Ecuador’s Challenge

The recent right-wing coup attempt in Ecuador shed light on the rupture between President Rafael Correa and the country’s indigenous movements. This rocky relationship demonstrates the challenges of protesting against a leftist leader without empowering the right.

When Correa took office in January of 2007, he moved forward on campaign promises including creating an assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution, using oil wealth for national development, and confronting US imperialism. However, once the electoral confetti stopped falling, Correa began to betray the indigenous movements’ trust on many fronts, pushing for neoliberal policies, criminalizing protests against his administration and blocking indigenous movements’ input in the development of extractive industries and the re-writing of the constitution.

Indigenous movements protested a right wing coup attempt on September 30th while criticizing the negative policies of Correa, a president widely considered a member of Latin America’s new left who is working to implement modern democratic socialism. How did it come to this? The history of the dance between Correa and the indigenous movements offers insight into the current political crisis in the country.

Upheaval in Ecuador

The police uprising and coup attempt that occurred in Quito and other cities in Ecuador on September 30th was part of a protest against a law the Correa administration passed that curtails some of the police and military bonuses that are given along with promotions. The law also lengthens the period between promotions from five to seven years. Though the police were outraged at these changes, the Correa administration had in fact increased police wages from the 2006 salary of $355 per month to the current $750 per month. (The minimum monthly wage in Ecuador is $240.)

Correa visited the barracks of some of the protesting police officers on the morning of September 30th. While speaking to the crowd, the president was attacked by police when he refused to back down on the spending cuts. Correa was injured by the attacks and brought to a hospital where the police held him captive, threatening to kill him if he left. Thousands of people poured into the streets in defense of Correa and against the police uprising. Five people were killed in the conflict, and over 200 were wounded. The president was eventually rescued from the hospital by the Ecuadorian military.

One of the people charged with orchestrating the coup attempt was police colonel Manuel E. Rivadeneira Tello, who led the barracks where Correa was attacked. Rivadeneira was trained at the US School of the Americas, an infamous school at Fort Benning, Georgia where countless military and police officials from Latin America have been trained in torture and counter-insurgency techniques.

On October 4th, Correa increased wages for police and military majors and captains by $570 per month, as well as implemented raises for other officials. However, he has not withdrawn the budget cuts that police were protesting against.

One of the reasons why the coup did not succeed is because of Correa’s high approval rating, which just weeks before the coup took place, stood at 67% in Quito. Economist Mark Weisbrot pointed out in a column for the Guardian Unlimited that Correa’s government “has doubled spending on healthcare, significantly increased other social spending, and successfully defaulted on $3.2bn of foreign debt that was found to be illegitimately contracted.”

The regional support Correa enjoys from other South American presidents also prevented the coup attempt from being successful. The shadow of Honduras, where a right wing coup ousted President Manuel Zelaya from office in June of 2009, was cast over this conflict. Yet in the midst of the crisis in Ecuador, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), including its more conservative presidents in Colombia and Peru, immediately convoked a meeting and condemned the coup. This response demonstrated how isolated the coup plotters were, and was a clear departure from the era when US-backed coup and dictators dominated the region.

This regional and local backing was important for Correa, but there was one important element missing from the outpouring of support in rhetoric and in the streets: the country’s indigenous movements. Whereas a wave grassroots support for Hugo Chavez in 2002 helped make an attempted coup against that leader short-lived, and the mobilizations from Evo Morales’ social movement allies helped suppress right-wing destabilization efforts in 2008, Correa was not able to count on the most dynamic social movements in the country during this coup attempt.

A joint statement on the conflict issued by four of the most powerful indigenous groups in the country, including the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), denounced the coup attempt but at the same time extensively criticized Correa. “Faced with the criticism and mobilization of communities against transnational mining, oil, and agro-industrial companies,” wrote the indigenous groups, “the government, instead of creating a dialogue, responds with violence and repression. . . . The only thing this type of politics provokes is to open spaces to the Right and create spaces of destabilization.”

By marginalizing the indigenous movements of Ecuador, the statement explained, Correa was isolating himself, making him vulnerable to attacks from the right. “While the government has dedicated itself exclusively to attacking and delegitimizing organized sectors like the indigenous movement, workers’ unions, etc., it hasn’t weakened in the least the structures of power of the right, or those within the state apparatus.”

A look at the history of Ecuador’s indigenous movements and the Correa presidency shows that the break between these two powers was a long time in the making and is likely to continue unless Correa meets the movements’ demands.

Beyond the power struggles between the dominant Latin American right and left, conflicts between corporate globalization and national sovereignty, and the ties between Washington and Latin American presidents, it is the relationship between governments and movements that deserves attention here – and in other Latin American countries – for the sake of understanding, justice and effective solidarity.

An Indigenous Movement for Survival

CONAIE was founded in 1986 by various indigenous leaders and communities to advocate for indigenous rights, access to land, autonomy, basic services, environmental protection, and political representation. The indigenous participants who made up the backbone of CONAIE were largely poor and believed the economic and political system in the country aimed explicitly to destroy indigenous culture, enrich corporations, concentrate power, and marginalize the poor majority. CONAIE sought to subvert and transform this antidemocratic and repressive society.

From its beginning, CONAIE was a very grassroots organization with dispersed local bases that met to debate and make decisions collectively. Regional and national meetings continue to take place today, making major decisions about national campaigns, actions, and elections. The democratic nature of CONAIE has been useful in dealing with repressive and non-cooperative governments. The direct participation of the local chapters helps to hold movement leaders and representatives accountable, and the strengthening of a cohesive indigenous identity has spurred unity within the movement. A 1992 statement from CONAIE illustrates the organization’s distinction within the national terrain of Ecuadorian movements, setting it apart from traditional union structures and working toward political “methods that faithfully reflect our own manner of arriving at consensus. The base organizations make decisions and the leadership of CONAIE serves as an intermediary between those decisions and the actions taken.”

The organization of CONAIE is based on decentralized, local communities, in part because of the isolation and self-sufficiency of rural areas. The structure of the organization allows for quick mobilization to set up road blockades, celebrations, or projects that improve the communities. This capacity is facilitated by easily accessed communication and collaboration between the decentralized grassroots base of the organization, located in small indigenous communities across the country, and the elected leaders within the organization at regional and national levels. Over the decades of its existence, CONAIE has ignited and sustained numerous campaigns and actions thanks to this organizational structure.

CONAIE has utilized various tactics to achieve its goals including protests, marches, discussions with government officials, and involvement in elections and campaigns. The movement’s history proves that drawing from such tactics involves an unsteady dance with the government, and a need to constantly re-evaluate strategies.

The CONAIE and Correa

In the 2006 presidential elections, CONAIE and other movements support Correa in the second round of votes as he faced right-wing candidate Álvaro Noboa. While this support helped Correa win the elections, Correa turned his back on the indigenous people and Ecuadorian left almost immediately upon taking office. Though some relatively progressive policies were enacted, his administration continued and even expanded aspects of the neoliberal agenda. He worked perhaps even harder than previous governments to crush the indigenous movement and anyone who stood in the way of the government’s plan for privatization of natural resources, and the expansion of mining and oil industries.

In spite of such betrayals, Correa’s electoral victory was also largely a victory against Plan Colombia’s US-led war on drugs, the old Ecuadorian oligarchy, US-style free trade deals, and electoral fraud. In October of 2007, Correa announced that his administration would not renew Washington’s lease on a US airbase in Manta, Ecuador, unless Washington allowed Ecuador to open a military base in Miami: the US refused and was thus forced to leave Manta. Correa began an audit to see which sections of Ecuador’s debt should be written off as illegitimate under international law. The result was the announcement that Ecuador would not pay $9.937 billion in debt, roughly 19 percent of Ecuador’s GDP, because the debt commission he appointed concluded that the debt had been accrued illegally by past undemocratic governments, including a dictatorship from 1974 to 1979.

A more controversial change under Correa was the convening of a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, responding to a decades-old demand from indigenous movements. CONAIE leader Luis Macas explained that this demand from the indigenous movement was based on a desire for official recognition of the various indigenous nations in the country. They demanded that the state become pluri-national to reflect the diversity of indigenous land and customs. This process was seen as more than just changes on paper. The transformation Macas and others sought had to do with structurally changing the state itself. Macas explained that the Ecuadorian state is a state

characterized by a lot of exclusion of these [indigenous] sectors. There hasn’t been any integration of people for almost 180 years of the republic’s life—a vertical state, a state that legislates, a state that, in other words, hasn’t arrived for all these social sectors. We believe that the character of the state must be pluri-national, a state that recognizes each one of the existing nationalities in this country.

This transformation, of course, never happened in the constitutional assembly under Correa. From the beginning of Correa’s proposal to change the constitution, many members of the indigenous movement considered the constituent assembly itself as undemocratic. For example, Correa looked to political parties, not movements, to participate in the assembly, and social movement representatives were not invited to be part of the commission that formed proposals for the new constitution. This all limited the transformative role of the constituent assembly.

Following the work of the assembly, the rewritten constitution was passed by 64 percent of voters on September 28, 2008. Many Ecuadorians supported the new constitution as a tool to ensure lasting institutional and social change. The document was progressive in the sense that it expanded state regulation and involvement in the economy and management of natural resources, recognized the rights of nature, and the human right to an education and healthcare. But many such changes have been undermined by Correa’s emphasis on the extractive industry’s potential benefits for the state—in spite of environmental and territorial concerns by the indigenous. The president forged ahead with oil and mining concessions that ignored the rights of indigenous communities. In many cases, such concessions were given by the state without consultation with the indigenous communities the extraction would most affect.

Correa’s approach to the constitution was emblematic of the way he dealt with other pressing issues relating to indigenous demands. In the first years of his presidency, instead of working toward renewable alternatives to oil, Correa sought to expand this industry, as well as the mining sector, in order to generate funds for government programs and initiatives. As part of this strategy, Correa silenced opponents to his mining policies including the environmentalist group Acción Ecológica. Journalist Naomi Klein characterized the government’s decision to shut down this organization as “something all too familiar: a state seemingly using its power to weaken dissent.”

CONAIE has not been immune to such crackdowns. Economist, professor, and former advisor to CONAIE, Pablo Dávalos noted that Correa has benefited and expanded upon past government strategies of weakening CONAIE, particularly following their destructive relationship with Gutiérrez. He said that Correa uses strategies that “neutralize the ability of the indigenous movement to mobilize and to destroy it as a historic social actor.” By pushing CONAIE out of the political debate and calling on police repression to crack down on their dissent, Correa has worked to undermine the indigenous movement.

Such views were also reflected by indigenous activist Monica Chuji who worked as an assembly member in the constituent assembly as part of Correa’s party. Chuji believed Correa not only assimilated CONAIE’s radical discourse into his administration, but drew from the momentum of movements pushing for certain policies, only to then block much-needed change. Correa has utilized Ecuador’s legacy of grassroots uprisings and movements for his own political ends, Chuji said. “Correa’s regime has capitalized off of all of this. He has collected this accumulation of historic social and political demands” and is “usurping this [political] capital.” She gave the example of how social movements had been pushing for a new constitution for years but Correa took that initiative, and then curtailed its transformative potential by limiting assembly people to political parties and, once it was written, signing legislation that undermined the rights it gave to indigenous communities.

Ruptures with the State

Another disappointment for the social movements that supported Correa has been his administration’s repression of leftist activists and the criminalization of dissent. One of the first signs that Correa would use serious force against leftist protests came with a conflict in the Amazonian town of Dayuma in November of 2007. Protesters were opposing an oil company’s activity in the region by setting up roadblocks to prevent access to oil fields. They called for the government to improve their community’s standard of living and infrastructure, rather than prioritizing the needs of multinational oil companies. Correa responded by declaring a state of emergency. Police violently dragged community members from their homes, arresting twenty-three people. In a similar move, on July 8, 2008, police arrested ten activists who were protesting the construction of a hydroelectric dam on a river near their community and had occupied land near it for six months.

Movements found themselves in a tricky position, forced either to support Correa as the lesser of two evils, or oppose him and risk fueling the right’s power. As Ivonne Ramos of Acción Ecologica explained, “There is the question of public sympathy, which is complicated when you have a president with such high approval ratings. Any action that a social movement takes can be read, understood, or publicized as an action in support of the Right, since this government is supposedly a Leftist one. This has produced a climate of uncertainty over what positions to take, what actions to take.”

On May 12, 2008 CONAIE decided what action to take: it officially broke ties with the Correa administration. This rupture focused specifically on their frustration with the failure of the new constitution—under Correa’s watch—to recognize Ecuador as a pluri-national state. CONAIE also protested the lack of changes in the constitution to require that communities to be impacted by extractive industries must provide their consent before those industries proceed with operations. The CONAIE statement asserted:

We reject President Rafael Correa’s racist, authoritarian, and antidemocratic statements, which violate the rights of [indigenous] nationalities and peoples enshrined in international conventions and treaties. This constitutes an attack against the construction of a pluri-national and intercultural democracy in Ecuador. Correa has assumed the traditional neoliberal posture of the rightist oligarchy.

Correa’s administration later rushed ahead with large-scale extraction projects and privatization of natural resources. On January 29, 2009, the Ecuadorian government passed a mining law which doesn’t allow for community members to participate in discussions about how the extraction will proceed, and paves the way for widespread water and environmental pollution.

Correa’s government has also proposed laws that CONAIE says will lead to the privatization of water in their country, limit community participation in the management of water, and lessen punishment for water pollution. The launch of the National Mobilization to Defend the Water in September of 2009 saw protesters marching throughout the country, setting up road blockades with burning tires, rocks, and logs on major highways. CONAIE leaders said they were pushed to this action as they were “exhausted by the process of dialogue.” Protester Ceaser Quilumbaquin said, “We are indigenous people and the majority of water comes from our páramos [plateaus]. Water is life, and the government wants to sell water to private entities.”

In spite of such conflicts, Correa was re-elected president with 52 percent of the vote on April 26, 2009. While his re-election signaled a further defeat for the Ecuadorian political establishment and right wing, it presented new challenges to the indigenous movement.

On September 30, 2009, just months after this landslide victory at the polls, two indigenous protesters were killed and dozens injured in a conflict between indigenous communities and police forces regarding the proposed water law. Indigenous leader Tito Puenchir denounced the violence, explaining that the “dictatorial president Rafael Correa has declared a civil war against the indigenous nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon.”

Decades after the emergence of CONAIE as a national movement, their demands and tactics are as timely as ever. The survival of the movement under Correa relies on its ability to understand this complex terrain, know the stakes of their dance with the state, and defend their own autonomy, both through pressuring the state and empowering their own territories from below.

Sections of this article are adapted excerpts from BENJAMIN DANGL’s new book, Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America, (AK Press, October 2010). For more information visit

BENJAMIN DANGL is currently based in Paraguay and is the author of “The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia” (AK Press) and the forthcoming books: Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press) and, with co-author Chris O’Brien, Bottoms Up: A People’s Guide to Beer (PM Press).Email: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com.

Benjamin Dangl teaches journalism as a Lecturer of Public Communication in the Department of Community Development and Applied Economics at the University of Vermont. He has worked as a journalist across Latin America and written three books on Bolivia, including The Five Hundred Year Rebellion: Indigenous Movements and the Decolonization of History in Bolivia (AK Press, 2019).