|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Uprising in Ecuador
On 20 April, Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez became Ecuador’s third president since 1996 to be forced out of power by mass protests and strikes. He has been replaced by former vice-president, Alfredo Palacio.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. TONY SAUNOIS reports.
THE DESPERATE ECONOMIC and social conditions of the Ecuadorean masses 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 live an opulent life style – 20% of the population consumes more than 60% of gross domestic product – the poorest 25% are left destitute, trying to get by day by day with a mere 4% of the GDP. Unemployment or under-employment affect 46% of the population, 60% live below the official poverty line 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 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 who make up an estimated 45% of the population. During this mass uprising, which overthrew the government of president Jamil Mahuad, Gutiérrez gained popularity as an army colonel who refused 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 to the right and capitulated to the neo-liberal policies demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and US imperialism.
This rapid evolution to the right following his election is a well-trodden path followed by Ecuador’s governments since the mid-1990s. Throughout this decade the application of neo-liberal policies devastated the country. By the end of the 1990s, Ecuador was officially declared bankrupt with 70% unemployment and 46% ‘living’ (or surviving, just) on less than $1 per day. Bucaram – ‘El Loco’ as he is known in Ecuador – came to power on a radical nationalist populist wave in the 1996 presidential elections, reflecting mass opposition to the neo-liberal policies.
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, Mahuad, 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 naval base at Jaramijo for monitoring and tracking drugs cartels 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 the introduction of neo-liberal policies that a social volcano erupted in January 2000.
THIS MASSIVE MOVEMENT of early 2000 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 Congress (the national parliament). The army split and a significant section refused to fire on the demonstrators, joining 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 levels. The first declaration of the Parlamento Popular was that "it no longer recognises the three powers of the state" (executive, judicial and legislative).
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, Socialism Today No.46, April 2000, www.socialismtoday.org)
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 a mass workers’ party (which, with a revolutionary socialist programme, 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 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 to try and control the movement. The Chief of Staff of the Armed forces, General Carlos Mendoza, deserted the regime to join the new government. Gutiérrez resigned to make way for him! The Junta briefly became a ‘popular front’ government, that is to say, a coalition including representatives of the capitalist class who act as a brake on the revolution with the objective of derailing it.
Karl Marx pointed out that history repeats itself, first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Mendoza used his membership of the Junta as a platform to announce his resignation from it and to appoint Gustavo Noboa, the former vice-president, as president. It was exactly the same as in 1997, when Bucaram was overthrown and vice-president Fabián Alacón took over. In 2005, it was Gutiérrez’s turn to be forced out and replaced by his vice-president, Alfredo Palacio, who has now taken the poisoned chalice.
Confusion on the left
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 economy increasingly in the stranglehold of imperialism. The government he headed had no room to manoeuvre whilst remaining within the capitalist system. 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 in Venezuela today. Chávez has been able to use oil revenues to carry out an important reform programme which has given his regime a period of stability. World oil prices were lower in 2002 than they are now. In Ecuador, 70% of the oil stabilisation fund 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, the privatisation of electricity, oil, water and telecommunications, and a gas price increase of 375%!
The capitalist class in Ecuador, like its counterparts in the whole of the neo-colonial world, cannot play a progressive role or sustain capitalist development. Tied to imperialist interests, in the last analysis, it will always act to defend its 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 exploited classes, 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 capitalists exists 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 bloc 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. It 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 shifted dramatically to the right. These policies proved disastrous for the working class, poor peasants and others exploited by capitalism.
The MDP 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.
Ruling class pact
THE RELENTLESS ATTACKS against the working people 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 Naboa, and the Ecuadorian Rodolsian Party (PRE), backer of Bucaram, who was in exile in Panama.
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, 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. 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 31 March 2005 when planned trials against 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 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, Paco Moncay, presided with other representatives from other provinces. All of them were from DI and Pachakútik – 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 workplaces, local communities and colleges to elect delegates to representative committees, with all delegates subject to immediate recall by the assemblies which elected them. Such committees would need to link together on a district, city, province and nationwide basis to organise the struggle and take it forward, forming the basis of a government of workers and peasants which could then begin to take the necessary steps, not only to take power from the political representatives of capitalism, but to 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, which could channel the energy and determination of the masses, mean 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 comeback was too much for them to swallow. Demonstrations demanding ‘Lucio out’ began in Quito on 5 April. These began to gather momentum, and a general strike was called in Pichincha province, which includes Quito, on 11 April.
The DI and PSC leaders were terrified at the turn events were now taking and desperately began to try to find a way out. Moncay 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 the Supreme Court. For the masses all of the hatred and bitterness they felt towards the existing politicians, political parties and what they represented were expressed in the demand not only for the removal of the president but, as the masses chanted, ‘Que se vayan todos’ (They all must go).
The hatred of the masses towards the 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 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 perspective 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, 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 1980s. 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 and an imperialist backed ‘civil war’, and seeing no way forward, became exhausted, demoralised and worn down. This opened the way to a ‘democratic’ counter-revolution and the victory of Violeta de Chamorro in presidential elections in 1990.
Gutiérrez forced to flee
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, the removal of state subsidies and the opening up of the energy and oil industries to private capital. This was followed by Gutiérrez announcing the ‘State Economic Rationalisation Law’, which included proposals to privatise social security and electrical companies, more ‘flexibility’ in the labour market and selling-off the profitable oil fields to the multinationals.
By 13 April, public transport, education and all council workplaces 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 the US military high command in the region, felt confident enough to order the movement to be repressed. He declared a state of emergency and dissolved the Court of Supreme Justice. 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 to defy it.
An emergency session of Congress was convened for 17 April 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. 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, so he could be put on trial!
Like Bucaram before him, he fled the country seeking exile, this time not in Panama but in Brazil. President Lula gave him asylum, reflecting once again how he is defending capitalism nationally and in the whole of Latin America, where Brazil is the strongest power and is 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 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.