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Indigenous politicians face dilemma
2/11/2003
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Cabinet members walk a tightrope between controversial economic policies and grassroots support.

Inclusion in President Lucio Gutiérrez’s Cabinet marked a milestone for Ecuador’s indigenous movement, but the government’s first economic measures have sparked criticism from indigenous organizations and other grassroots groups.

The measures, including a 39-percent increase in fuel prices and a subsequent 25-percent hike in bus fares, were reminiscent of adjustments imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (LP, Jan. 29, 2003), which have been strongly criticized by indigenous and grassroots leaders.

While pressure from the indigenous Cabinet members forced Gutiérrez to backpedal on some of the anounced measures, such as an increase in the price of bottled cooking gas from US$1.60 to $5.60, they had to accept the rest.

"We have said that if the price of gas rises, those who are poorest will be most affected, and we will have to take sides," said Miguel Lluco, who heads the Pachakutik Pluricultural Movement. Pachakutik, which aligned with Gutiérrez’s Patriotic Society Party in the Oct. 20 election (LP, Dec. 2, 2002), is the political arm of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE).

Pachakutik Deputy Ricardo Ulcuango defended the government’s position, although he said he did not agree with all the measures.

"We are an alliance. Sometimes we’ll agree and sometimes we’ll disagree. Besides the measures that affect the poor, others have been taken that affect the rich," said Ulcuango, referring to a new tax on luxury cars, a 20-percent cut in government salaries exceeding $1,000 a month and the requirement that banks obtain liquidity insurance to avoid situations like the financial crisis of 1999 (LP, April 26, 1999).

Indigenous groups, however, threatened massive protests. "If they follow those policies, there will be an uprising from the grassroots," said former CONAIE president Antonio Vargas. Last year, Vargas rejected CONAIE’s decision to support Gutiérrez in the elections and ran as the presidential candidate of indigenous groups not aligned with CONAIE, including the Federation of Evangelical Indigenous People of Ecuador (FEINE) (LP, Oct. 21, 2002).

Meanwhile, CONAIE continued to use its influence in the government in an effort to avoid further economic measures that could affect low-income Ecuadorans. Fifty-six percent of the overall population and more than 80 percent of indigenous Ecuadorans live in poverty.

While many predict that CONAIE will be unable to modify the policy designed by an economic team headed by neoliberals and will eventually break with Gutiérrez, others say the confederation is far from declaring defeat.

"It’s more likely that [Economy Minister Mauricio] Pozo, a mestizo, will give up than that the indigenous people will let themselves be defeated," political analyst Javier Ponce said. "They’re great negotiators — they negotiated with the colonial elite, they negotiated with the political elites. They are very patient and they take advantage of opportunities. That’s what they’ll do in this government."

The contradictions within the Patriotic Society-Pachakutik alliance became evident after Gutiérrez’s victory in October. His statements on economic policy made it clear that he would not follow the indigenous groups’ call to veer away from the neoliberal model followed by the administration of former President Gustavo Noboa (2000-03).

One of the first signs of the indigenous movement’s new-found power was the appointment of two of its best-known leaders, Luis Macas and former Deputy Nina Pacari, as ministers of agriculture and foreign relations, respectively.

Macas, a member of the Saraguro community in southern Ecuador, was a leader of the indigenous protests in 1990 and has been involved in the fight for land titles and designation of indigenous territories. He is considered a leftist ideologue and one of CONAIE’s key political strategists. "Macas has gone into the lion’s den," CONAIE adviser Patricio Morales said of the task facing Macas in a ministry dominated by large landowners and agricultural exporters.

The Ministry of Agriculture has historically tended to favor large agricultural producers and exporters, especially in the highlands, channeling funds to them from the National Development Bank, which currently has $120 million in bad loans. Ministry officials have paid little attention to agricultural activities that affect indigenous territories or the health of neighboring communities, such as the clearing of forests for shrimp and palm farms on the coast, and pesticide contamination from flower and exotic fruit plantations in the northern highlands.

Pacari, a native of the Otavalo area and the first woman to head the Foreign Relations Ministry, also faces an uphill battle in a post historically held by upper-class Ecuadorans.

"The Foreign Relations Ministry has been occupied by the heirs of the colonial counts and viscounts. The fact that an indigenous woman has arrived is going to shake things up. In the end, those who have a ‘purity’ complex will have to accept that this is a diverse, mestizo country," said writer Marco Antonio Rodríguez, secretary general of the Ecuadoran House of Culture.

"My race isn’t willing to just be part of the chorus," Pacari said of her appointment.

One issue that Pacari must face immediately is the agreement allowing US troops to use the Manta Naval Base for anti-drug operations. "We will respect the agreement and work to ensure that the activities remain strictly within the framework of the agreement," Pacari said. The indigenous movement has protested the agreement since before it was signed in March 1999, arguing that the United States considers Manta as a beachhead for extending its influence in Latin America and stopping the northward flow of emigrants.

Pacari will also have to deal with negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). That accord has been sharply criticized by indigenous organizations, who claim it jeopardizes Ecuador’s food security and economic sovereignty (LP, Dec. 2, 2002). "We will negotiate as producers, not as consumers," Pacari said of US efforts to gain unrestricted access to markets in the region.

 


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