President forced to flee as workers take to the streets

On 20th April 2005, Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez became Ecuador’s third president since 1996 to be forced out of power by mass protests and strikes. He has since been replaced by the former vice-President, Alfredo Palacio. The dramatic events which drove out Gutiérrez were the latest wave of mass insurrectionary protests which have crashed down on Ecuador. The desperate economic and social conditions of the mass of those exploited by capitalism in Ecuador has driven them time and again to take to the path of struggle and mass uprisings to try and find a solution to their plight.

While Ecuador’s rich elite - 20% of the population consumes more than 60% of Gross domestic Product - live an opulent life style, the poorest 25% are left destitute trying to get by day by day with a mere 4% of the GDP. Unemployment or under-employment affects 46% of the population, 60% live below the official poverty and an incredible 45% have no access to running water.

Gutiérrez won Presidential elections in 2002 with 55.5% of the vote. By the time he was forced out of office he had the support of only 7% of the 13 million strong population. He was elected on a radical nationalist populist programme with many similar characteristics to that of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Gutiérrez first came to national prominence during the national uprising in January 2000 led by the indigenous peoples which make up an estimated 45% of the population. During this mass uprising, which overthrew government of President Jamil Mahuad, Gutiérrez gained popularity as an army Colonel, for refusing to open fire on the mass demonstrations in Quito, the capital city.

He then left the army and formed the ’January 21st Patriotic Society’ in preparation to stand in the 2002 elections. However, unlike Chávez, who has moved in a more radical direction, Gutiérrez, rapidly moved completely to the right and capitulated to the neo-liberal policies demanded by the IMF and US imperialism.

This rapid evolution to the right following Gutiérrez’s election was a well trodden path followed by Ecuador’s governments since the mid 1990’s. Throughout this decade the application of neo-liberal policies devastated the country. By the end of the 1990’s Ecuador was officially declared bankrupt with 70% unemployment and 46% ’living’ or surviving – just - on less than US$1 per day. Abdala Bucaram, - or ’El loco’ as he is known in Ecuador - came to power on a radical nationalist populist wave in 1996 Presidential elections reflecting mass opposition to the neo-liberal policies.

Capitulation to the IMF

Within days he capitulated to the demands of the IMF. Overnight he raised electricity prices by 500% and gas by 340%! Awash with corruption and sleaze, ’El loco’ was driven from power and into exile in Panama by a mass general strike and uprising following failed attempts to repress the movement in 1997 after only a few months in office. His successor, Jamil Mahaud, immediately took the measures demanded by US imperialism to deal with the economic crisis.

Ecuador has some strategic importance for US imperialism as a base for its military operations in South America. Mahuad agreed a ten year authorisation for the US to use the air force base at Manta and the port naval base at Jaramijo for monitoring and tracking drugs cartel and in reality guerrilla activity in Colombia.

Mahuad also began to prepare for the dollarisation of the economy which was finally introduced in March 2000. It was in response to continued attacks on living standards and introduction of neo-liberal policies that a social volcano erupted in January 2000.

This massive movement went further in challenging the ruling class than the recent wave of struggle has done. It began as an uprising of the indigenous peoples but was rapidly joined by the working class in the cities. The trade union federations - CSLdeE and FUT - were forced to support the movement and call a strike. The masses stormed the congress. The army split and significant section refused to fire on the demonstrators and joined the uprising. An estimated 400 junior army officers went over to the side of the working class, indigenous peoples and urban poor.

The ruling class and its state apparatus were effectively left suspended in mid air and were powerless to act. The indigenous peoples established a Parlamento Popular at national regional and city level. The first declaration of the Parlamento Popular was that "it no longer recognises the three powers of the state" (Executive, Judiciary and the legislature).

“Dual power”

As the CWI pointed out at the time, important elements of what Marxists call “dual power” existed. What is meant by this is that the ruling class and its institutions are challenged for power by a mass movement of the poor and oppressed and cannot rule society. At the same time the masses have not fully taken over the running of society and taken the necessary measures to replace the capitalist state apparatus. (See ’Ecuador -the struggle continues’ April 2000 on the CWI web page).

While clearly attempting to rid themselves of the capitalist rulers, the masses at that stage had not embraced the idea of socialism as an alternative to capitalism or taken the necessary measures to firmly take power into their own hands. This, together with the absence of mass workers’ party (which with a revolutionary socialist programme which could channel the determination of the masses into a conscious movement and adopt the right tactics and initiatives) meant that power was eventually passed back to the ruling class and its representatives.

Gutiérrez played an important role in this process. It was an anticipation of his role in implementing pro-capitalist policies when he was elected President in 2002. The Parlamento Popular, in 2000, appointed a ’triumvirate’ of a Junta de Salvación Nacional which initially included Gutiérrez. As the ruling class and its representatives felt power slipping away from them, a section broke from the old regime in order to try and control the movement. The Chief of Staff of the Armed forces, General Carlos Mendoza, deserted the government and joined the new government. Gutiérrez resigned to make way for him!

The Junta briefly became a ’popular front’ government, that is to say a coalition government including representatives of the capitalist class who act as a break of the revolution with the objective of derailing it.

Marx pointed out that history repeats itself first time as tragedy and second time as farce. Mendoza used his membership of the Junta as a platform to announce his resignation from the Junta and appoint Gustavo Noboa, the former vice- President as President. It was exactly the same in 1997 when Bucaram was overthrown and the then vice-President Fabián Alacón took over. In 2005 it was Gutiérrez’s turn to be forced out to be replaced by his vice- President, Palacio, who has now taken the poisoned chalice.

Gutiérrez was elected as a radical populist army officer in 2002. His lack of a revolutionary socialist programme or perspective to spread the idea of a socialist revolution throughout the region meant he was imprisoned within capitalism. Ecuadorean capitalism meant a devastated of economy increasingly in the grip of the stranglehold of imperialism. The government he headed had no room to manoeuvre whilst remaining within capitalism. Gutiérrez almost immediately capitulated to the demands of capitalism and imperialism and introduced a vicious neo-liberal programme.

Although Ecuador is the fifth largest oil producer in Latin America, it did not have the same benefits from these reserves as Hugo Chávez enjoys today (Chávez has been able to use oil revenues to carry out an important reform programme that has given his regime a period of stability).World oil prices were lower in 2002 than they are today. In Ecuador 70% of the oil stabilisation fund in Ecuador was used to pay crippling national debts.

In 2003 Gutiérrez reached agreement with the IMF on an "adjustment programme". This included a wage freeze until 2007, 120 000 redundancies and the abolition of the right to strike in the public sector, privatisation of electricity, oil, water and telecommunications and a gas price increase of 375%!

The capitalist class in Ecuador, like their counter parts in the whole of the neo-colonial world cannot play a progressive role in the modern era or sustain capitalist development. Tied to imperialist interests in the last analysis they will always act to defend their own interests against those of the working class, poor peasants and others exploited by capitalism and landlordism.

In the modern era it is only possible for the working class, with the support of the poor peasants and other classes exploited by capitalism to take over the running of society and to begin to plan the development of society, by breaking with capitalism with the perspective of spreading the socialist revolution internationally.

The experience of the working class has demonstrated time and again that there is not a progressive wing of the ruling class that the working people can rely on to struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

Some on the ’left’, especially from the Communist Parties, argue that a patriotic, progressive wing of the capitalist exist and that it is necessary to pass through a phase of developing capitalism in these countries on a democratic basis. Only after this has been done, they claim, is it possible to begin to pose the question of the need for a socialist revolution. History has repeatedly demonstrated that capitalism and landlordism cannot develop these societies on a sustainable basis.

The idea of looking towards a ’progressive patriotic’ wing of the ruling class was the basis of the incorrect ideas propagated by the Movimiento Popular Democratico (MDP) which is the electoral block of the Partido Communista Marxista-Leninista de Ecuador.

With 5% of the vote, this party was decisive in giving Gutiérrez an electoral majority in 2002. They argued for a broad multi-class front including sections of the capitalist class to "open the doors for the construction of a New Fatherland". Initially the MDP joined the government but later left when it dramatically shifted to the right. These policies proved disastrous for the working class, poor peasants and other exploited by capitalism.

They failed to prepare the working class and masses for the pro-capitalist role of Gutiérrez or for the tasks necessary to take the running of society into their own hands and what a continuation of capitalism would mean in terms of vicious attacks against the social conditions of the masses.

The relentless attacks against the working people of Ecuador meant that the ’adjustment programme’ of Gutiérrez was greeted by a wave of strikes throughout his presidency. By the October 2004 municipal elections his support was slashed to a mere 5% of the votes cast. Increasingly isolated and cocooned in his presidential palace, Gutiérrez attempted to shore up his crumbling regime and formed a parliamentary alliance with the traditional capitalist parties - the Renewal Institutional Action Party (PRIAN), supporter of former President Gustavo Naboa, and the Ecuadorian Rodolsian Party (PRE) backer of former President Abdala Bucaram, ’El loco’ who was in exile in Panama exile.

This pact was carried through at the expense of the influence of the social democratic Democratic Left (DI) and the right-wing capitalist Social Christian Party (PSC).

Inevitably the PRIAN and PRE demanded their pound of flesh for supporting Gutiérrez. They insisted on getting a bigger slice of the pie in the running of the state. The PRE demanded a change in the composition of the Court of Supreme Justice (CSJ). In December 2004 27 out of 31 judges were replaced. The new President of the CSJ was a close personal friend of Bucaram.

The reasoning behind this agreement was clear by March 31st 2005 when planned trials against former Presidents Bucaram and Noboa were cancelled. The door was opened for them to return to the country from exile to stand in Presidential elections scheduled for 2006.

Mass protests

Mass protests had been developing against the government throughout the year. In January and February 100,000 people took to the streets in Quito and Guayaquil - the largest cities. However, reflecting the absence of a clear independent political alternative of the working class and peasants, these protests were each headed by the local Mayors - in Quito a member of DI and in Guayaquil of the PSC.

The leadership of these capitalist parties were attempting to rest on the mass movement in the hope of extracting concessions from the government for themselves. They also hoped to limit the protests. Both Mayors demanded that Gutiérrez ’change’ - not that he be removed! However, as we shall see, events were propelled forward and radicalised by the attempted return to Ecuador of deposed former Presidents, Bucaram and Naboa.

In the Quito Citizens’ Assembly, which was established during the movement as a broad alternative parliament, the Mayor of Quito, Paco Moncay of the DI presided with other representatives from other provinces. All of them were from the DI and Pachakutik - the political wing of the indigenous movement, CONAIE. Pachakútik had initially joined Gutiérrez’s government when it came to power but soon left it.

In this movement there was an urgent need for the workers and peasants to form their own independent organisations of struggle. These needed to be based on the idea of mass assemblies in all work places, local communities, and colleges to elect delegates to a committee. All delegates need to be subject to immediate recall by the assemblies which elect them. Such committees need to link together on a district, city wide, provincial and national basis in order to organise the struggle and take it forward.

Such bodies could form the basis of a government of workers’ and peasants which could then begin to take the necessary step not only to take power from the political representatives of capitalism but could introduce the basis of a revolutionary socialist programme to overthrow capitalism itself. The nationalisation of all the major industrial and financial companies, expropriation of all multinational companies and a programme of land reform would allow the basis to be laid for introducing an emergency reconstruction programme of the whole economy.

A workers’ and peasants’ government would face the threat of counter-revolution from US imperialism and the capitalist class of Latin America. It would not be possible to build socialism in any one country especially a small country like Ecuador. A workers’ and peasants’ government would need to take the necessary steps to win the support of the masses of Latin America and appeal to the working class of the USA for support with the perspective of spreading the revolution throughout the continent and establishing a democratic socialist federation of the Americas. The social convulsions taking place in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil and other countries would ensure such a programme and perspective would win massive support.

However, the absence of mass support for the idea of socialism and a mass revolutionary socialist party that could channel the revolutionary energy and determination of the masses means that events may develop in a more protracted and complicated way.

Bucaram returned to Ecuador at the beginning of April which was a crucial factor in events exploding further. Having overthrown him in 1997 and driven him out of the country, the masses were in no mood to accept his return. His attempted come back was too much for them to swallow. Demonstrations demanding "Lucio out" began in Quito on April 5th. These began to gather momentum and a general strike was called in the province of Pichincha, including Quito on April 11th.

“They must all go”

The ’leaders’ of the DI and PSC were terrified at the turn events were now taking and desperately began to try to find a way out. The Mayor of Quito said the strike would be called off if the Congress could find a solution. For them the issue was simply a question of their parties securing more representation in Supreme Court. For the masses all of the hatred and bitterness they felt towards the existing politicians, political parties and what they represented was expressed in the demand not only for the removal of the President but as the masses chanted: “They all must go" (Que se vayan todos).

However, the hatred of the masses towards the existing rulers exists alongside a vacuum in which there is no consciously organised alternative. The masses have not yet embraced the idea of the need for socialism as an alternative to capitalism. This means there is an impasse in the situation. At the same time the continued economic devastation has and will drive the masses back into struggle again and again.

This impasse can continue for a relatively lengthy period of time. A striking feature of the situation in Ecuador, (and also Venezuela), has been the inability, at this stage, of right-wing reaction to be able to strike a successful blow against the mass movement in the form of a military coup.

However, it would be a mistake to conclude from this that this situation will continue indefinitely. If capitalism is not overthrown through the establishment of a workers’ and peasants government with a revolutionary socialist programme that includes a perspectives of spreading the revolution to the rest of central and Latin America then reaction will eventually strike a successful blow.

This can take the form of a military coup or alternatively of a creeping counter revolution. The latter can develop if the masses eventually become ground down and demoralised by the absence of any way out of the crisis.

This process unfolded in Nicaragua at the end of the 1980’s. The failure of the Sandinista leadership to take the revolution forward and overthrow capitalism led to an impasse. Eventually the masses, after nearly a decade of crisis, an imperialist backed ’civil war’, and seeing no way forward became exhausted, demoralised and worn down which opened the way to a ’democratic’ counter revolution and the victory of Chamora in Presidential elections in 1990.

Social fragmentation

The danger of this process unfolding in the form of social fragmentation or disintegration is a real threat especially in some of the most economically devastated countries of Latin America. It was not an accident that the most recent events followed a visit by the IMF representative, Rodrigo Rato in March. IMF proposals included the sacking of 5,000 civil servants, cuts in social services, removal of state subsidies and the opening up of the energy and oil industries to private capital. This was followed by Lucio Gutiérrez announcing the ’State Economic Rationalisation Law’ which included proposals to privatise social security, electrical companies, and more flexibility in the labour market and selling off profitable oil fields to the multi-nationals.

By April 13th public transport, education and all council work places were paralysed by strike action. Protests spread to the rest of the country including about 50 cities and larger towns. Quito’s Radio Luna issued an appeal for people to take to the streets and tens of thousands marched on the Supreme Court buildings demanding Gutiérrez’s resignation.

Gutiérrez, arrogant and isolated, having received the backing of US military high command in the region felt confident enough to order the movement to be repressed and declared a state of emergency and dissolved the CSJ. Small semi-fascist groups organised in squads called "Zero Corruption" tried to provoke clashes as a pretext for a military coup. However, again the state machine appears to have split and the army was not deployed to enforce the state of emergency. Thousands came out onto the streets and defied the state of emergency.

An emergency session of congress was convened for Sunday April 17 with the objective of endorsing the suspension of the CSJ. The regime and ruling class became increasingly desperate to regain control of the situation. They unceremoniously dumped Gutiérrez who had become a liability. The vice President, Palacio, criticised the state of emergency. The US ambassador to Ecuador urged "prudence and negotiation".

In a last desperate attempt to regain control of the situation Gutiérrez urged Bucaram to leave the country again. However, the situation had gone beyond such palliative measures. The ruling class and congress abandoned Gutiérrez and voted 65 to nil to remove him. He eventually fled the country - hotly pursued by demonstrators who chased him to the airport in an attempt to prevent him escaping.

Like Bucaram before him, he fled the country seeking exile this time not in Panama but in Brazil. Lula gave him asylum, reflecting once again how Lula is acting to defend capitalism nationally and in the whole of Latin America where Brazil is the strongest power and playing an increasingly assertive role.

With Palacio now installed in the Presidency, the immediate social upheaval seems to have abated. The new government has been compelled to announce some measures to try and stabilise the situation. The new Economy Minister, Rafael Correa, has declared the dollarisation programme the greatest "economic policy error adopted". He has also proposed the abolition of the oil revenue stabilisation fund which will release more oil revenue for state and social spending.

However, these palliative measures will not resolve the social and economic crisis which continues. The relentless attacks on the masses are certain to provoke further struggles and upheavals in the next months and years. Combined with the unfolding struggles throughout Latin America, through these experiences the idea of socialism as an alternative to capitalism can begin to develop and win widespread support. This process is now developing in Venezuela, Brazil and other countries. The struggle to win support for revolutionary socialist ideas and the need to build a mass revolutionary socialist party in Ecuador and Latin America is becoming an increasingly urgent necessity.

Chronology of main events.

  • 1995 - Short war between Ecuador and Peru.
  • August 1996 - Abdala Bucaram, ’El loco’ elected to power on a populist programme.
  • February 1997 - Bucaram overthrown and replaced by vice-President Fabián Alarcón.
  • 1998 - President Jamil Mahauad elected President. Process of dollarisation begins to be prepared.
  • 2000 - January uprising overthrows Mahauad and brings to power Gustavo Naboa, Ecuador’s richest man. Lucio Gutiérrez wins popularity for not firing on the demonstrators.
  • 2000 - March ’dollarisation’ carried through and greeted by mass protests and strikes.
  • 2002 - Lucio Gutiérrez elected as President.
  • 2005 – April uprising against Gutiérrez brings Alfredo Palacio former vice-President to power.

Index to main political and social organisations

  • Renewal Institutional Action Party(PRIAN) - capitalist party and supporter of former President Gustavo Naboa.
  • Ecuadorian Rodolsian Party (PRE) - capitalist party and supporter of former President Abdala Bucaram
  • Democratic Left (ID) - pro-capitalist social democratic party.
  • Popular Democratic Movement (MDP) - electoral block of the Ecuadorian Communist Party Marxist-Leninist, pro-Chinese Communist Party.
  • CONAIE - social organisation of indigenous people.
  • Pachakútik - political wing of indigenous organisations.

Committee for a workers' International publications

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