#14 movement
Zeljko Crncic

Can Movements Govern?

Ecuador's indigenous movement is one of the most powerful social movements worldwide. The transition into political office can, however, be a difficult one.

In the 90s, there was a lot of talk about the indigenous Zapatista movement in southern Mexico. Masked men and women entered key towns in the southern state of Chiapas on January 1, 1994 to challenge Mexico’s system of government, capitalism in general, and speak for marginalized indigenous and other peoples from Mexico and all around the world. Their charismatic leader, Subcomandante Marcos, became famous and a focal point for critical and leftist groups all over the globe.

Some years later and somewhat further south, indigenous movements are again drawing attention to their demands and organizing skills. In 2002, an indigenous party built a coalition with a non-indigenous group and came to power in Ecuador. In Bolivia, indigenous Cocalero leader Evo Morales won the 2005 election and was sworn in as president in 2006.

A movement that becomes part of a government and makes bureaucratic decisions does not really fit our notion of a social movement.

After a degree of euphoria in the leftist media and cautious admiration in mainstream newspapers, interest in the movements has lessened somewhat. This is quite natural in part due to the rapid news cycle in these social media times. Additionally, the public is used to movements that call for protests and blockades or – as it is sometimes the case for indigenous ones – organise colourful marches. A movement that becomes part of a government and makes bureaucratic decisions does not really fit our preconception of a social movement.

Nevertheless, social movements were and still are part of governments in Latin America and other parts of the world. We will take a closer look at how social movements in office perform using Ecuador as an example.

Over the last 20 years, the Andean republic of Ecuador has been in a state of crisis. Different populist and neoliberal governments have had to cope with an economic crisis and a growing number of protests. The population of Quito unseated populist President Abdallá Bucaram in 1997. President Jamil Mahuad, who introduced austerity measures, faced the same fate in 2000. Five years later, President Lucio Gutiérrez, an ex-insurgent himself, followed suit.

One of the key actors involved in the protests was CONAIE (Confederación Nacional de Indígenas del Ecuador), an umbrella organization of smaller indigenous movements formed in 1986. CONAIE organized marches from different communities to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, ultimately bringing life in the second largest city in the country to a halt for a week in 1990. In 1994 CONAIE organised another huge march. The movement put pressure on the conservative government to stop the privatization of water which was affecting small farmers of indigenous origin, mostly in the Andean highlands.

Together with some young army officers, CONAIE stripped Mahuad of his authority in January of 2000.

In the 90s, CONAIE was widely seen as a powerful movement that spearheaded a number of social protests. Building on the momentum of its popularity, indigenous and non-indigenous activists formed Pachakutik in 1996, a party comprising different groups in which CONAIE was very influential. Its presidential candidate, Freddy Ehlers, came in third in the 1996 elections.

But CONAIE went on to play an important role on the streets as well. When Abdalá Bucaram was deposed in February of 1997, the movement sided with the protesters, as it did again in 2000. The country experienced a severe crisis and bank accounts were frozen by President Mahuad. Together with some young army officers, CONAIE stripped Mahuad of his authority in January of 2000 and handed power over to an interim government.

In 2002 fresh elections were held and Lucio Gutiérrez and the newly formed PSP (Partido Sociedad Patríotica) came in first. He built a government with Pachakutik, and 4 members of CONAIE became members of the cabinet. For the first time, the movement had ministers in an Ecuadorian government.

The indigenous ministers found themselves between a rock and a hard place.

The honeymoon between the ex-military man from the Amazon basin in eastern Ecuador and the indigenous activists did not last long, however. After just ten days in office, Lucio Gutiérrez declared that he would follow the policies of the World Bank, which he had vigorously opposed during the election campaign. The results of Pachakutik’s 6 months in government were mixed at best. The indigenous ministers found themselves between a rock and a hard place. They had limited influence in the new government on the one hand, while on the other they were under pressure from the communities that constituted the movement’s foundation.

But CONAIE itself had to resolve the question of to what degree it should become part of a political system that the movement had been accusing of corruption and nepotism for so long.

The negative impact on the movement from the aftermath of the brief period in office lasted for some time. When asked whether they might engage with Rafael Correa’s government from 2007 to 2008, a few CONAIE’s functionaries expressed reservations, stressing that they had been used in the past by Lucio Gutiérrez. It is true that Gutiérrez had influenced and divided the movement to a certain degree by offering concessions to communities in the Amazon region during his time in office.

But CONAIE itself had to resolve the question of to what degree it should become part of a political system that the movement had been accusing of corruption and nepotism for so long. There was also the problem of alliances. When asked to name a party or group that helped the movement become so strong in the 90s, some representatives maintained that CONAIE had managed its success on its own. Some of the functionaries apparently lacked an understanding of how to ally themselves with other groups. Given the fact that CONAIE is one of several political groups in the country, further advancement at the political level seems unlikely unless CONAIE fully recognizes its need to win allies outside the indigenous camp.

The mobilization skills of the Andean regional movements were studied and praised in the years after CONAIE’s first entrance into Ecuador’s politics. A lot of attention was also placed on the outcomes of indigenous participation in local and national governments.

The results, though, have been mixed. On the positive side, there is the work of the indigenous mayor of the Andean town of Cotopaxi, widely held up as an example of good governance during the 90s. Today though, the mayor is at odds with CONAIE. On the negative side, there is the account of a former CONAIE staff member, who stated in a 2008 interview that the educational policy CONAIE had fought so long for, did not bring the intended results for indigenous communities. According to the source, quality in indigenous education remains low. Educational workers were not nominated for their skills, but for their loyalty to the movement.

From its founding in 1986 to today, CONAIE has drawn attention to the problems of a group that could not even speak on its own behalf for centuries.

CONAIE did an impressive job organizing and mobilizing indigenous communities for years. From its founding in 1986 to today, it has drawn attention to the problems of a group that could not even speak on its own behalf for centuries. Time and time again, it has managed to bring thousands of indigenous women and men from the remotest parts of the country to Quito to make their voices heard on a range of different issues.

Still their governance record remains mixed, a fact that cannot be blamed solely on corruption or opportunism within CONAIE’s own ranks. A lack of experience and reserves due to persistent marginalization also plays an important role. It is hard for any party or movement to muddle through an unstable and changing political landscape for an extended period of time. This applies even more to a movement that constantly faced marginalization and oppression for such a long time and still comprises of the country’s poorest people.

Political and personal opportunism and corruption damage any collective, even under very different lokal and national circumstances, such as for example in the German or Italian political system. We have to keep that in mind when evaluating the mixed results of CONAIE’s engagement in local and national politics. Although today CONAIE has lost some of its ability to rule, it will remain an actor in Ecuador’s politics that should not be underestimated. A strong reappearance under other political circumstances would not be too surprising.

Photo: “Reunión con Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador CONAIE.” by Presidencia de la Repúblic
2009 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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