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The two month old government of leftist Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and the popular movements that back him have emerged triumphant in their first battle with the oligarchy and the traditional political parties that have historically dominated the country. Correa in his inaugural address in January called for an opening to a “new socialism of the twenty-first century” and declared that Ecuador has to end “the perverse system that has destroyed our democracy, our economy and our society.”
Correa’s presidency is rooted in a militant mass movement that has been mobilizing and challenging the country’s ascendant economic and political interests for years. The Ecuadorian political system, referred to as a “partidocracia,” is run by factious political parties dominated by oligarchs who pull the strings on a corrupt state that includes Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the presidency until Correa’s election. Even Michel Camdessus, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, once commented that Ecuador is characterized “by an incestuous relation between bankers, political-financial pressure groups and corrupt government officials.”
The central demand of the broad movement that brought Correa to power is for a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution that breaks up the current dysfunctional state, ends the reign of the “partidocracia,” refounds the country as a plurinational, participatory democracy, reclaims Ecuadorian sovereignty and uses the state to advance social and economic policies that benefit the people, not the oligarchy.
Correa upon his inauguration issued a decree calling for a plebiscite for the people to vote on April 15 for the election of a Constituent Assembly. The Congress refused to accept the president’s initiative, passing its own law saying that such an assembly would not have the right to limit the tenure of Congressional members or any other elected officials until their terms expired with the next elections. It would not be an assembly with powers to refound the country’s institutions. Then with the intent of turning the election of assembly members into a virtual circus, the Congress declared that anyone could put their name on the ballot for the assembly. No signatures or petitions were required, meaning that hundreds or more could simply sign up to run for any given seat, making the balloting virtually impossible to administer.
Correa responded by taking the Congressional legislation, eliminating the onerous clauses, tailoring it to his original decree for a Constituent Assembly to refound the country, and sending it the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which rules on elections and electoral procedures. Hopes were not high, as the Tribunal is historically viewed as part of the “partidocracia.” The popular movements began to demonstrate in front of the Tribunal and Congress, calling for their closure, and for Correa to simply issue a decree for the Constituent Assembly.
Rene Baez, a political analyst at the Catholic University of Ecuador, says: “To the surprise of virtually everyone the popular repudiation shook the consciousness of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.” Lead by its president, Jorge Acosta, a member of a traditional right wing party, the Tribunal declared that the statute proposed by President Correa to refound the country’s institutions would be the one that would be voted up or down on April 15.
Outraged by this decree, fifty-seven of the one hundred deputies of Congress voted to depose Acosta from the Tribunal. The next day Acosta and the Tribunal responded by expelling the fifty- seven deputies from Congress for their unconstitutional actions.
The people took to the streets in a jubilant mood. Backed by demonstrators, Correa ordered 1500 policeman to surround the Congress to enforce the decree of the Tribunal, preventing any of the fifty-seven deposed representatives from entering. They attempted to hold a rump session at the Quito Hotel, but it went nowhere, with demonstrators ridiculing them outside by throwing pieces of dried pork fat at them as they entered and left.
Since a quorum of fifty-one members is required in Congress to conduct business, the deposed members hoped to provoke an institutional crisis. But because of a quirk of Ecuadorian law, each deputy of Congress is elected along with a substitute legislator from the same party. The Correa government made it clear it would seat any of the substitutes, if they accepted the rulings of the Electoral Tribunal. Twenty substitutes almost immediately broke ranks with their parties, and Congress had the quorum necessary to function.
“This is a major blow to the right wing and the oligarchy,” says Rene Baez. “The ‘partidocracia’ has been gutted in the political realm.” President Correa proclaimed: “The fifty-seven deputies tried to sow chaos in the countrynow they have been sanctioned and deposed. Congress will continue to function.”
While the plans for the Constituent Assembly to refound the country move forward, Correa on the same day that he declared victory made it clear that he intends to take advantage of his powers and a more pliant Congress, particularly to control the country’s private banks. In the midst of the political crisis, the banks spread rumors of a “liquidity crisis,” saying they were short of funds and might have to close their doors. Correa declared: “The problem is the exact opposite: The banks have ample funds and reserves, they are breaking historic records with their profits, exaggerated profits based on high interest rates, these will be regulated and controlled.”
Correa is setting up a special commission to investigate bank accesses and corruption dating back to 1998. “Let’s be clear” he said, “The banks are never again going to be in the position to break the state.”
With the victory of Correa and the popular movement, a leftist axis of nations comprised of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador is consolidating in South America that is bent on carrying out profound social and economic changes at home while challenging the historic domination of the United States in the region. Correa has already announced he is shutting down the largest US military base on the South American coast at Manta, Ecuador. He is also moving forward with the expropriation of Occidental Petroleum, the largest petroleum corporation in the country, merging it with the state-owned company PetroEcuador, which in turn is signing a number of accords for cooperation and joint investments with PDVSA, the Venezuelan state company.
Simultaneously, the popular movements are moving forward with their plans to make the Constituent Assembly a democratic, participatory process. In “An Open Letter to the People,” signed by many leaders of the country’s popular organizations, they declared: “The Constituent Assembly should be an organizing process for the Ecuadorian people, including workshops, seminars, and discussions at the grassroots of society that spills over and includes the different social sectors, women, the indigenous peoples, the Afro-Ecuadorians, workers, professors, students, informal merchants ”
“Never before has it been so clear that it is the people who make history. Today we are at the beginning of an era of popular power, marked by the initial work of the Constituent Assembly. It flows out of the resilience of the Ecuadorian people. It is potent and tumultuous.”
ROGER BURBACH is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) and a Visiting Scholar at the Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley. He is co-author with Jim Tarbell of “Imperial Overstretch: George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire,” His latest book is: “The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice.”