Intervista a Carlos de la Torre, Professore di Sociologia presso l’Università del Kentucky *
In August 2015 protests gained momentum in Ecuador and put Correa at the center of critics at home and abroad for his economic policies and his attempt to modify the Constitution in order to be eligible for re-election in 2017. Relations with indigenous movements are particularly tense, as they feel constitutional warranties are systematically ignored by authorities and their territories overexploited in terms of natural resources. For this reason, indigenous activists, led by CONAIE (Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador), organized a march from the countryside to Quito which ended in harsh confrontations with security forces.
Prof. de la Torre, what do you think the most important political cleavages in Ecuador are?
The first one is extractivism, the second is related to the creation of the plurinational State, the third one is between authoritarianism and democratic resistance.
One of the big democratic demands of the indigenous movement and the middle class is to stop the constitutional reform that will allow Correa to run indefinitely for President. As there’s also a proposal that would give the Army a bigger role in internal security issues, there’s a certain degree of unity among protesters to resist what people perceive as Correa’s authoritarianism.
Among protesters how important is it the urban/rural discourse, how are the relations between cities and the countryside and in particular the indigenous communities and the so-called mestizo society?
To survive indigenous people have to combine different strategies of survival, like working in the construction sector or in urban markets. Thus, the level of migration between cities and countryside in very intense, Ecuador hasn’t a kind of peasantry that stays in rural areas. What I have observed during the march was a lot of solidarity by poor urban dwellers to the indigenous people, giving them water and fruits, clapping for them and joining in for a while.
However, beyond the rural/urban discourse, there is racism. Correa has used racism to portrait indigenous people as savages, as people who do not understand the priorities of the Nation. He has been insulting the leadership of CONAIE for years in his Enlace Ciudadano (dedicated Saturday’s radio program managed by the government, ndr) calling indigenous leaders mediocres and limitaditos and he used to belittle an activist like Marlon Santi saying he doesn’t have an academic education. Correa has been trying to use all these colonial stereotypes in a mestizos-against-indigenous people strategy. And when it comes to public protests, the level of repression is harsh as recounted in numerous allegations about how the police repressed indigenous demonstrators, how they insulted them calling them “india sucia” and how they beat women in their private parts. I think it’s part of the “racialization” of indigenous people depicting them as inherently dangerous.
However, Correa was one of the main architects of the 2008 Constitution, at whose core lies the revolución ciudadana, the building of a plurinational and multicultural State. At what stage is the Ecuadorian plurinational project?
According to the Constitution and the official rhetoric, they are supposed to be building a plurinational project. Actually I think the government is not interested in plurinationalism. One of the most important institutions they’ve created to build a plurinational State, the indigenous bilingual education system, has been under attack by Correa since 2008.
Correa has closed thousands of schools in indigenous areas, claiming that escuelas unidocentes were inefficient and had to be centralized in larger units, the so-called “schools of the millennium” (unidades educativas del milenio, ndr). They did it arbitrarily and in a bureaucratic way and now children have to walk for hours to get to school. They also closed the Intercultural University of Nationalities and Indigenous Peoples “Amawtay Wasi”, claiming it did not have enough resources to be a University. So there has been a systematic attack to a key point of a plurinational State, which is the possibility of reproduction of indigenous culture.
At the beginning of the administration, the Correist process was disputed by some forces that were convinced in the plurinational project, Alberto Acosta for example (president of the Constituent Assembly, ndr). But eventually Correa managed to personalize the policies and dreams of the so-called revolution, as demonstrated by his exctractivist and a developmentalist strategy.
In Ecuador, the Constitution recognizes 14 nationalities and many other languages, but only Spanish is the official language. What do you think about unidades educativas del milenio and the abandonment of these new schools of the teaching of local languages?
From the beginning Correa opposed the teaching of unofficial languages, but the teaching of local languages is fundamental. The only way through which an indigenous culture can continue to exist is that they have access to bilingual education, in which children learn their language and their culture and continue to appreciate that. Bilingual education before Correa was problematic, underfunded, it needed to be improved. Many communities really struggled to have their own schools.
With the closing of schools in the communities, pupils have to make more kilometers to reach them in the cities where not only they’re exposed to racism but they’re undergoing a bureocratic and technocratic process of mestizaje. They claim that the quality of education in these schools is better because they have computers and better infrastructures. However, this system doesn’t take into account the need of the people living in communities. Correa has a very paternalistic attitude towards indigenous people and preferred that pupils learn English instead of Kichwa. We’re talking about ethnocide, the killing of indigenous culture
How come that a strong organization like CONAIE which for years controlled the Dirección Nacional de Educacion Intercultural Bilingue let the State dismantle it?
Because when Correa went to power, the indigenous movement was divided and in crisis mainly due to the alliance signed with Lucio Gutiérrez. Like Gutiérrez also Correa plays very smartly with the divisions between CONAIE and other groups and anyway when he presented his candidacy a few indigenous leaders supported him, so the movement lacked unity to engage in collective action. Besides, when Correa was first elected it was also very difficult to criticize Correa, because you would have been branded as right-winger or somebody who was playing at the hand of the oligarchy.
Correa dealt with the political instability co-opting leaders of the indigenous movement and engaging directly with the communities, weakening the power of CONAIE. He began allocating money only to those who were supporting him. Secondly he began criminalizing protesters. the threat of being sued plays a big role, because the judicial system is not independent. The threat of being sued plays a big role, because the judicial system is not independent. For example, there are over two hundreds indigenous people accused of terrorism.
In a recent article you recalled the term lawfare, used by professor Manuela Picq to describe State pressures and threats towards social movements. What do you think about it and of Picq’s recently detention?
Lawfare is a very nice term that Manuela used in a journalistic article in upsidedownworld.org, and the idea is that you use the power of the Law activating a war against enemies, be them domestic or foreign.
The case of Manuela was very significant. She has been living in Ecuador for nearly 8 years, she has been a professor at the Universidad San Francisco in Quito, she had a lot of scholarships and in the past two or three years she’s been dating with Carlos Pérez Guartambel, leader of ECUARUNARI. So there are different readings to what happened to her. The first one was to attack Carlos Pérez Guartambel in a patriarchal way (attacking her partner). Secondly, it was to create fear on foreign journalists and academics who have an active participation in indigenous movements. Manuela was protesting alongside Guartambel, also to protect him. You can see an instrumental use of law in the way authorities handled her detention. They accused her of being violent, they said her visa was expired when actually was not true, they detained her in a center and then when she was freed they weren’t able to assure her if she would have her visa or if she had to leave. The government of Correa is not using very brutal means of repression yet, like the military dictatorship of the ’70, but they’re attacking visible figures in order to make their lives very difficult, so they either stop talking or leave the country.
You said one of the issues in Ecuador is related to extractivism. Do you think these economic paths are incompatible with plurinationalism? What’s the relation with Chinese enterprises?
Although Correa at some point talked of a sort of Socialism of the XXI Century, it was just a matter of distributing more money to the poor. Actually, it’s not a socialist project. A much stronger role of the State in the economy was something that was demanded by social movements, after years of low levels of social spending and increasing inequalities. However, Correa’s state-building project has, at its base, extractivism. For this reason the struggles for the preservation of water resources and the environmental destruction by mining companies were starting points from which activists started to rebuild mobilizations. The extraction of natural resources is a conditio sine qua non of Correa’s developmentalism.
Ecuador’s economy is now dependent on oil exports. Is Correa attempting to emancipate Ecuador from the historical dependency on imported goods? What are the implications to run an economy which rests on the export raw materials?
There were some very limited import-substitution policies and in fact entrepreneurs never trusted these attempts, but I don’t know if import-substitution is still sustainable nowadays…
Under Correa’s administration Ecuador witnessed a strong wish for consumerism. Due to high oil prices and Correa’s need to increase his popularity, a consumer fever developed especially inside the middle class. Now that oil prices are low but people are used to have higher income and higher expectations, their frustrations towards the government are higher too. Correa has still lots of supporters who want to defend their jobs, who defend him for ideological reasons, who don’t want the right-wing parties to back to power. But many people are now angry at him.
You wrote a lot of publications on populism, what’s the common trait of populism in Latin America?
First of all, it’s a particular way of creating critical subjectivity and powerful emotional antagonisms based on discourse of people-against-oligarchy. Populist leaders promise the democratization of society, while claiming to be the embodiment of popular will. They politicize topics that are considered to be irrelevant or technical to analysts.
In Bolivia, Evo Morales cannot claim to be the embodiment of the people. When he tried to raise the price of gasoline, Bolivian strong social movements went to the streets and forced him to reverse that policy. Correa got to power when social movements were very weak, in a condition favorable to impose its will. When your political party system is perceived as inefficient, weak and corrupt, a populist has more chances to get to power. Of course, in Latina America, the demand of a Constituent Assembly was not based on populist messages but were based on the idea that society could have been democratized by having a constitutional order. In presidential systems, constitutions expanded rights but, at the same time, concentrated powers in Presidents allowing them to create new institutions very easy to control and manipulate. In Ecuador, for example, we have the so-called Quinto Poder (or Consejo de Participación Ciudadana y Control Social, ndr). Unfortunately, what I see is increasing institutional authoritarianism, criminalization of protests, more repression and antagonism in the streets, more involvement of the military to deal with political issues with civilians.
Even if Correa is recently strongly criticized, it’s difficult not to acknowledge that its policies have lowered many indexes of poverty. Also the Church seemed to support him via the recent visit of Pope Francis in Ecuador.
Ecuador is going to a very deep economic crisis. Correa did not save much of the revenues and when he didn’t have any more money he went borrowing money especially from the Chinese. Of course with Correa there was a reduction of poverty, but what I’m worried about is that the poverty reduction policies are not sustainable over time, because Correa was not able to create employment and many resources were funneled in State bonuses (dignidad humana, de vivienda). The only employment created was the one in the construction sector and its subsequent speculations.
In his june visit, Pope Francis gave progressive speeches to civil societies on education, but he didn’t meet the leadership of the indigenous movement. Obviously, it was Conferencia Episcopal that organized his meetings. But I think the Church is very happy with the government for the Plan Familia. Ecuadorian feminists have been working along them for a long time to have birth control policies and sex education. Now Correa is strongly advocating for abstinence, he’s asking women to wait to have sex until they become professionals and from the beginning he was against abortion, against gay rights. And indeed Correa, as with indigenous leaders, has also been dividing gay activists and feminists It’s a ruling of the body in a very authoritarian Catholic way.
What happens if Correa leaves the political spectrum?
He cannot leave. In Alianza Paìs you have people from the Right, from the Left, new entrepreneurs and technocrats. The only thing they’ve in common is following Correa. That’s why he needs to go to a re-election. What are the different scenarios? Some people in the Left want a new Constituent Assembly of to put forwards fundamental constitutional reforms, such as Enrique Ayala rector of Universidad Andina Simón Bolivar and member of the Socialist Party: they want to dismantle all the suffocating legislations for civil society and the media and they want to get rid of the authoritarian legacy of Correa.
Oppositions in Ecuador are extremely divided, but, regardless Correa wins the 2017 elections, he will run weaker than in the past and in conditions of economic crisis.
*Carlos De La Torre è autore di “Populist Seduction in Latin America” e ha curato il volume “The Promise and Perils of Populism: Global Perspectives” e, insieme a Cynthia J. Arnson, “Latin American Populism in the Twenty-First Century”.