2012 Virtual Edition: José Almeida Vinueza

Postscript to The Ecuadorian Indigenous Movement and the Gutiérrez Regime

Some see the Ecuadorian indigenous movement as an exemplary case of the advantages and disadvantages that carries the transformation of grass-roots movements into political parties.[1] These Latin American social movements are usually considered “subordinates” and “anti-establishment” within a national state, which, by definition, marginalizes them. Many authors view its eventual “politicization” as a risk of wear down and tear, or even dissolution of all potential, as wrought in its counterpoint to the powers of the state.[2] The entry into the electoral game, usually done in partnership with other popular sectors, exposes its leaders to the populist demagogy, clientelistim and patronage, and administrative corruption.[3] The worst lies in the eventual absorption and manipulation of their thesis by the winning candidate once in power. In this sense, the effects are typical: a fraction of the leadership remains asphyxiated in the interstices of the government while another renounces any collaboration.

The impact is lethal for the communitarian bases. While several grassroots communities remain caught in the state patronage system, others withdraw towards the original and radical counterpoint, although with its forces diminished. The circle is then closed with the change in government, either by democratic rotation or by its overthrow in the wake of their excesses or failure. The social movements return to the margin. That is roughly what happened with the Ecuadorian indigenous movement in its recent incursions into the political process to choose state rulers and authorities.

This depiction, however, needs further discussion and nuance. In particular, it requires rethinking the composition of social movements and the state itself and, along with this, the very nature of such collaboration. The concept of hegemony is central to this discussion.

The successful Ecuadorian indigenous movement, led by the CONAIE, still offers a powerful re-imagining of economic development, politics, culture, identity, and even the conceptions of democracy and nation-state as a whole.[4] Before the defeat of the neoliberal model and its attempt of modernize the state, the Ecuadorian left coalition obtained enough support to change the approach using concepts of justice, pluralism and equity. The American international policy’s turn to the right after the September 11, 2001 attack would facilitate the way: the Left of Latin America had advanced greatly in several countries, in the middle of an electoral rebirth known as ‘pink tide’, where the Ecuador was one of its main components.[5]

In the Ecuador, the alliance of indigenous peoples with the progressive forces has had a complex and dramatic course, with heartbreaking milestones, as commented upon and detailed in the PoLAR article about Gutiérrez. While the overthrow of his Government in 2005 did not relieve the deep division suffered by the indigenous movement as a result of his participation through its political arm, Pachakutik, the resilience and effectiveness of their approaches would not go unnoticed in the next electoral episode by current ruler Rafael Correa.

Although the CONAIE and Pachakutik ran in the 2006 presidential elections with their own candidate, Correa developed his campaign with offers of irresistible attraction to the left and social movements, including the indigenous.[6] His effort to reach consensual hegemony at the national level through this speech had an effect. He attracted Ecuadorians’ general disappointment with traditional politicians, and, by weaving economic concerns with socialist and communitarian development and wellbeing, his offer of “citizen revolution” obtained massive support from Ecuadorians. Once in power, with the active participation of several indigenous leaders and left intellectuals, his government implemented several social and political measures, including some historically defended by the CONAIE and its allies.[7]

However, beyond the Correa’s authoritarian style, which itself has alienated him from the social movement, this Government has revealed its historical and structural constraints. Forced to join and agree with other nations on issues of economic growth and development within the new framework of international multilateralism,[8] Correa faces currently the indigenous movement opposition, especially with regard to the exploitation of natural resources in indigenous territories, political participation, as well as national opinion, consciousness, and identity.

Unfortunately, Correa has treated disagreement and dissent from the opposition as “infantilism”, “subversion”, and even “terrorism”. In response, and as the new electoral cycle approaches, the indigenous movement appears again as the treasurer of the original communitarian and inter-cultural project, as well as the most suitable group to recover consensual hegemony and transform this project. Once more, the renewed left alliance takes the torch in the rescue of the socialist state along with the indigenous movement as one of its main supporters.

A final reflection on the very participation of the CONAIE and Pachakutik in the electoral process: has it really facilitated the formation of a different nation-state in Ecuador, more open to egalitarian democracy, social inclusion, justice, and inter-cultural wellbeing? Apparently, even with its shortcomings, the country has advanced considerably in relation to these objectives thanks to indigenous participation and other popular sectors and social movements. It lacks only the ability to overcome the pragmatic and authoritarian stage, which remains under Correa’s governing style. It is worth thinking about whether the indigenous movement could achieve those goals by again joining the renewed and oncoming socialist regime or by pushing for national reforms as an outsider. One thing is certain: nothing was the same in Ecuadorian society once the indigenous “awaked.” They are no longer a mere “subaltern” actor.

José Almeida Vinueza teaches at the University of New Mexico.


[1] Van Cott, From Movements to Parties in Latin America, 2005.

[2] Prevost et al., Social Movements and Leftist Governments in Latin America, 2012.

[3] Sánchez-Parga, El Movimiento Indigena Ecuatoriano, 2007.

[4] Becker, Pachakutik, 2011.

[5] Beverly, Latinamericanism After 9/11, 2011.

[6] As an “outsider”, Correa drove his electoral campaign internally as a purge against the old political system and externally as an anti-imperialist crusade. In regard of the former, Correa’s candidacy OFFER the immediate reorganization of the state through a new Constitution. On the latter, he emphasized the American Base of Manta closure, the opposition to any Free Trade Treaty with USA, and the review of state contracts with foreign oil companies. These stances match those defended by CONAIE and Pachakutik as a leftist coalition (Mijesky and Scott, PACHAKUTIK, 108).

[7] The most important achievement was the instauration of a Constituent Assembly with ample power for “re-founding” the Ecuador. The new Constitution recognizes several indigenous rights, and worthily, the country as a “social, democratic, sovereign, independent, singular, intercultural, plurinational and secular” Nation (Mijesky and Scott, 121).

[8] Ecuador depends economically on the exploitation of natural resources. In this context, the anti-imperialist rhetoric of Correa has facilitated the switch of the state business toward emergent economies such as China, Canada and Iran. Unfortunately, the extractive activities involve indigenous populations, seemingly recreating the ancestral conflict between the national government and indigenous communities, a kind of a regression to “old times.”