Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ECUADOR: The Great Indigenous Uprising, 20 Years On

Gonzalo Ortiz

QUITO, Jun 2 2010 (IPS) - Friday, Jun. 4, marks 20 years since the first great indigenous uprising in modern Ecuador, an event that forever changed the country. After that day of massive actions in cities across the nation, Ecuador’s native peoples could no longer be ignored.

It was a pioneering event for indigenous communities of the Americas. The high degree of organisation in Ecuador served as an example — and inspiration — for similar movements in Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala and Mexico.

In 1990, Norma Mayo was finishing secondary school in the central province of Cotopaxi. Now she is a commercial engineer and national secretary for women and family at the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), which led the uprising, or “levantamiento.”

“I didn’t participate directly, but I saw how my parents and grandparents talked about it with the whole community and how they all took part in the uprising,” Mayo told IPS.

Early in the morning on Jun. 4, 1990, thousands of indigenous Ecuadoreans blocked the access routes to the capitals of seven provinces along what is known as the inter-Andean alley — a stretch between two mountain ranges. They also blocked routes into Quito and cut off travel along the Pan-American highway.

They also occupied several well-known country estates. Most of their actions were peaceful, and often included dancing and music, which proved disconcerting to the police forces.

The uprising caught the government of social-democratic President Rodrigo Borja (1988-1992) off guard. He had held talks with the indigenous leadership from the time he took office.

“Not even military intelligence had a whiff of what was going to happen,” Andrés Vallejo, then minister of Interior, told IPS.

Borja had put an end to the repressive policies of his predecessor, right- winger León Febres Cordero (1984-1988), with the creation of a presidential commission for indigenous affairs.

The dialogue had proved fruitful, with results like the legal recognition of the CONAIE and official support for intercultural and bilingual education for indigenous children. And there were advances in the mechanisms for selecting the directors of that school system.

But the CONAIE cut off the talks and secretly organised the uprising, which had 16 demands, most involving land conflicts in the Andean region that were left unresolved in the agrarian reforms of 1973 and 1984.

Afterwards, the points on this “platform of struggle” multiplied to 28, and included autonomy for bilingual education and demands for indigenous territory in the Ecuadorean Amazon.

With the mediation of the Roman Catholic Church of Ecuador, the blockades gave way in less than a week. “Prudence prevailed in all the actions,” recalled Vallejo, noting that despite the tensions there was just one death, a protester caught in a clash between a soldier and an indigenous group.

The first indigenous uprising triggered a wave of sympathy among the urban middle class. “I love the indigenous part of me,” was painted on the walls of Quito, which sums up well the attitude at the time.

Ecuador’s national population is about 14 million, with 25 percent indigenous and 65 percent mestizo (persons of mixed Spanish and Amerindian descent), depending on what measures are used.

“It was because of the uprising that they began to recognise us as people, as human beings, and that we had a voice and we could take action,” said Mayo.

Pedro Saad, an advisor at the time to Borja and member of the dialogue commission, told IPS that “the indigenous leaders knew very well that there would be no repressive action taken,” which was a boon to the uprising. “There was no explicit agreement, but there was mutual awareness that there would be no use of force,” he said.

“CONAIE demonstrated its organisational power, but the uprising also helped impose it in the heart of the indigenous communities as the principal ethnic movement, displacing the organisations that had emerged from the leftist political parties,” Saad explained.

Over the next two decades, CONAIE led a dozen more uprising and mobilisations. Election after election, indigenous Ecuadoreans took power in more and more local governments — which had been unthinkable prior to the 1990 uprising.

However, the Confederation was not very successful in its alliances with some governments through the party it created — Pachakutik (in the Quichua language, it means a violent change or rebirth to restore order).

Remaining a minority, indigenous electoral power has not measured up to the symbolism of the indigenous struggle.

Populist President Lucio Gutiérrez (2003-2005) included several indigenous leaders in his Cabinet, including the first woman to serve as foreign minister, Nina Pacari. But that coalition lasted just six months.

The current president, leftist Rafael Correa, has been in office since 2007. But in October CONAIE broke a three-year alliance, and since then tensions have been mounting.

The main point of friction is a proposed law on water rights, which in May triggered marches, demonstrations and roadblocks, forcing Congress to put off debate on the bill.

In retaliation, Correa withdrew CONAIE’s control over the intercultural bilingual education system, one of the main achievements of the 1990 uprising, and has accused its leaders of corruption and misuse of funds.

In Mayo’s view, “the current president is insulting our leaders and the indigenous people, and seeks to exterminate CONAIE — but he won’t be able to.”

Historian and socialist leader Enrique Ayala, rector of the Simón Bolívar Andean University, noted that the indigenous struggle for land began in the 1960s, and the 1978 constitution enshrined the right of illiterate people to vote.

But he acknowledged that the uprising 20 years ago was “the political act of greatest transcendence and scope” for indigenous peoples in Ecuador’s history.

After that, “there was an infatuation, an empathy, of the middle-class sectors and the social movements with the indigenous movement,” which lasted a decade, “until its alliance with Lucio Gutiérrez.”

But Ayala believes the indigenous movement is no longer the reference point for other movements, as it was when it had the power to play a role in ousting three presidents from power. “Today it is just another social movement,” he said.

He blames this on “the ethnocentric policies of the indigenous leadership” and the attempt to create parallel systems, such as the recent incidents of harsh physical punishments meted out by indigenous justice. “They have the middle class with its hair standing on end,” said Ayala.

Mayo, however, doesn’t agree with Ayala’s assessment. “We are going to continue our struggle. Our movement is not divided, and we have the support of the teachers, of the unemployed, of the environmental movements,” she said.

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