Ecuador: Uprising – The struggle continues

The ‘dollarisation’ of the Ecuadorian currency, that was implemented during the week beginning 13th of March immediately sparked new protests and strikes. Demonstrations by students, workers and peasants were called on the 16th of March in protest against the government’s economic policies, especially ‘dollarisation’. Wilson Becerra, a trade union leader threatened, " The next protests will be massive, the demonstrators are already preparing for a general strike if the government does not accept our demands." (La Hora 16/3/2000).

This latest wave of protest is erupting only weeks after the uprising that rocked the country during January. The volcanic eruptions in 1999 at Guagua Pichincha and then at Tungurahua have been followed by social explosions. This mass movement suffered an important set back as the leaders of the insurrection stole defeat from the jaws of victory, and handed power back to the ruling elite which was on the point of loosing it. However, although the movement suffered a set back because of this it has not been crushed. The upheavals in Ecuador, following events in Venezuela are an indication of the new situation that is now developing in the former colonial countries, especially, Latin America. A new wave of struggle, involving strong elements of revolution and counter revolution is unfolding. In Ecuador it included an insurrectionary movement that lacked a clear objective and was unsuccessful because of the absence of a revolutionary socialist party and programme.

Ecuador, has been devastated during the 1990’s as a consequence of the policies of neo-liberalism. A series of governments, both ‘left’ and ‘right’ have bent the knee to the IMF and implemented vicious austerity measures. Ecuador began the new century with 62% of the population living below the official poverty line and 70% of the work force being unemployed or under employed. 46% of the population do not even have the famous US$1 per day, used by the World Bank to distinguish between the poor and the non-poor!

A short war in 1995, between Ecuador and Peru, temporarily allowed a nationalist fervor to detract from the explosive tensions that were building up. This rapidly gave way to mass protests of workers and peasants, reflected in 1996 and the victory of Abdala Bucaram, ‘El Loco’, in Presidential elections. He was elected with a massive majority on a populist, demagogic platform. Within days he buckled to the demands of the IMF. Overnight, electricity prices were up by 500% and gas by 340%.

Mass anger again erupted in February 1997 in an indefinite general strike. Repression failed to quell the movement which ended in Bucaram fleeing the country. By the time Mahuad had come to power in 1998 the country was virtually bankrupted by corruption, debt repayments and the fall in oil prices which took place at the time. The country’s debt reached US$14 billion, equal to its total GDP. Devaluation of the ‘sucre’ followed a surge in inflation. Exchange rates crashed from 5,000 sucre per US$1 to 25,000 – the level set for the adoption of ‘dollarisation’. It was in response to this step that the social volcano erupted in January.

The organisation of the indigenous people’s, CONAIE, and the Coordinadora de Movimientos Sociales called for a national uprising from January 15th. Thousands of indigenous peoples marched on Quito demanding the resignation of the President. The indigenous people of Ecuador account for up to 45% of the population.

They established their own rival parliament to the congress, the National People’s Parliament, El Parlamento Popular. This national organisation was replicated at regional and local level. The first decree issued by the ‘Parlamento Popular’ , was " no longer to recognise the three powers of the state…" ( Executive, judiciary and the legislature).

The movement was initiated by the indigenous people’s but immediately won the support of all other sections of the working class. Workers at the national oil company, Petroecuador, declared an all-out strike. The trade union federation, CSLdeE and FUT joined the uprising. The movement became a national uprising. In Guayaquil, the country’s economic capital, thousands of workers and students demonstrated daily in support of the insurrection. Demonstrations in Cuenca of more than 50,000 took place. In Chimborazo 50,000 peasants blocked all roads in and out of the province.

Tens of thousands marched in Quito. The main government buildings were surrounded for days. On the 21st of January the national Congress was occupied by peasants and workers chanting, "El pueblo unido jamas sera vencidos" – ‘The people united will never be defeated.’ This was despite the attempts of the state to use the army to protect them. During the uprising the state machine split and a significant section of it joined the uprising. .Hundreds of soldiers arrived at the parliament building in armoured cars and supported the occupation. A section of junior officers, led by colonel Lucio Gutierrez joined the uprising.

Many rank and file soldiers and some officers sympathised with the insurgency. As Antonio Vargas, leader of CONAIE put it, "they are our brothers." Another section of the officers also felt a genuine revulsion at the corruption and economic devastation that exists. As Guitierrez declared, " We are fighting peacefully to regain the self-esteem, pride and the honesty of the Ecuadorian people." (La Hora 21/1/2000) This section, who wanted to clean up the corruption and free the country from the stranglehold of imperialism, reflected the same features shown by Chavez in Venezuela.

In reality the ruling class and its institutions were left suspended in mid air in the face of the movement. Power was largely in the hands of the insurgents, known in the Ecuadorian press as the "communards". Elements of ‘dual power’ existed for a brief time – situation where the old ruling class is left paralysed by the mass movement which is challenging the old system but has not yet established or consolidated itself in power.

The ruling class did not have a forces to rely on that could crush the movement. The ruling clique was split. A block of MP’s from the ruling party, Democracia Popular (DP) had opposed the governments plan to carry on with further privatisations and further austerity measures. According to the daily, La Hora, two weeks earlier, a section of the government had met and considered imposing an authoritarian regime with sections of the army. This plan fell apart as the military, reflecting the pressure of society, would not back the plan fearing it would have provoked civil war.

This prospect terrified US imperialism which, through its base at Manta, uses Ecuador as its main military base for its operations in Colombia and other surrounding countries.

Power was largely in the hands of the insurgents but they did not realise it. They lacked a revolutionary socialist programme and a clear idea of what they wanted to achieve apart from overthrowing the government and rejecting its economic policies. It was a mass revolt against neo-liberalism, corruption and the government which had not embraced the alternative of a socialist society. The red ribbons waved by the army officers to the peasants were in recognition of the red poncho’s warn by the indigenous people of Ecuador. The power, which was potentially in the hands of the masses, was not consolidated and the old regime was handed it back through the back door.

The Parlamento Popular appointed a triumvirate, Junta de Salvacion Nacional, which initially included, Gutierrez. He appealed to " ..all ex-Presidents of the Republic, the unemployed, women and men and honest businessmen" with good ideas to come forward to "save the nation". Guitierrez had no idea of breaking with capitalism. During this process the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, General Carlos Mendoza, deserted the government as he saw power slipping from his hands. Guitierrez resigned from the triumvirate to allow Mendoza to join it. The Junta that was briefly established had features of a ‘Popular Front’ government – a coalition government with sections of the ruling class that acts as a break on the revolution with the aim of derailing it.

The other leaders of the movement were relying on representatives of the old state machine to build a create a new one. Mendoza, apparently, consciously was preparing to betray the movement and hand power back to the ruling class. Power needed to be put into the hands of committees of workers, peasants and rank and file soldiers forming a government based upon these forces that would need to nationalise the major monopolies and imperialist companies under a system of workers democracy.

Without warning Mendoza resigned from the Junta and announced that Gustavo Noboa, the vice President, would assume the Presidency. In this way power was returned to the old regime. Unfortunately, no alternative existed to mobilise the forces involved in the uprising to prevent this. The new government’s first decree was to announce that it would continue with its programme of ‘dollarisation’. However, the movement was not crushed but dispersed. Those involved in this mass uprising will undoubtedly have learnt important lessons and enter a new struggle. The Parlamento Popular at local and national level continue in existance. Although it is not certain how they will develop it seems that they exist as an embryonic alternative power to the government. The Parlamento Popular has rejected proposals to disolve and has called a plebiscite asking if people support, disolving the Congress, oppose dolloraisation and privatisation, suspend all payment on the foreign debt and the withdrawal of US military forces from Manta. It is clear that new battles will erupt in Ecuador. A revolutionary socialist programme is now essential if the revolutionary upheavals are to be taken forward to victory.

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April 2000