after his plans to redirect Ecuador's foreign debt spending towards social needs, like schools and hospitals, came up against powerful financial interests.


During the election campaign last year, those same interests went on a red-baiting campaign, trying to paint him as a "communist dictator" and a "terrorist", as he echoed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's call for a "socialism of the 21st century". Correa called for giving power back to the people and redirecting Ecuador's oil wealth towards meeting the needs of the country's population, over two-thirds of whom live in poverty.

Despite initial misgivings, fearing that Correa might follow in the steps of previous presidents and sell them out, the social movements, headed by CONAIE, mobilised to help Correa and his Allianza Pais ("National Alliance") movement defeat his second-round opponent, Ecuador's richest man Alvaro Noboa. Correa received 63% of the vote and a record number of votes for a presidential candidate.

A 'citizens' revolution'

At his inauguration on January 15, Correa reiterated his call for a "citizens' revolution", and his support for the Bolivarian revolution of Chavez. The president also called for a "united and socialist Latin America".

Correa has so far kept his word in the face of a hostile Congress. The first thing his administration did was to double the social welfare payment. He has reiterated his intention to close the unpopular US Air Force base at Manta, and has begun to reform the corrupt police force.

Soon after taking office, Correa also threatened to take neighbouring Colombia to the International Court of Justice for spraying glyphosate (a kind of "super-Roundup") over the border region. The spraying of the chemical, dubbed "Agent Green", is part of Washington's "Plan Colombia, which targets left-wing guerrillas. The herbicide destroys crops, kills animals and children, poisons the water table and causes birth defects.

Correa has also set about repairing Ecuador's key industry — oil. The industry has been dominated by Western companies, which have left a massive social and environmental disaster as their legacy.

In 2006, Oxy (Occidental Petroleum) was found to be in breach of contract and its property reverted to the government. Correa has ignored the company's pleas for reinstatement, preferring to incorporate the nationalised resources with the state oil company Petroecuador.

Ecuador has signed a deal with Venezuela to repair and develop the industry, including building a refinery, and has announced its intention to rejoin OPEC. Although a major exporter of oil, Ecuador is forced to import fuel at unfavourable rates due to poorly developed infrastructure.

A significant part of the national budget is earmarked for urgent environmental repair, and the government is helping a number of indigenous communities that are fighting for compensation for damage caused by Western corporations.

For example, Chevron is being prosecuted for an epidemic of cancer in areas near its facilities. The company is also accused of causing massive environmental damage through the dumping of billions of litres of oily waste-water.

Other companies are being investigated for corruption, and breaches of human rights and ecological laws, including Encana and Ascendant Copper, both of which have been forced to make major concessions to community and union demands that have been supported by the government.

Bancosur

On April 15, Correa announced that Ecuador, once renowned for having a foreign debt equal to half its GDP, had paid off the last of its IMF loans and was cutting its ties with the organisation.

The president also declared that he was going to expel the local representative of the World Bank, claiming that the institution had tried to blackmail the government when he was finance minister. He claimed that it threatened to refuse a US$100 million loan unless Correa stopped plans for restructuring the oil industry and negotiating a finance deal with Venezuela. It was this showdown that led to his forced resignation in August 2005.

In the place of the World Bank and IMF, Ecuador has become a key proponent of Bancosur ("Bank of the South"), alongside Venezuela, Argentina and, now, Brazil. This initiative is intended to challenge the IMF by providing low-interest loans to developing countries, helping them avoid the debt-trap of Western development "aid". The bank's operations are due to begin later this year.

Correa is an advocate of the integration of Latin America into a common market on the basis of meeting social needs, rather than corporate profiteering. He has described the term "free trade" as "sophistry", and has long promoted a common currency for the region.

Soon after his election, he announced his intention that Ecuador join the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a project initiated by Chavez as an alternative to US-pushed free trade agreements.

Ecuador's capital, Quito, will house the permanent secretariat of Unasur — the Union of South American Nations, a new initiative to promote economic and political integration announced by Chavez on April 16 during the South American Energy Summit in Porlamar, Venezuela.

Constituent Assembly

Correa's most important promise has been to convoke a Constituent Assembly. The aim is a constitution that limits Congress's power over the judiciary, makes Congress members live within their constituencies, and makes elected officials recallable by their electors.

Despite having no representation in the Congress, Correa seemed to have gained an early majority support for a referendum on the assembly proposal when Gutierrez's Patriotic Society Party (PSP) opportunistically changed sides, joining the left-wing parties in backing the idea.

The motion was finally passed when several thousand protesters demonstrated outside first the Supreme Court and then the Congress. However, after Correa declared that a Constituent Assembly could dissolve the Congress, as well as the courts and presidency, the PSP led the Congress in rebellion.

After the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), and then the Constitutional Tribunal, sided with the president, the Congress attempted to sack the TSE. In response, the TSE sacked 57 MPs and police prevented them from entering parliament.

When they threatened to convoke a rival Congress in Guayaquil, Correa mobilised mass demonstrations against the opposition parties, holding a 30,000-strong demonstration in only days. 

The rump Congress could only muster 2000 people in its support.

Realising their defeat, the parties of the fired legislators reluctantly accepted their replacement in Congress and the referendum was held on April 15. A massive 82% voted in favour of the Constituent Assembly; only 12% voted against it and there was a remarkably low number of blank or spoiled ballots.

There will now be an election of 130 representatives to the assembly, probably in September or October. They will be given four to six months to rewrite the constitution.

One hundred of the assembly's members will be from local provinces and 24 from a national list; the remainder will be elected by Ecuador's large emigrant community. The proposals adopted by the Constituent Assembly will then go to another referendum.

The main challenge in the next stage of this process for Correa and other progressive forces is to ensure that the traditional parties are not able to take over the assembly and manipulate it for their own ends.

This is helped somewhat by a ban on private funding for the assembly elections, and by a requirement for movements and parties to gather signatures from 1% of the population if they want to register.

The real measure of the assembly's success will be how well the social movements, civil society organisations, unions, and, in particular, CONAIE, which often serves to unite the other forces, organise to represent the views of Ecuadorians who reject the corrupt power games that have dominated the country's past.

First published in Green Left Weekly, April 19, 2007.

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