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Connecting the Dots in Ecuador: Under – and On Top of – the Volcano

Quito.

The big news here recently seems to be coming from wildly different directions. Cotopaxi, one of the largest volcanoes in this volcanic country, has been rumbling ominously, sending plumes of ash high in the air, threatening populated areas near the capitol.

Political protests by indigenous peoples opposed to the government policies of President Rafael Correa, especially the exploitation of their protected ancestral lands, marched from the provinces to the presidential palace. Unions called for a national strike and shut down highways throughout the country, provoking a police crackdown.

China, Ecuador’s major trading partner, declared a surprise devaluation of their national currency, the yuan, against the dollar, which Ecuador uses, causing the value of Ecuadorean exports to Chinese markets to plummet.

These apparently unrelated phenomena are actually intimately connected in ways which define the current political and economic situation here.

The devalued yuan is the second major economic blow Ecuador has suffered in the past year. The drop in international oil prices from more than one hundred dollars a barrel to less than half that has hurt Ecuador’s petroleum-dependent economy. Public investment – in pensions, highways, schools, hospitals – the showpieces of the Correa administration – have dropped by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Rafael Correa was elected president of Ecuador in 2006 as a progressive reformer in the mold of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. Like those leaders he enjoyed broad support among social movements that included indigenous peoples, environmentalists and the poor. He oversaw the drafting of a new Constitution, granting rights to Pachamama, or Mother Earth. He proposed to leave Amazonian oil deposits undeveloped to protect the bio-diverse Yasuni region if worldwide donors supported that effort.

Correa – who holds a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois – declared his country’s independence from U.S. policies. He refused to renew a U.S. lease on an Ecuador military base. When Wikileaks revealed that the U.S. ambassador was scheming against him with the Ecuadorean police force, Correa expelled him. When Western governments came after Wikileaks founder Julian Assange for exposing their secrets, Correa gave him sanctuary in Ecuador’s London embassy.

As Correa settled into power, his priorities changed. In need of funds for his public spending, Correa reversed his decision to spare the bio-diverse Yasuni, blaming the world at large for failing to pledge enough money. Like other African and Latin America national leaders, he brought in the Chinese to exploit Ecuador’s mining and petroleum resources, much of it located on indigenous land.

“We can’t be beggars sitting on a sack of gold,” said Correa in 2012. Soon the needs of Pachamama and the ancestral preserves of Ecuador’s indigenous peoples were under siege from Chinese mining and drilling. As some of his former supporters raised objections and cried “foul,” Correa showed a hypersensitivity to criticism, however mild, and a vindictive appetite for vengeance.

When physicians held a press conference to protest changes in the healthcare laws, Correa called them “rock throwers.” When indigenous demonstrators objected to the exploitation of the lands Correa had promised to protect, he called them “terrorists” and had them arrested.

He swore vendettas against even mildly critical media and against teenagers who dared to make fun of him on Facebook. He castigated one editorial cartoonist with such vehemence that the man feared for his life and went into hiding with an indigenous group in the Amazonian bush.

Like Morales, Correa likes to orate at length on the public airwaves. He holds a weekly Saturday filibuster televised from various locations around the country, where he often abuses journalists or singles out “terrorists” by name.

When Comedy Central host John Oliver chided Correa for demonizing his detractors, some of whom are adolescents, Correa responded to Oliver, looking even more humorless and clueless about his own undignified behavior. But those who suffer Correa’s public anger do not find it funny.

Correa rode his initial popularity to an easy re-election, which also swept his political allies into legislative and judicial majorities. The once and future leader proposed a constitutional amendment lifting term limits on the presidency. Though Correa had promised to serve only two terms, he now said he would stay “as long as the people demand it.”

As oil prices dropped, the Correa government began imposing a new series of taxes and financial regulations on Ecuadorean citizens. Hundreds of imported goods either jumped in price or disappeared. Car parts, electronics and non-locally grown foods became more expensive, stimulating the smuggling trade on Ecuador’s northern border with Colombia.

When Correa floated the notion of a harsh inheritance tax to bring more revenue to the state instead of to wealthy heirs, he angered the right-wing oligarchs who own this country. Initially wary of Correa’s leftist appeal, this powerful minority indulged his brand of capitalism as long as it served their needs. Now they are grumbling out loud that he ought to be replaced.

Correa appointed selected leaders of social movements to government posts, in effect creating pro and anti-government factions of unions and environmentalists, and thus co-opting a portion of his growing opposition. Thanks in part to that political calculation and to Correa’s clampdown on dissent, those who object to his policies have not managed to create a coherent opposition.

But many of Correa’s disillusioned former supporters in unions and indigenous groups have begun to mobilize in ever-increasing numbers in the Latin American tradition of street demonstrations, which have lately met with heightened military opposition, beatings and detentions.

Which brings us back to the volcano. Under the pretext of national disaster preparedness, the Correa administration decreed “a state of exception,” which suspends certain constitutional rights, such as the “inviolability of the home.”

The official intent of this clause in the state of exception is to be able to evacuate people to safer territory. But indigenous communities hundreds of miles removed from the volcano’s danger zone have reported soldiers breaking into their homes and driving the inhabitants – including children and the elderly – into the streets.

In search of protest leaders? As revenge for public expressions of tribal political discontent? No one is saying.

The emergency decree also limits freedom of movement and communication, ostensibly for reasons of public safety. Further, any reports of seismic activity can no longer be made public directly by the scientists studying the volcano, or by journalists observing it, but must first pass through government channels. Besides outlawing dissent, Correa is now politicizing information to centralize his control.

As one geologist noted privately, the Cotopaxi volcano could explode tomorrow or next year or fifty years from now or never. But he and his scientific colleagues are no longer allowed to discuss it. Meanwhile, the “state of exception” has become the rule, with no end in sight.

Shrinking Chinese largesse has produced a diminishing vicious circle. Correa’s paranoia causes him to come down harder on his critics, enflaming the opposition to his increasingly punitive rule. Correa’s administration tries to circumscribe media reports of his militarized activities, but the word gets around anyway on the internet.

In Ecuador right now, it’s hard to predict whether the unsettled volcano or the restless population will be the first to erupt.

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James McEnteer’s most recent book is Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty DepartmentHe lives in Quito, Ecuador.

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