- Interview by
- Bhaskar Sunkara
Rafael Correa’s administration began in 2007 as another important wave in Latin America’s “pink tide.” It was considered by many to be — along with Venezuela and Bolivia — the most radical of those anti-neoliberal governments.
Over the last few years, however, debates have raged within Ecuador about the nature of the administration, Correa’s use of executive power, the government’s policies toward indigenous peoples, and its relationship to broader social movements.
With these debates raging, we recently spoke to Guillaume Long, Ecuador’s minister of culture and a leading member of the governing Alianza País party, about the situation in the country. In what follows, he responds sharply to the criticism the government has been receiving both inside the country and from portions of the international left, including in Jacobin.
President Rafael Correa has faced opposition to his policies, consistently from the Right but also more recently from some on the Left. How do you characterize these movements?
What sparked the recent wave of protests was two bills put forward by the Ecuadorian government that tackled two of Marx’s favorite issues: inheritance and speculation. The bills proposed tax measures in order to address the longstanding inequality that continues to blight Ecuador, in the context of Latin America remaining the most unequal continent on earth.
The tax proposals targeted the very wealthiest sectors of society. The first bill increased the inheritance tax for the richest percentiles from 35 percent to 47.5 percent, while reducing it for the poorest. It also tackled the issue of trusts in foreign tax havens. Incredibly, many Ecuadorian oligarchs, including the mayor of Ecuador’s largest city Guayaquil, have their properties registered in tax havens abroad.
A second bill on capital gains sought to implement a tax on windfall profits on the sale of land and property. There was to be no increase on any standard gains and the measure, as in other parts of the world, was primarily aimed at discouraging property speculation, a common phenomenon in Ecuador. This displeased a number of rich potentates with access to privileged information on the location of future developments.
Ecuador’s old political elite fought back against these proposals. Well-funded propaganda campaigns, disingenuously promoting the idea that these taxes were a threat to the wider population, particularly to the middle classes, took a toll. In June, demonstrators took to the streets, largely centered around trying to force the government to back down over the taxes and significantly weaken it in the process.
Prominent players in this movement included some of the country’s most powerful right-wing politicians. Banker, former economy minister, presidential candidate, and neoliberal diehard Guillermo Lasso was one of the key actors behind the call to take to the streets. Likewise Jaime Nebot, the mayor of Guayaquil, promoted the opposition. Nebot, a long time ally and former appointed governor of the repressive Ecuadorian President León Febres-Cordero, is tainted by serious accusations linking him to human rights abuses and torture. The new right-wing mayor of Quito, Mauricio Rodas, also participated in the demonstrations.
The slogan in the streets and on social networks was the very undemocratic “Fuera Correa Fuera” (Out Correa, Out), even though Correa was elected in the first round only two years earlier with 57 percent of the popular vote and a huge 30 percent lead over his nearest rival. The violence and language of the demonstrations were deeply undemocratic and aimed at ousting the government, even if the actors partaking in the unrest later denied that this was their real intention.
On June 15, seeking to reduce social tensions, President Correa deferred the tax-raising proposals, announcing a national dialogue to debate those measures and the wider issue of tackling inequality in Ecuador. His call for a dialogue is a far cry from the image of creeping authoritarianism that some opponents of the government seek to present in the international media.
So, both the motivation behind the unrest — opposition to the kind of redistributive measures that are a traditional bulwark of the Left — and the way it was promulgated, using large-scale corporate media propaganda, are pretty good indicators of the ideological current feeding into the protests. It was certainly not a left-wing or revolutionary spirit that inspired them.
But beyond the Right, the August 13 indigenous march and people’s strike in Quito mounted the same criticism against Correa and Alianza País, claiming they represent a popular movement against an authoritarian state. What do you make of this criticism?
One thing should be cleared up from the outset. Minority left-wing groups did call for a general strike on August 13, but it didn’t happen. There was no strike, no workplace closures, nothing that resembles what is understood as a workers strike in the English language. The word “paro” in the Spanish language can lead to confusion as in some countries it can stand both for “strike” and “protest.”
There was, however, an indigenous march which amounted to a few thousand taking to the streets, but it was a far cry from the great indigenous uprisings of the 1990s, which contributed to the ousting of various neoliberal presidents.
Though not overwhelming in size, and perhaps because of frustration over this, the demonstrations were exceptionally violent. Over one hundred police officers were left injured, with some policemen kidnapped and humiliated by protesters in the south of the country.
So I was taken aback by recent articles published in Jacobin, and other progressive outlets in Europe and the United States, about these protests, in particular, and more generally, about Ecuador’s Citizens’ Revolution. A group of left-wing thinkers seem to have fallen prey to the notion that Ecuador’s political process is no longer worthy of praise and that a “popular uprising” against the government of President Correa is underway.
In some cases this is based on a poor knowledge of Ecuador and a great deal of confusion regarding recent events. But in other cases it reflects a tendency to espouse a postmodern critique to nation-state building in general. This discourse could vaguely be defined as anti-power, anti-state, anti-leadership, and essentially liberal (even if the new fashionable word is “libertarian”). It cloaks itself in radical rhetoric but ultimately plays into the hands of a conservative political agenda.
It exalts non-state actors, NGOs, and a nebulously defined civil society, elected by no one, who are always seen as forces for good. Whereas governments attempting to fill the void left by the absence of the neoliberal state are the new authoritarian enemy that must be resisted.
Here there is no escape from the neoliberal trap, which is to portray power as exclusively concentrated in the state. There are evidently many more rooted forms of power in Latin America; not least that of foreign powers, multinationals, local oligarchs, and the corporate media.
Who was on the streets on August 13, then? What would you argue was their class composition and political aims?
A good deal of people on the streets on August 13 were from the middle and upper classes. These were, however, visibly accompanied by self-declared left-wing groups such as members of the CONAIE, Popular Unity, and a group of unrepresentative clientelistic trade union leaders.
Some have sought to present the presence of these left-wing political groupings as the dominant political development in Ecuador. To do so you have to completely downplay the endurance of the power of oligarchs and ignore, as I have mentioned previously, how the wave of protests originated from the rich and powerful in opposition to higher taxes. But this dynamic cannot be ignored. It creates the context in which other political actors are operating.
We should not forget that in this context the CONAIE and Popular Unity made statements against higher taxes, which hardly amounts to espousing a traditional left-wing position. Many indigenous and progressive groups condemned the CONAIE for falling prey to the Right’s strategy.
These groups have long been opposed to Rafael Correa. For example, Pachakutik, CONAIE’s political wing, refused the offer of a joint ticket for the presidency and vice presidency in 2006, the year Rafael Correa was first elected. Pachakutik ran its own candidate who received just 2.1 percent. Likewise a so-called radical left candidate in the 2013 presidential vote got just 3.2 percent. This demonstrates that to speak of a radical left alternative to President Correa is a fallacy.
It is worth noting that the country’s major right-wing political leaders welcomed CONAIE’s recent actions, speaking out in favor of this “uprising” and “strike,” with Lasso and others even calling on supporters to join in.
This is not surprising given that it added momentum to the right wing’s attempts to give the impression of a broad-based movement against the government; or given that CONAIE and its allies gave prominence in their demands to opposing a constitutional reform allowing Rafael Correa to be able to stand as a presidential candidate again. Preventing the possibility of reelection is another priority for the country’s political elite.
The Ecuadorian government has been radical, sovereign, redistributive, and grassroots enough to be supported, to this day, by the bulk of the Ecuadorian left, including the ruling Alianza País, the Ecuadorian Communist Party, the Ecuadorian Socialist Party, several important trade unions, three out of the four most significant indigenous movements (even if CONAIE is the largest), and even by Pachakutik in one important province.
Internationally, all the left-wing governments of the region, including the more radical ALBA states such as Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia, have condemned the protests as attempts to destabilize Ecuador’s democratic government and have long severed ties with the parties and movements that are partaking in this strategy.
So to talk of a “popular uprising” is to completely misread contemporary Ecuador.
Yet CONAIE and Popular Unity say they represent a critique autonomous both from the Right and the part of the Left which is absorbed into the state. What about, for instance, their criticism of Correa for the ongoing impact that extractive industries have on indigenous peoples?
Sections of the Western liberal media have posed the principal political and societal conflict in Ecuador as one between the state and indigenous communities, when in fact the picture is far more complex.
In this narrative, indigenous people are romanticized and often treated as the essence of virtue and innocence. It is not the first time that this form of racist infantilization has been presented in a positive light. The ideology behind Britain’s Indirect Rule and, long before that, Montaigne’s “Noble Savage” did likewise.
The main issue around which the alleged indigenous/government conflict is explained — mining and oil extraction — is not simple and should not be treated as such. Firstly, there is no uniform indigenous opposition to oil extraction. This attempt to speak on behalf of the indigenous people is an essential part of the Western myth that indigenous people always shun modernity, when in practice most indigenous people, like the rest of humanity, tend to value access to education, healthcare, and social provisions in general.
A second issue has to do with whether it would be right to simply stop extracting oil before we have completed or even engineered the transition to a non-primary economy. Aside from the collapse of the Ecuadorian state, it would mean a sharp return to the plantation economy (and owner!), a dramatic reduction of resources to tackle poverty (one of the principal causes of environmental degradation in the first place), and no capital to invest in the diversification of our economy.
This cannot be a serious proposal, especially if we consider that the greatest threat to our biodiversity, the utmost cause of deforestation and environmental ruin in Ecuador is poverty and the aggressive advance of the agricultural frontier. Poverty and the lack of infrastructure means many precarious towns and cities still offload their waste into ever-more-polluted Amazonian rivers.
There is no question as to the need to move away from oil. Oil economies are the victims of boom and bust cycles, and oil extraction has also been responsible for many societal ills, chaotic urbanization, and ethnocide.
But today, oil extraction is not the cause of the greatest social and environmental problems the Amazonian region faces. And until we move away from a dependence on the export of raw materials which has put us in such a disadvantageous situation in the international system, oil still generates the income Ecuador requires to build the sewers and water treating systems the country desperately needs to tackle the environmental degradation generated by poverty.
Interestingly, many East Asian countries achieved enough capital surpluses to steer away from their primary economies by exploiting their labor force. This we do not seek to emulate. Can our natural resources, exploited in a responsible manner, not help us avoid this tragedy?
We have much to learn from indigenous social systems, ancestral knowledge, and worldview. Each indigenous nationality (under Ecuador’s new constitution they are called nationalities not tribes) is the holder of a great cultural legacy that we must respect and strive to understand. But just as we must admire the intrinsic worth of our great diversity, we must ensure that we do not succumb to the naïve idealization of any society.
In many ways, this is not a new discussion. The CONAIE itself has long been in the throes of these debates. On the one hand, the ethnicists (or essentialists) were always skeptical of close interaction with the mestizo (mixed-race) world. The temptation was to look back at an indigenous past, or even at indigenous states, such as the Tahuantin Suyu, the Inca Empire, which was mythologized.
On the other hand, another group within the CONAIE, including the founding fathers of the movement, rightly denounced the ethnic roots of exclusion and domination, but also insisted on structural factors.
They had a more class-based approach and looked at such things as the free market, absence of the state, foreign domination, land ownership, and the many predicaments of the peasantry. This part of the CONAIE had always managed to congregate around a discourse which did not completely deny modernity but demanded a modernity that didn’t exclude them from the social contract.
Whereas during the 1990s the CONAIE was clearly led by the latter, over the last few years the former have gradually taken over a much weakened organization with none of the political and ideological leadership of the previous years.
Today many of the historic leaders of the CONAIE have sided with the Ecuadorian government, some openly joining its ranks and serving as civil servants. Others have been more critical of some government policies but have refused to take sides with the new leadership of the CONAIE and have accused it of playing into the hands of the traditional Ecuadorian oligarchy, including through recent events.
In electoral terms, over 60 percent of indigenous people, which encompass just above 7 percent of the Ecuadorian people, voted in the first round of the 2013 presidential elections for President Correa.
Overall, to describe the current situation as a supposed standoff between the Ecuadorian government and indigenous peoples is a gross misrepresentation. Scratch the surface and one will find the indigenous question to be much more complex than what the essentialist left would lead us to believe.
On a broader note: what is the program of the Ecuadorian government and to what extent has it been successfully implemented?
The government’s ongoing popularity — President Correa’s approval rating still tops 60 percent — stems from the program of Ecuador’s Citizens’ Revolution, which since 2007, has been successfully driving economic growth and social inclusion through public investment.
In doing so, it has rejected the neoliberal dogma, so dominant in the West, that only the market can create successful economies. Economic growth has averaged 4.3 percent, despite Rafael Correa’s coming to office on the eve of a global recession and Ecuador not controlling its own currency, having been forced to dollarize after a deep crisis under a previous neoliberal government.
More importantly, the fruits of this growth have benefited the majority. Ecuador is one of the countries that has most reduced poverty in our region and is currently the leading country in reducing inequality. The current minimum wage of $354 per month is today the highest in the Andean region. Many people who now earn it, and are enrolled on social security, used to live on as little as $70 a month without health or pension coverage.
Despite this, unemployment, at 4.7 percent, is the lowest in the region, even if we are fully aware that underemployment remains a problem throughout Latin America.
Access to social services has dramatically improved, as the example of education illustrates. Ecuador has built eighty-eight large-scale schools, provides free school uniforms and books, and offers free breakfast to all students. Rural areas and long-excluded groups have been the main beneficiaries.
Investment in higher education, necessary in order to transform the economy and move away from the export of primary products and raw materials, is at 2.13 percent of GDP, the highest in the region, one of the highest in the world, and higher than the average for the much richer OECD countries (at 1.7 percent of GDP). Public healthcare is now free for all. The state has built twelve new mega hospitals and one hundred health care centers in order to cover the needs of the population.
This demonstrates that even — or especially — in times of crises there is a people-friendly alternative to the fatalistic politics of austerity.
Such policies have helped end the political instability of the previous period. The decade 1996–2006 was marked by seven presidents in ten years, and without a single head of state being able to finish their term of office. A coup was attempted on September 30, 2010 against President Correa, but it failed when citizens took to the street to defend their newfound democracy.
We have recuperated the sovereignty of our state in both security and foreign policy decisions. We kindly asked the United States to leave the US military base in Manta in 2009. They were not pleased, and it is unlikely we have been forgiven.
All this has been achieved without the authoritarianism that has so often plagued swift radical change: ten nationwide elections in eight years, including three presidential elections (two of which were won by President Correa without the need for a runoff), several plebiscites, and a participative process for the erection of a new constitution and social contract.
And the long-term vision of Alianza País? You explained your hostility to the current opposition, but there is certainly need for debate over Correa’s program and tactics and the future of the Ecuadorian project.
We wish to create a more egalitarian society that allows people to emancipate themselves and enjoy their individual freedoms in order to be happy. This requires thinking of development in materialist terms, so that we can banish poverty for example, but also in post-materialist terms: harmony with nature is crucial, so are leisure, creativity, etc.
As for a debate? Absolutely! We on the Latin American left are crying out loud for more discussion and for a real debate. We need a critical outlook on what is being done and serious analysis of our many shortfalls. It is not easy to build a state from the ruins of neoliberal lawlessness and institutional collapse, especially in the context of hostility from global hegemons.
The Ecuadorian government itself is not exempt of much internal debate. It is not — governments never are — a homogenous entity without internal tensions. Some have wanted more radicalism; others have felt on the contrary that President Correa goes too far too fast. But we are also all aware that without a broad political platform it would have been impossible for this pro-people government to come to power.
This, after the fall of the Soviet bloc, was supposed to be an unattainable dream: a true left that had the maturity not to succumb to the armed struggle of the Cold War, the capacity to win elections within liberal democracy’s playing field, and yet refuse to toe the line of neoliberal hegemony, austerity, and the status quo of lukewarm social democracy.
We are attempting to build a modern socialist nation-state, moving away from the caudillo-plantation state, through absolutely democratic means, thinking of development in different terms, and finally coming to terms with our pluri-national and intercultural realities. A defeat of our attempts to achieve this will result in a return to the quasi failed state, with its dire consequences for our people and the planet.
Of course I cannot refute the accusation that we have not as yet banished capitalism. But is this truly the yardstick with which our political processes should be measured? Or should we focus on the social advances, democratic achievements, growing sovereignty, daring moves to change our fate in a harsh and hostile international system?