Friday, December 7, 2007

Constituent assembly to 'refound nation'

On November 29, Ecuador's new constituent assembly sat for the first time, beginning the process of rewriting the country's constitution as part of self-described socialist President Rafael Correa's project of refounding the country through a "citizen's revolution".
One of its first acts was to suspend the existing Congress without pay until the assembly process was completed — taking control of the country itself for the duration. While this move drew protests from the right-wing opposition parties, who refuse to recognise the assembly's authority, Correa submitted his resignation (which was refused) to the assembly, a symbolic move to emphasis the placing of the future in the assembly's hands.

The 130-member body now has six months, with the possibility of a 60-day extension, to draft a new constitution that will then be put to a national referendum next year. If this is accepted, new elections will be held.

The assembly, presided over by Correa's former adviser, Alberto Acosta, has already agreed on a set of by-laws and created 10 commissions of 13 members each to address fundamental areas of reform, including development, fundamental rights, territorial order, work and production, and the new legislative model.

Elected in November 2006 on a pledge to "refound" the country, Correa has initiated what he calls a "citizen's revolution" to overcome the massive exclusion that marks Ecuador, where over 50% of the population lives in poverty.


A former lecturer in economics, Correa was finance minister briefly in 2005, before being forced to resign after prioritising social spending over repaying the foreign debt. 

Correa was elected after more than a decade of instability in the small Andean nation, which has seen eight presidents in the past 10 years — three of whom were overthrown by popular uprisings — and a massive economic crisis in 2000, when the local currency was replaced with the US dollar.

The demand for the constituent assembly has its roots in the various Ecuadorian social movements, including the powerful national indigenous federation CONAIE that represents the country's 40% indigenous population and played a significant role in overthrowing several presidents.

In April, a national referendum on the assembly passed with more than 80% support, and Correa's party, Country Alliance — which refused to run for the highly unpopular Congress — received over 60% of the seats.

For Correa, however, the rewrite of the constitution is only the beginning of his project. At his inauguration in January, Correa explained the five basic "planks" of his proposed "citizen's revolution", consisting of five separate but related "revolutions" in Ecuadorian society.

Firstly, a "political revolution", to transform the formal, "plasticine" democracy, which excludes citizens from the democratic process between elections, into the participatory kind where people will have the right to recall elected officials.

Secondly, an "economic revolution", to do away with the neoliberal economic model that has caused massive poverty and exploitation, and to replace it with a system that prioritises social needs over profits.

Thirdly, an "ethical revolution" against the bureaucracy, corruption and non-payment of corporate taxes that are rife and which have cost the economy billions of dollars.

Fourthly, a "social revolution", to recover public control over education, health care, and housing; to increase state spending in the social, cultural and environmental sectors; and to prioritise a healthy environment and encourage greater cultural diversity.

Finally, a "revolution of sovereignty", deepening the process of Latin American integration to challenge US domination. Two central projects in this integration are already well underway — The Union of South American Nations that was officially formed in April with its capital in Ecuador; and the Bank of the South, which is a project to provide low interest credit to developing countries in opposition to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and is due to be inaugurated on December 8.

Ecuador, the fifth-largest oil producer in South America, also returned to OPEC on December 5, and began arguing that the body should start using a stronger currency than the US dollar.

However, Ecuador's economy is not as strong as Venezuela's — which has embarked on a similar process of transformation. Ecuador suffers from declining oil production from decrepit infrastructure, and the destructive effects of a "dollarised" economy. 

Recent oil protests in Orellana province by locals demanding better infrastructure reduced overall production by 20%. In response, Correa removed the head of the national oil company, as well as interior minister Gustavo Larrea, for not heading off the crisis.

To counteract this, Ecuador has signed an energy integration accord with Venezuela that involves the construction of a refinery in Ecuador, enabling Ecuador to refine its own oil and export it at higher prices. 

In early October, Correa increased the state's share in windfall oil profits, from 50-99%, and on his weekly radio program on December 1, announced a proposal to raise taxes on higher incomes, luxury items, and speculation.

Despite its reliance on oil, Ecuador is also pursuing an ambitious policy with regards to the environment, asking developed nations to subsidise Ecuador not to drill for oil in the fragile yet oil-rich Yasuni national park. Acosta has repeatedly stated that the new constitution should ban open-pit mining.

Like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Correa describes the aim of this project as building a "socialism of the 21st Century", which will be different from the bureaucratic "socialism" of the Soviet Union. Instead, Correa says, this socialism must be participatory, democratic, and without dogmas.

Like in Venezuela, the opposition to the process from the elite has been initially weak and splintered, increasingly relying on corporate power and misinformation in the private media to hinder the process of change. The assembly in Ecuador has come under the same media attacks as similar reforms in Venezuela as well as Bolivia — where elite opposition to a similar constituent assembly process has sparked a political crisis.

To counteract this imbalance, Ecuador's first nationally-owned television station, Ecuador TV, was opened on November 29. Ecuador's ruling class, made up of around 100 families, has relied upon its control of the country's seven television channels, and other media, to dictate public opinion. 

Correa argued that for the ruling class, "Democracy is good until the danger arises that it will … redistribute the nation's wealth. At that moment, the press becomes aggressive."

First published in Green Left Weekly, December 7, 2007.

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