Debating Ecuador’s new constitution

October 28, 2008

SINCE HIS election in 2006, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa has been seen in the U.S. as a dangerous left-wing ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Bolivian President Evo Morales. Especially outrageous in Washington's view was Correa's decision to force the U.S. to close its military base in the city of Manta.

But while Correa has followed Chávez and Morales in trying to increase government control over oil resources and the economy, and break with the free-market, neoliberal policies of his predecessors, Ecuador's president has come into increasing conflict with the social movements that carried him into office--movements that have overthrown three presidents in recent years through popular uprisings.

"While Correa was elected and has consolidated power through a leftist discourse prioritizing socio-economic justice and national sovereignty, he has increasingly moved to break ties with organized social movements," wrote Daniel Denvir, an independent American journalist living in Ecuador.

"Many analysts say that Correa, buoyed by high approval ratings, is intentionally demonstrating that he need not depend on any organized body. Seeing alliances with the [indigenous groups], environmental and labor movements as restrictive, Correa is building an institutionally unmediated and populist relationship to voters, allowing him to be the country's sole decision maker."

The controversy came to a head in the constituent assembly that drafted a new constitution.

The document contains many reforms, including free education through the university level, greater government spending on health care, free seeds for farmers, micro-loans and building materials for first-time homeowners. At the same time, the constitution gives Correa more authority over the armed forces and central banks. He will also be able to seek re-election for two more terms in office.

Nevertheless, many indigenous groups criticized the new constitution because it fell short of giving indigenous peoples full equality. This created a dilemma.

"If popular movements oppose the constitution because it does not have everything they requested, they play directly into the hands of their traditional enemies," wrote journalist Marc Becker. "If they support it, they strengthen the hand of a political force that does not embody their interests."

In the end, the indigenous groups gave the constitution their critical support, and it passed with 65 percent approval.

Here, Mayka de Castro, Marc Delcan and Sergio de Castro of Diagonal, a cultural and political magazine in Ecuador, interview indigenous leaders about the constitutional referendum, in an article originally published by the Correspondencia de Prensa-Agenda Radical electronic news service.

"WE ARE committed to a constitution, to a project begun by the social organizations, not to an individual political figure."

These words from Gilberto Guamangate, who participated in the now-dissolved Constituent Assembly representing the indigenous group Pachakutik, sum up the general opinion among members of the indigenous movement who supported the new constitution.

In this sense, "this Constitution is not the end, it is a mechanism that must lead towards real democratization and social justice...After the 28th [of September], the struggles will be stronger," declared Humberto Cholango, president of the Confederation of the People's of Kichwa Nationality of Ecuador (ECUARUNARI, by its initials in Spanish).

However, if there is a general agreement about the project by many different social sectors, there are nuances and even differences.

The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) announced its support for the new constitution at the beginning of September, while at the same time criticizing the policies enacted by the Correa government up until now. Among other reasons for the "critical yes," Marlon Santi, president of the organization, argued that the text "proposes an economy based on solidarity, reciprocity and a communal character."

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa (right) speaks with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa (right) speaks with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (Bernardo Londoy)

However, according to Santi, Correa "has partially marginalized the indigenous movement, as well as all progressive sectors who have criticized him constructively." At the same time, he stated that the project "recognizes the peoples' nationalities in its political and administrative structure, if not in terms of applying this indigenous territory."

For Domingo Ankuash, president of the Confederation of the Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE), "the number one objective" of his organization "is the defense of their territory," and that "neither a yes vote nor a no vote is going to save us, the indigenous nationalities."

Pedro de la Cruz, founding leader of the National Federation of Campesino, Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian Organizations (FENOCIN) and ex-National Assembly member for Correa's governing Alianza País party, agrees with Santi that the new constitution substitutes the market economy for one based on "social needs and solidarity." On the other hand, he points out that "this president has put forward the demands that the Ecuadorian citizens have had, including our own as an organization."

For this reason, they support the text that, among "many other good things" and despite some deficiencies, promotes food sovereignty and the recognition of different forms of property, declares Ecuador a plurinational state and includes mechanisms of citizen participation that will transform the nation "into one of the most democratic in Latin America."

For Gilberto Guamangate of Pachakutik, "thinking about a just, equal and solidarity-based Ecuador, we have planned to build a plurinational state and a model of development based on 'good-living,' the well-being of all Ecuadorians, not just the indigenous." The plurinational state must be something more than a formal declaration for the indigenous movement--it must be an integral part of the entire political and economic project put forward by the constitution. With respect to this, the recognition of the autonomous forms of political organization, and of indigenous justice, are essential.

The constitution, according to de la Cruz of FENOCIN, recognizes that "the territorial indigenous districts may, by means of a popular assembly, decide on self-administration through their own authorities...It even guarantees us the right to run our own justice system."

However, for Mónica Chuji, president of the National Assembly's committee on Natural Resources and Biodiversity, and a dissident within the Alianza País party, "the declaration of the plurinational state has been given neither content nor development," since "it had at its main goal a systematic change and a model of development to achieve sumak kawsay (an indigenous term for "good living," referring to establishing a harmonious relationship with the land), and thereby, an insistence on structural, economic and political reform. But this was never accepted in its totality."

One of the basic demands of the indigenous movement has been the inclusion in the constitutional text to the right of prior, free and informed consent, as well as the right to veto, regarding the exploration of natural resources in the indigenous territories, as stipulated in accord number 169 of the International Labor Organization.

According to the president of CONAIE, "natural resources will continue to be the main axis of the economy. And when one talks about natural resources one is talking about extracting them from indigenous territory."

From the Amazon, a region rich in oil and other mineral resources, Domingo Ankuash of CONFENIAE asserts that "this constitution does not provide a complete territorial guarantee. Why not approve [prior] consent? Because there is gold, there is oil, and they want to rob all of it." According to the president of ECUARUNARI, which favors a yes vote, "we are not going to permit the extractive model. It's one thing to not oppose investment and development, and another thing to not oppose it if it is going to affect the [indigenous] territories."

Pedro de la Cruz from FENOCIN defends the constitution saying, "one article could be considered [to favor the extractive model], but the majority of the constitution is focused on the relationship between mother nature and sumak kawsay."

With more than 90 percent of the votes counted, over 64 percent of Ecuadorians who cast a ballot have voted in favor of the text put forward by President Rafael Correa.


CONAIE WAS founded in 1986 from a merger of different indigenous organizations. CONAIE consolidated itself as a political force in the uprising against president Rodrigo Borja in 1990. In 1996, it created a political wing called the Pachakutik Movement, becoming the third biggest party in Congress in this same year. Beginning in 1997, it participated in mobilizations that brought down several presidents. That same year it intervened in the mass marches that demanded and won a Constituent Assembly in 1998.

In 1999, CONAIE called an uprising ("The Occupation of Quito") against the neo-liberal policies of president Jamil Mahuad. Its alliances with sections of the military, both in the coup d'etat in 2000 and with Col. Lucio Gutiérrez in the 2002 elections were met with allegations of "betrayals," beginning a process of internal division.

In March of 2006, CONAIE called an uprising against the Free Trade Agreement and for a new Constituent Assembly. A mass encampment of 10,000 indigenous people in Quito in October of 2007 was convened to show its commitment to winning its goals.

According to Mónica Chuji of Alianza País, "sumak kawsay, goes beyond the simple [constitutional] translation of 'good living,' to mean a full life, a harmonious life, and respect for human rights...It is important that expression is being given to concepts born of the worldview from a sector of society that has been developing proposals for Ecuador's people for two decades."

Although, as Humberto Cholango of ECUARUNARI maintains, "I don't know where the social, economic and political actors will all come from [to put this into practice]." This philosophy, according to Marlon Santi of CONAIE, "has given expression to including Mother Earth, the Pachamama (an indigenous deity of the Earth or the universe), as a subject with rights."

For Cholanga, "good living" presupposes that "human beings do not live in competition: the model of sumak kawsay is an alternative to the neoliberal model."

José Gualinga, long-time leader of the kichwa community of Sarayuka, adds that "our development project is sumak kawsay, an understanding that there is a mutual dependence between ourselves and nature...Because good living is the height of development. In reality, what is progress? Nature has already developed everything, you don't have to cut down trees to sow seeds."

This article was originally published by the Correspondencia de Prensa-Agenda Radical electronic news service. It is republished here with permission.

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