“We have won an historic victory,” proclaimed President Rafael Correa of Ecuador. On Sunday the political coalition he heads won an overwhelming majority of the seats in the Constituent Assembly that is tasked with “refounding” the nation’s institutions. Taking office early this year in a land slide victory, Correa has repeatedly called for an opening to a “new socialism of the twenty- first century,” declaring that Ecuador has to end “the perverse system that has destroyed our democracy, our economy and our society.” His government marks the emergence of a radical anti-neoliberal axis in South America, comprising Venezuela, Bolivia and now Ecuador.
“The Assembly elections are a devastating blow for the oligarchs and the right wing political parties who have historically pulled the strings on a corrupt state that includes Congress and the Supreme Court,” says Alejandro Moreano, a sociologist and political analyst at the Andean University Simon Bolivar in Quito. Even Michel Camdesseus, the former director 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 victory in the Constituent Assembly is the result of years of agitation and struggle by Ecuador’s indigenous and social movements along with an unorganized, largely middle-class movement of people known as the “forajidos,” an Ecuadoran term meaning outlaws or bandits who rebel against the established system. In March when the Congress and the right wing political parties tried to sabotage the elections for the Assembly, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Quito, blocking the entrances to Congress and backing the disbarment of the Congressional members who wanted to suppress the elections.
The “Country Movement,” the popular political coalition lead by Correa, will convene the Assembly at the end of October. Its charge is to draft a new constitution that will break up the dysfunctional state, establish a plurinational, participatory democracy, reclaim Ecuadoran sovereignty, and use the state to create social and economic institutions that benefit the people. One of its first acts will be to abolish the existent Congress.
The Assembly will also facilitate an international realignment of Ecuador’s international relations. The Correa government has already moved assertively in its relations with the United States. María Fernanda Espinosa, the dynamic Minister of Foreign Relations, declared that Ecuador intends to close the U.S. military base located at Manta, the largest of its kind on South America’s Pacific coast. “Ecuador is a sovereign nation,” she said. “We do not need any foreign troops in our country.” The treaty for the base expires in 2009 and will not be renewed.
Thus far there have been no direct confrontations with the United States, but the Pentagon has manifested its displeasure. Every year since 1959, the US Southern Command, together with the Pacific coast nations of South America, have undertaken joint naval exercises called Unitas. This year they were to be hosted in Ecuador, but the United States opted to conduct them in Colombia, its closest regional ally. Ecuador responded by announcing it would not participate in this year’s exercises, with Correa proclaiming, “It appears the Southern Command believes we are a colony of the United States, that our navy is just one more unit controlled by their country.”
Correa is also standing up to Occidental Petroleum, a U.S.-based corporation whose Ecuadoran holdings were taken over by state-owned PetroEcuador last year for selling off some of its assets to a Canadian company in violation of its contract with the Ecuadoran state. With the takeover of Occidental’s holdings, PetroEcuador now controls more than half of the country’s petroleum exports, which themselves account for about 40% of Ecuador’s total exports and one third of government revenues. Correa has denounced Occidental’s “lobbying” of the Bush administration to regain its holdings. “We are not going to allow an arrogant, portentous transnational that doesn’t respect Ecuadoran laws to harm our country,” he said.
At the same time, Ecuador is negotiating special bilateral trade and economic agreements with presidents Chávez and Morales. Venezuela has agreed to refine Ecuadoran oil and help fund social programs in Ecuador, while the Bolivian government has concluded an agreement to import foodstuffs from small- and medium-size producers in Ecuador. Correa has also signed several petroleum accords with Venezuela, of which the most important is a $4 billion project for a refinery backed by PetroEcuador and the Venezuelan state petroleum company.
Alejandro Moreano of the Andean University worries that “that all of the interests involved in the Country Movement may not back the tough steps needed to end neo-liberalism and bring the banks and multinationals under control. This will depend on the strength of popular mobilizations as the Assembly undertakes its work.” For his part Correa has repeatedly denounced the private banks in Ecuador for their exorbitant profit-taking and high interest rates. And he has expelled Ecuador’s World Bank representative for meddling in the country’s affairs and has virtually terminated the country’s relations with the International Monetary Fund.
There is already a steady drum beat by the indigenous and popular movements to have the Constituent Assembly take over all multinational mining interests. In early June, the local populace in the gold-mining southern highland province of Azuay, backed by environmental and human rights organizations, blockaded major highways, demanding the expropriation of the mining companies, many of which are controlled by transnational corporations that have polluted local rivers and aquifers. Alberto Acosta, an internationally renowned anti-neoliberal economist who will be president of the Constituent Assembly, met with the protesters. He told them the mining concessions couldn’t be annulled outright. “This is a task of the Constituent Assembly,” he said. “It can establish a legal framework that will enable us to revise all the concessions.” This month on October 22 a national mobilization will take place that will call upon the Assembly to nationalize all foreign mining interests in the country.
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.”