Friday, October 10, 2008

Ecuador: New progressive constitution adopted

On September 28, 65% of Ecuadorian voters approved the country's 20th and newest constitution — strengthening the mandate of left-wing President Rafael Correa. 

Correa was elected in 2006, promising a "citizen's revolution" to build a "socialism of the 21st century" in order to overcome the corruption rife in Ecuador, and to end the poverty that afflicts over half of the small Andean country's 14 million inhabitants.

The drafting of the new constitution, by an elected constituent assembly, involved significant public participation.

More than 3500 organisations presented proposals to the assembly, and thousands of public forums were held in schools, universities and communities across the country in the lead-up to the referendum.

Progressive content

Included in the 444 final articles are the right to free universal health care; free education up to university level; equal rights for same-sex relationships; a universal right to water and prohibition of its privatisation; and women's control over their reproductive rights.

The last article opens a legal avenue for abortion for the first time in the heavily Catholic nation.

The constitution also calls for the eradication of inequality and discrimination towards women, and proposes putting a value on unpaid domestic work.

 
It guarantees the right to quality housing, regardless of means, and provides for the redistribution of large unused landholdings — which led to armed peasants occupying land in at least four provinces, including a number of natural reserves, immediately after the referendum victory.

The government has declared these occupations illegal, claiming that they are based on a misunderstanding of the constitution and that some of them are on environmentally sensitive land.

The response nonetheless demonstrates the willingness of the Ecuadorian people to take matters into their own hands when it is seen as necessary.

A key concept in the constitution is the indigenous concept of sumak kawsay (good living), which urges living in harmony with the individual, society and nature. The charter also elevates indigenous languages to the status of official national languages for the first time in a country where more than 40% of the population are indigenous.

The constitution also declares Ecuador to be a "pacifist state", calling for universal disarmament, condemning weapons of mass destruction and outlawing foreign military bases in Ecuadorian territory.

This is a further step towards making Correa's oft-repeated promise to expel the unpopular US airbase at Manta, whose lease expires next year, a reality.

The constitution also guarantees universal social security and the permanent right to food security. It calls for the establishment of a sustainable economic system, founded on the equitable distribution of wealth and the means of production.

Perhaps one of the most notable features is the granting of legal rights to nature, making it the constitutional duty of both government and citizens to protect the environment and natural biodiversity, to prosecute those who harm it, and to repair it when damaged.

Ecuador's weak, debt-ridden economy is heavily dependent upon oil and mining, which have caused extensive environmental destruction.

Correa has threatened to nationalise oil fields held by Brazil's state-run oil company Petrobras for delays in handing their lease to Block 31 — an environmentally fragile part of the Yasuni National Park — back to the government, which is seeking to avoid the destruction oil mining in the area would cause.

Petrobras recently agreed to return it to the government after clashes with Ecuador over taxes as well as anti-oil protesters.

Ecuador has also threatened to expel foreign oil companies, including Petrobras and Spain's Repsol, for lagging in oil production while they negotiate new contracts with the government that would give Ecuador a larger part of the profits.

On October 8, newly appointed oil and mining minister Derlis Palacios warned the companies "not to play games" with the country.

A commission set up by Correa in 2007 recently reported that much of Ecuador's foreign debt is "illegitimate and illegal", adding to speculation that Ecuador will carry though on another of Correa's threats — cancelling foreign debts.

Ecuador's foreign debts are equivalent to almost half the country's GDP.

Opposition

These gains have not come without opposition, with Ecuador's wealthy elites and traditional political parties decrying the new constitution as "dictatorial". However, their "No" campaign only achieved 28% of the vote nationwide.

The strongest opposition came from Correa's home city of Guayaquil — Ecuador's financial centre and home to its main port — where the referendum lost by just over 1%.
While the most high-profile opposition leader, Guayaquil's Social Christian mayor Jaime Nesbot, has threatened to use the victory of the "No" vote in the city to justify non-compliance with the new constitution, the vote is widely seen as a victory for Correa as Guayaquil is the only significant right-wing stronghold in Ecuador.

There are indications that the US government is seeking to destabilise Correa by promoting separatist sentiments — as it has in Bolivia. However, the closeness of the Guayaquil vote suggests that Correa's anti-poverty policies have appealed to Guayaquil's enormous poor population and significantly eroded opposition support.

Opposition to Correa has also come from other quarters, however.

Social movements

The new constitution is a product of the nearly two decades of work by the social movements, who, led by the main indigenous federation CONAIE, have been responsible for overthrowing three presidents.

Many social movements, however, have criticised the constitution for not going far enough, especially in protecting the environment from mining and oil pollution, and in recognising indigenous communities.

The constitution only grants indigenous communities the right to consultation over proposed projects on their land, rather than power of veto they had sought to have included.

While this year CONAIE has declared itself to in opposition to Correa, and CONAIE president Marlon Santi has threatened an indigenous uprising over mining activities, the organisation still mobilised its membership to vote "Yes", recognising the new constitution as a step forward.

Correa has lost other allies, especially from parts of the country's left who believe that his often-radical rhetoric is not genuine.

Highland indigenous federation ECUARUNARI, which also campaigned for a "Yes" vote, has called a meeting to prepare its strategy under the new constitution, which will include proposing draft bills to implement important articles recognising Ecuador's "plurinational" character.

Rather than waiting for the government to act, the people of Ecuador are preparing to open up the next chapter of their history on their own behalf. 

First published in Green Left Weekly, October 10, 2008.

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