Ecuador and the Struggle for Latin American Unity

Back in 1989 or 1990, as I watched, along with the rest of the world, the collapse of the “Evil Empire,” I remember thinking to myself, “one down, one to go.” I knew, and all the imperial hubris of Fukyama’s “end of history” just made me that much more certain, that the time would soon come for Evil Empire II. “Soon” is a relative term. Here we are, a mere seventeen or eighteen years later and Evil Empire II is on its way down, as historical events go, at super action speed.

What I didn’t expect was that new empires would emerge, or attempt to do so, in the wake of the collapse of the two empires that jostled for position throughout the Cold War years. Brazilian revolutionary theorist Ruy Mauro Marini would dub these rising empires, “sub-empires,” and he claimed that the seeds of sub-empires are already visible in Latin America. Of course that’s what we USAmericans were back in the early 19th century, an ex-colony aspiring to sub-imperial status, mingling with the full-fledged, grown up empires of Britain, France and Spain and hoping one day to play in the Major League ourselves.

I muse on all of this as I wait in my hotel room in Quito, Ecuador, for Napoleon Saltos Galazara to arrive. I had just finished reading his article, “UNASUR: la coordenada bolivariana” published in the extraordinary Ecuadoran review, “La Tendencia,” in which he considers sub-empires, dying empires and what he calls “the Bolivarian Coordinate” (1) with the skill of a scientist. He is, after all, a scientist, among many other things.

Dr. Napoleon Saltos and I have in common our passage through Liberation Theology into socialism, although I’m not familiar with his mentor, the widely admired Ecuadoran Liberation theologian, Fr. Leonidas Proaño. But Napoleon, rather than following in his mentor’s footsteps, seems to have flown over them. In addition to his work as professor and former director of the School of Sociology at the Central University of Ecuador, Dr. Saltos was founder of Pachakutik, the indigenous organization which, along with CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador) led the spectacular rebellions in Ecuador throughout the ’90s. He then served in Parliament as a member of that party but left when it allied itself with the traitorous President Lucio Gutierrez, who rode the social and indigenous movements to power and then turned on them within days of becoming president. Saltos went on to work within the social movements and held the post of “Coodinator of Social Movements.” He also writes and publishes what has become a yearly handbook on Ecuadoran reality entitled “Ecuador: su realidad” (Ecuador: Its Reality), a hefty tome full of current statistics on employment, imports and exports, data from census and an all around round-up of everything you ever wanted to know about Ecuador but were too ignorant to even know how to ask. Let me put that in the first person. This is, after all, my first visit to the country and I have very little prior knowledge of “its reality.” But I’m confident, weighing his yearbook of information in my hands, that Napoleon is the man to ask.

He has graciously agreed to a spur-of-the-minute interview and has squeezed me into the space between a meeting an a press conference: Napoleon is also running for the Constituent Assembly on the Polo Democrático slate, a united front of fifty-two left groups, parties and organizations.

He arrives quickly with a man name Guillermo and when I ask about Guillermo, Saltos explains, “Guillermo always accompanies me. It’s, well, safer that way.” I can almost forget that I’m in a part of the world where politics can often get you in big trouble, even as much as getting you killed, especially if you organize the kinds of subversive circles that Napoleon does. Neither of the two ruling oligarchies of Ecuador are particularly well-known for their kindness.

I hadn’t had enough time to prepare for the interview since I’d only finished reading his article a little over an hour ago. But that doesn’t matter. Napoleon quickly takes control when I explain that I was fascinated by his analysis of the numerous potential power struggles emerging from the vacuum the collapse of U.S. imperial power in the region is leaving in its wake, assuming, as nearly everyone down here is so doing, that the U.S. empire is in collapse.

“The struggle is much more complex now,” he says. “On one side you have the North-South Axis with the neoliberal project based in the United States and Europe.” But this axis is a waning economic power, with ties to the local Ecuadoran oligarchies, of which there are two: the financial business oligarchy of the mountain region, predominantly Quito, and the financial, agricultural oligarchy of Guayaquil. This North-South Axis, U.S/Europe-Local Oligarchy, is the traditional enemy of the anti-imperialist, anti-oligarchic left in Ecuador, as in all of Latin America. This is the axis of power that has received the most attention from political and social scientists, economists and activists worldwide. It has also been the object of most resentment and attacks by the latter.

But Saltos wants to explain why Correa, a university professor, backed largely by the middle class, and not the social and indigenous movements, is leading the anti-imperialist struggle on these three fronts: against Oxy Petroleum, the FTAA and the U.S. military base at Manta. And why there may be more to Correa’s opposition to this three-fold struggle against the North-South Axis than immediately meets the eye.

He talks about the rebellion of 2000, which included social movements, the indigenous movement and progressive military. Though that movement brought Lucio Gutierrez to power, “we in the movement didn’t manage that well. Lucio Gutierrez was an historical error,” Saltos says, “We were wrong. And he cost us; he weakened us.”

“This current [anti-imperialist] struggle should have been organized and led by the social movements, as in Bolivia. I speak of Bolivia as the process from below; Venezuela is a little more a process from above. We should have undertaken this current phase of the process as a social movement but we were too weak to carry it forth, too weak as a result of our errors.”

I ask him to explain more precisely what these “errors” were. He nods and unhesitatingly explains. “We gathered great strength in the ’90s as we united the urban social movements and the workers’ movements, with the indigenous movement and we struggled together all the way up to the elections of 1996. And that’s where you can see two key errors. First, we always select someone as our national representative from outside our ranks. So, in 1996 and 1998 we called on a journalist, Freddy Ehlers… who is Secretary General of CAN, Andean Community of Nations. He was our national representative, and then we parted ways and he cut off our route. Then we returned to the struggle and in 2000, not in an election, but rather in a rebellion, we took power with the military and, once again, we chose someone from outside of our ranks to represent us: Lucio Gutierrez. We repeated the error. ”

The Ecuadoran revolutionary movement also erred in its understanding of the military. “The military can’t be viewed as an institution that, as a whole, would move toward social change,” Saltos explains. “There are always internal distinctions, as in Venezuela where Chavez also had problems with his military: there were sectors that were with Chavez, but others carried out the coup.”

In the 2000 coup in Ecuador in which the social/indigenous movements allied with the military, they were turned back out of power within 24 hours. Lucio Gutierrez seized control and was supported by sectors of the social/indigenous movement, most notably Pachakutik. Saltos continued to serve in the Parliament until he left Pachakutik in 2002 in disagreement over its support for Gutierrez.

“Nevertheless, that desire for change has continued to the present. It’s a volcanic force that continues to grow, not only in Ecuador, but in all Latin America. But we, as a social movement weakened due to our errors, haven’t been able to represent it. And so it has fallen to Correa to gather all this energy together. He says, ‘we’re going to confront imperialism and the oligarchy; we’re going to take on the right wing, down with partyocracy!’ And he won the election. However, even though Correa confronts this sector, he’s allied with the second axis, the Manta-Manaus axis, or the China-Brazil, East-West axis.”

Here Napoleon mentions the theories of Theotonio Dos Santos Ruy Mauro Marini who worked on the theory of sub-empires from the Brazilian context. Marini defines subimperialism as “the form that the dependent economy assumes on arriving at the stage of the monopolies and finance capital.” It is characterized by “the exercise of an autonomous expansionist policy” and he added that “only Brazil, in Latin America, fully expresses a phenomenon of this nature,” although he goes on to add both Mexico and Argentina as countries having “sub-imperialist characteristics.” One must keep in mind, however, that Marini wrote this well before Argentina’s economic implosion in 2001 and that would leave only Mexico and Brazil as countries in Latin America displaying such “sub-imperialist characteristics.” (2)

Meanwhile, Venezuela continues to promote its “counterhegemonic” and anti-imperialist project of regional unity, what Saltos calls “la coordenada bolivariana” (the Bolivarian Coordinate). In April of this year, President Chavez proposed UNASUR during an energy summit of the Americas on the island of Margarita. In addition to coining the name and calling for a Secretariat of the organization to be located in Quito, Ecuador, Chavez pushed the idea of regional unity a little farther in the process, but some analysts think that Brazil may not be amused, much less interested in playing ball, even though both Chavez and Lula deny any sort of rivalry. At least one analyst thinks that Brazil prefers Mercosur to UNASUR “because it is a forum that cannot do anything without its approval. But Brazil’s leadership might be diluted if UNASUR gets off the ground — in fact that is what Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is counting on. UNASUR would have to function by unanimous agreement, which would probably paralyze it, or by majority, to which Brazil is unlikely to submit.” (3)

This division between Brazil and Venezuela was best symbolized by the brand of energy each country promotes, ethanol and petroleum, respectively, but there is much more to the story than what goes into the gas tank of a car. And Ecuador may be the key chess piece in the regional Great Game. Among others, Ecuadoran writer Kintto Lucas in his book on recent Ecuadoran history, “Un pais entrampado,” sees Ecuador as an integral part of Brazil’s aspiration to carve a path to the Pacific, using what is called the “Manaos-Manta multi-modal corridor.”

Both Lucas and Uruguayan writer Raúl Zibechi quote General Golbery do Couto e Silva, author of “Brazil’s Geopolitics,” in which that Brazilian strategist stated flatly that “Brazil must not dwell on what it has already accomplished; it must arrive hegemonically to the Pacific.”(4) Zibechi in his article on the subject goes on to discuss the frontier expansionism of Brazil, using the contemporary example of Brazil’s leadership of the occupation of Haiti under the auspices of the U.N. as a point of departure to discuss historical examples of Brazil’s occupation and conquest of neighboring territory. “Between 1850 and 1950,” Zibechi tells us, “Brazil’s ‘Amazonian territory’ doubled at the cost of its neighbors; Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela lost portions of their land during that timeframe.” Indeed, “Brazil’s consolidation as a regional and world power -though it champions multilateralism- is leaving a bitter taste in the mouth of those who feel Brazil’s steamroller-like advances are creating a new disequilibrium on the subcontinent.”(4)

The struggle between Venezuela and Brazil potentially represents a much deeper division emerging in Latin America today as the U.S. empire tanks and digs its way deeper into the morass it has created for itself in the Middle East. The U.S., in its National Security Strategy of September 17, 2002, proposed to prevent any possible players from challenging its supremacy, stating that “America (sic) will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed.” On the American continent it hoped to contain such “emerging threats” as Brazil by means of walling it in along the Pacific by means of “free trade” agreements with Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. The 2006 election of Correa to the Presidency of Ecuador just as the nation considered such a treaty changed all that. Since that time, Ecuador has effectively broken the US-imposed barrier to the Pacific and now clears the way for the Brazilian dreams of empire, or at the very least, the further strengthening of a great regional power.

Nevertheless, the struggle to contain Brazil continues to be part of the greater problem of constructing a regional unity that will enable the southern nations to contend with their more immediate concern, and that is the still-present threat of the U.S. empire. Ecuador’s current strategy seems to be to build alliances with Venezuela, Brazil and whatever other potential allies may offer to consolidate a block of power against U.S. hegemony.

Tomás Peribonio, ex-Minister of Foreign Trade under President Alfred Palacio, is now working as a contractor for the current Correa government designing the Manaos-Manta multi-modal corridor. He’s a handsome, friendly fellow who has also granted me a spur of the moment interview when I showed up at his penthouse office in the Ministry of Public Works building. He offers to do the interview in his excellent English, but quickly slips into Spanish as he emphasizes that “the most important thing is regional unity.” The construction of this multi-modal corridor, he describes as a “mega-project” that would be constructed “over the course of years and perhaps even decades.” The aim, he says, is to unite “Pacific Asia, which, from my point of view, is the area of major world commerce, managing about fifty percent of world trade” with the Atlantic, specifically Brazil, which is increasing its cultivation of soy and other grains with an eye on exports.

For Peribonio regional integration begins at home, with Ecuador, a country that commonly characterizes itself as the “nation of four regions,” which are the Amazon, the mountains, the plains and coast, and the Galapagos. These regions have experienced strong tensions and this fact has often been posed as a primary problem confronting national leaders as they attempted to unite the country. This multi-modal corridor, Peribonio hopes, will serve to first unite the country and then go on to unite Ecuador with Peru and Brazil, since the corridor would also go through Peru. Finally, says Peribonio, the corridor would integrate Ecuador more firmly into the world economy.

Will that be Venezuela or Brazil, the plan of Chavez for what Napoleon calls the “Bolivarian Coordinate” as embodied in ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, or will it be the model defined by Brazil’s need for growth, or an alliance between these two models? Is there another option? Peribonio shrugs. “Our countries have to unite in order to grow and develop. Europe, for instance, has grown enormously as a result of a complete integration. The model which has the greatest support will be the one that wins. But we can learn a lot from Europe and the approach it has taken toward integrating the smaller, poorer countries into its Union. But what’s most important is convincing our people, the workers, indigenous people and people in the neighborhoods that alone we’re small and weak, but that it’s only through regional integration and unity that we’ll become strong.”

CLIFTON ROSS is the co-editor of Voice of Fire: Communiques and Interviews of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (1994, New Earth Publications). His book, Fables for an Open Field (1994, Trombone Press, New Earth Publications), has just been released in Spanish by La Casa Tomada of Venezuela. His forthcoming book of poems in translation, Traducir el Silencio, will be published later this year by Venezuela´s Ministry of Culture editorial, Perro y Rana. Ross teaches English at Berkeley City College, Berkeley, California. He can be reached at .


1. “UNASUR: la coordenada bolivariana”, La Tendencia, May, 2007

2, Marini, Ruy Mauro, in “La acumulación capitalista mundial _y el subimperialismo,


4. Zibechi, Raúl, “Brazil and the Difficult Path to Multilateralism,”