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Issue 46, April 2000

Uprising in Ecuador

THE 'DOLLARISATION' of the Ecuadorian currency, the sucre, implemented from March 13, immediately sparked new protests and strikes. Demonstrations by students, workers and peasants were called in protest against the government's policies. 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 March)

This latest wave of protest erupted only weeks after the uprising that rocked the country at the start of the year. The volcanic eruptions at Guagua Pichincha and Tungurahua last year have been followed by social explosions. Unfortunately, the mass movement suffered a major setback in January as the leaders of the insurrection stole defeat from the jaws of victory, handing power back to the ruling elite which was on the point of losing it. The movement, however, has not been crushed.

The upheavals in Ecuador, following those in Venezuela, are an indication of the new situation that is 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, lacking a clear objective, was unsuccessful because of the absence of a revolutionary socialist party and programme.

Ecuador has been devastated by the policies of neo-liberalism pursued in the 1990s. A series of 'left' and right-wing governments have bent the knee to the IMF and implemented vicious austerity measures. The country began the new century with 62% of the population living below the official poverty line and 70% of the workforce unemployed or under-employed. Forty-six percent of the population do not even have the infamous US$1 per day benchmark which the World Bank uses to distinguish the poor from the not-so-poor!


A short war between Ecuador and Peru in 1995 allowed nationalist fervour to temporarily detract from the explosive tensions building up. But this rapidly gave way to mass protests of workers and peasants. This movement was reflected in the presidential election victory in 1996 of Abdalá Bucaram Ortiz, 'El Loco', who won with a massive majority on a demagogic, populist platform. Within days, however, he had buckled to the demands of the IMF. Overnight, electricity prices rose 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 with Ortiz fleeing the country.

By the time Jamil Mahuad Witt had come to power in 1998 the country was virtually bankrupted by corruption, debt repayments and the fall in oil prices. The country's debt reached US$14bn, equal to its total GDP. Devaluation of the sucre followed a surge in inflation from 5,000 sucre per US$1 to 25,000 - the level set for dollarisation. It was in response to this step that the social volcano erupted.

The organisation of the indigenous peoples, the Ecuadorean Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE), and the Coordinadora de Movimientos Sociales (Coordination of Social Movements - CMS) called for a national uprising from 15 January. Thousands of indigenous peoples - who account for up to 45% of the population - marched on the capital, Quito, demanding the resignation of the president.

They established their own rival parliament - El Parlamento Popular (The People's Parliament) - in opposition to the Congress. This national organisation was replicated at regional and local levels. The first decree issued by the Parlamento Popular, was 'no longer to recognise the three powers of the state' (executive, judicial and legislative).


The movement was initiated by the indigenous peoples but immediately won the support of all sections of the working class. Workers at the national oil company, Petroecuador, declared an all-out strike. The trade union federations, 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. Protests 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 21 January the national Congress was occupied by peasants and workers chanting, 'El pueblo unido jamas sera vencidos' ('The people united will never be defeated').

Attempts by the state to use the army against the movement failed. In fact, the state machine split. A section of junior officers, led by colonel Lucio Guitiérrez, joined the uprising. Hundreds of soldiers arrived at the parliament building in armoured cars and supported the occupation. As Antonio Vargas, leader of CONAIE, put it, 'they are our brothers'. Another section of officers felt a genuine revulsion at the corruption and economic devastation. As Guitiérrez declared, "we are fighting peacefully to regain the self-esteem, pride, and the honesty of the Ecuadorian people". (La Hora, 21 January) This section, who wanted to clean-up the corruption and free the country from the stranglehold of imperialism, reflect the same features shown by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.


Ecuador's ruling class and its institutions were left suspended in mid-air in the face of the movement. Elements of dual power existed for a brief time - a situation where the old ruling class is left paralysed by the mass movement challenging the system but which has not as yet established or consolidated itself in power.

The ruling class did not have the forces it could rely on to crush the movement. The ruling clique was split. A bloc of MPs from the ruling Democracia Popular party (DP) had opposed the government's plan to carry on with further privatisations and more austerity measures. According to La Hora, two weeks earlier a section of the government had met and considered imposing an authoritarian regime using 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 operations in Colombia and other surrounding countries.

Power was largely in the hands of the insurgents - known in the press as 'communards' - 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 ponchos worn by the indigenous peoples. Power, which was potentially in the hands of the masses, was not consolidated and was handed back to the old regime through the back door.


The Parlamento Popular appointed a triumvirate, Junta de Salvación Nacional, which initially included Guitiérrez. 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'. Guitiérrez 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. Guitiérrez resigned from the triumvirate to allow Mendoza to join it. The Junta itself had features of a popular front government - a coalition including sections of the ruling class which act as a brake on the revolution with the aim of derailing it.

Other leaders of the movement were relying on representatives of the old state machine to create a new one. Mendoza, apparently consciously, was preparing to betray the movement and hand power back to the ruling class. What was needed was for control to be put into the hands of democratically-elected committees of workers, peasants and rank-and-file soldiers. The resulting government based on these forces would need to nationalise the major monopolies and multi-national companies based in the imperialist countries, 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 dollarisation. The movement had not been crushed, however, but dispersed. Those involved in this mass uprising will undoubtedly have learnt important lessons and will soon take part in new struggles. The Parlamento Popular at local and national level continue to exist. Although it is not certain how they will develop, they could represent an embryonic alternative to the existing government. The Parlamento Popular has rejected proposals to dissolve. It has called a plebiscite on dissolving itself, in opposition to dollarisation and privatisation, and in support of the suspension of foreign debt repayments and the withdrawal of US military forces from Manta.


New battles will erupt in Ecuador. A revolutionary socialist programme is now essential if the revolutionary upheavals are to be taken forward to victory.

Tony Saunois

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