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An Interview With Marc Becker

Correa and Ecuador’s Indigenous Left

by PAUL GOTTINGER

Marc Becker is an associate professor of Latin American Studies at Truman State University.  He has worked with indigenous movements and has written widely on social and indigenous movements in Latin America.   He is the cofounder of Nativeweb, an educational organization dedicated to using technology to disseminate information from and about indigenous issues and foster communication between native and non-native peoples. He is the author of numerous books including Pachakutik: Indigenous Movements and Electoral Politics in Ecuador (2012) and Global Democracy and the World Social Forums (2007).

Paul Gottinger:  In the US Rafael Correa is portrayed as a leftist, but in Ecuador some of the indigenous movements and other leftist social forces accuse him of implementing neoliberal policies.  How would you characterize his policies?

Marc Becker: Calling Rafael Correa a neoliberal is maybe an over statement, or a bit polemical.  A better question is whether he has completely broken from the neoliberal patterns.  Correa presents himself as a leftist and the question here is what exactly does he mean by that.  He comes out of a technocratic, academic, pragmatic-left, rather than a social movement-left.  This is a distinction that some activists make.  The electoral-left versus a social movement-left.

PG:  How does Correa balance his image as a leftist when has tried to implement water privatization, continued with oil exploration and mining, and other policies similar to Ecuador’s previous presidents? And how do these policies affect his relationship with the indigenous communities and movements?

MB:  There are two different visions, that go back for decades, and there is this indigenous critique that says the left is part of the same old European forms of modernization that inform capitalism. Correa is very much in that line.  He embraces extractivist modernization.  Part of the problem you’re seeing in Ecuador is that contradicts directly with what was codified in the 2008 constitution, which was supposed to incorporate indigenous sensibilities.  This is particularly true in terms of plurinationalism and sumak kawsay (the good life).  This is supposed to incorporate alternative visions of development and Correa wants to see those exclusively on the levels of symbolic statements rather than something that will be operationalized.  The indigenous movements don’t see this as something symbolic, but something that needs to be operationalized and put into practice.

PG:  Are many of the indigenous movements anti-development?

MB: They would not say that and their allies would not say that.  The difference is talking about what’s sustainably and what’s not sustainable.  One place where it really struck me was at the world social forum in 2005 in Porto Alegre, Brazil.  Hugo Chavez came and he gave a talk where for the first time he defined himself as a socialist.  He laid this out really clearly.  He basically said he have two paths, socialism or death.  If we continue to follow along the capitalist framework we will destroy the planet.  The planet cannot sustain this extractivist, commodity based, development at all cost mentality.  The other option is to look for more sustainable ways of surviving.  Chavez defined the sustainable path with socialism.  He’s saying we need to figure out a better way to survive on this planet or we will destroy the planet and human life as we know it.  The indigenous critique is of this development at all costs model that Correa is following.  So, its not an anti-moderization, anti-development mentality.  It’s saying look there are more important things than modernization and development if that is going to end up destroying the world in which we live.  In a nutshell that’s what the sumak kawsay is about.  It’s saying how can we develop in a sustainable way.  That’s really the debate that is going on in Ecuador around mineral and petroleum extraction and water usages.  Are there alternative ways to pursue these issues in a way that is sustainable and benefits everybody?

PG:  How do you see Correa’s relationship to the non-indigenous-left in Ecuador?  Is it substantially different than his relationship to the indigenous-left?

MB:  The people who seem to be most opposed to Correa’s policies are what I would call the center-left, or a social democratic-left, or moderate-left.  For the most part I would group most indigenous movements into that category.  There are indigenous movements and I use the plural intentionally because the indigenous movements are not homogenous.  There are multiple positions here.  In the upcoming elections on February 17 there is this conservative, evangelical indigenous communities that will probably vote heavily for Lucio Gutierrez the more conservative, neoliberal candidate.  There are also other wings of the indigenous movement, particularly in the Amazon, that would be characterized as an anti-modernization and anti-development-left.  In the groups that I work with there’s a dominant center left position that is looking for how to develop Ecuador along the lines that benefit all of Ecuador and not just the indigenous movements.  In many ways the argument would be that we’re not doing this just for indigenous peoples, or even just Ecuador, but we’re doing this for the world as a whole.  The indigenous movements have become some of his strongest opposition from the left because they have historically been the best-organized sectors of Ecuador.  There are also the remnants of what I would call a Stalinist-left that strongly supports Correa.  These are Stalinists in the sense that they are advocating for strong government structures as a way to solve problems.  Correa is providing, really for the first time, an example of somebody that is making strong use of government structures in order to improve society.  A lot of his support comes from that part of the left.  Then there is another part, which I could call the technocratic-left, or NGO- left, or academic-left.  I wouldn’t say a lot of these people are ideologically committed to a leftist agenda.  They’re more a group of people who are technocrats that are taking advantage of the government that’s currently in power in order to position themselves into positions of power.  Some of these people who have positions of power in Correa’s government have long been in government and have worked with previous neoliberal governments.   This is where Correa comes out of.  He’s never been part of a leftist political party, he’s never been an activist, or involved in social struggles.  His outlook is this; how can we solve problems with technocratic solutions.  The left that is opposing the Stalinist and technocratic-left is a social movement-left that is more committed to a participatory left.  They are committed to trying to mobilize people and involve people in political processes.

PG: What’s your guess at how Correa sees the indigenous movements and the social forces to his left?

MB: He appears to view them as a political opponent.  He sees it as something to combat.  The question is; are the social movements going to set the agenda, or is Correa going to set the agenda?  In some ways Correa seems to see it as a zero sum game.  In the 2006 election when Correa won.  Pachakutik (the indigenous party) pulled 2%.  This time it looks like they’re on line to pull maybe about 5%.  Correa says; this is an insignificant percentage of the population and I don’t need to bring it into my coalition as an electoral calculation to gain power.  In fact, my collogues in Ecuador say that since Correa was elected there’s been an increase of racist incidents and racism in general.  This is a phenomenon we see elsewhere, like Columbia for example.  The indigenous movements are so well-organized that they gain political space that exceeds their numerical representation in the country.  In Ecuador there is a certain amount of resentment by non-indigenous of indigenous for gaining political power and political space.  It appears that Correa plays the race card and plays into the latent racist attitudes of the dominant population of white and mestizo people.  You see this in Correa’s rhetoric.  He says very nasty things about indigenous people, environmentalists, and what he terms ‘ultra-leftists’.  He seems to make these statements in order to shore up his electoral support among other sectors of the population.  It’s a populist strategy to cement his electoral support rather than mobilizing the population as a social movement.

PG:  How have Correa’s policies impacted the urban poor and how have they impacted the rural or indigenous poor?

MB: For the urban poor Correa’s policies have been the best things.  I would say Correa is the best president that Ecuador has ever had.  In ways that says more about the other presidents than about Correa.  In the history of the world I would say there are very few presidents that have made really positive contributions to their societies.  So, it’s important to understand Correa’s policies in this context.  A lot of Correa’s policies have resulted in demonstrable improvements for the urban poor.  There are a couple criticisms though.  One is that there is a human development bond, which is like welfare payments.  This was recently increased from $35 dollars a month to $50.  The social movement-left says; this is nothing more than neoliberalism.  This is just handouts rather than dealing with structural problems in society.  These types of polices play really well in terms of bringing the urban poor into Correa’s coalition.  The social movement-left criticizes this as being a populist strategy.  This is a broader theme in Latin America where there is historically a lot of tension between populists and Marxists.  The populists are appealing to the economic interests of the population that seemingly should provide the base of support for a Marxist class based movement.  But, the populists use this rhetoric to supplant this.  In Ecuador this has historically been a problem.  Correa has been far better about this than past populists at using this discourse, these handouts, and these policies in order to mobilize the electoral base.  This is in contrast to past presidents never doing anything to actually benefit the people.  I think this is the reason for some of Correa’s longevity.  He actually follows through on welfare payments to the lower classes. While poverty rates, inequality, extreme poverty, illiteracy, all of these socio-economic indicators are moving in very positive directions in terms of the urban poor.  But, Correa’s policies are not having that impact among the rural poor.  One interpretation is that Correa isn’t interested in the rural poor because they provided the base of support for the indigenous movements.  These are his political opponents, so why cater to them.  Some people say it’s because of the demographic shift and this is electoral calculation.  Ecuador, as is the case in the rest of the world, is becoming increasingly urbanized, so rural issues like agrarian reform don’t have the electoral importance that they previously had.  The most recent numbers I’ve seen indicate that the socio-economic indicators are improving in the countryside, while initially they were going backwards.  So, there may have been a lag there.

PG:  How have indigenous and general left protests moved Correa’s policies to the left and what has been Correa’s response to the protests?

MB: About 5 years ago the thinking really shifted about protests.  If we look back at the neoliberal 90s the social movements always provided the check against neoliberal policies.  We see this in Ecuador where these social movements have pulled down governments that were ruling against their class interests.  But, the problem is if you pull down a government that ruled against your class interest and you don’t have a positive alternative to implement, then a new neoliberal government comes into place.  This is what dragged social movements into the electoral realm. There was a need to create a positive concrete alternative.  About 5 years ago there emerged a common slogan in the indigenous movements across the entire continent, which was ‘From Protest to Proposal’.  It was this idea that we’re no longer protesting policies we disagree with, but we’re putting forward concrete proposals.  The social movements have provided checks on implementing policy.  If it weren’t for the social movements the Correa administration would be farther right.

Paul Gottinger is a writer from Madison, Wisconsin where he edits whiterosereader.orgwhich is where this article first appeared.   He can be reached at paul.gottinger@gmail.com.