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Historic challenge for CONAIE
Luis Ángel Saavedra*
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Government is decided on dismantling the main Ecuadorian indigenous organization.

The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) faces one of the biggest challenges in its 30 years of life. Now at risk is not only its existence but also its legitimacy as the main organization representing the indigenous movement as the government attempts to dismantle the organization and create another one compatible with its political project.

The CONAIE, created in 1986 after a long process of organization by the communities of various indigenous nationalities of Ecuador, encapsulates not only the voice and thoughts of these people, but also the struggles in defense of human rights, collective rights and the rights of nature that have developed in the country.

In 1990, during the first indigenous uprising, CONAIE became a strong political actor that questioned not only the economic development model based on the neoliberal scheme, but the very structure of the state. CONAIE categorized the state as “monocultural” because, in the attempt to build government around Western logic, the state was unable to incorporate the diverse forms of political and organizational life that survived within indigenous communities.

“One difference between the West and us is that Western states look at Mother Earth as an inexhaustible source of resource, and we see Mother Earth from a spiritual point of view and see her as a living being,” said Luis Macas, one of the first CONAIE indigenous leaders, in a conference for indigenous youth organized by the German Alliance last November. This conference occurred days before the national government ordered the indigenous movement to vacate the headquarters it had since 1991 in a building owned by the Ministry of Social and Economic Inclusion.

The various governments have seen how CONAIE had the capacity to mobilize tens of thousands of indigenous people to slow the progress of neoliberalism, both in economic issues, such as through the opposition to sign the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) — initiative launched by the US in the mid-90s and that collapsed in 2005 after the IV Summit of the Americas held in Mar del Plata, Argentina — or from foreign military intervention, such as when CONAIE spoke out against the installation of a US military base in the Ecuadorian port of Manta in December 1999, days after the government of Jamil Mahuad (1998-2000) signed that agreement with the United States. Former presidents Abdala Bucaram (1996-97), Mahuad and Lucio Gutiérrez (2003-2005) saw how the strength of indigenous mobilization led to their deposition.
Correa betrays the indigenous movement
Rafael Correa, who became president in 2007 with a leftist discourse and who is in his third consecutive term, was aware of the indigenous force. He initially used this force to consolidate power using diversity and plurinationality propaganda as the foundation of his government, but then he took a radical turn and the indigenous movement became his main political enemy.

“Interculturality and plurinationality disappeared from the national agenda. The indigenous organizations were seen as corporations, without understanding their historical origins. The idea of passive citizens demonized social movements and crushed the differentiated rights of indigenous peoples and their organizations; they were called enemies, childish, rightists and even bourgeois,” said Galo Ramón, indigenous intellectual and university professor, in a letter in support of CONAIE sent after the eviction notice.

Indeed, the indigenous movement and its leaders became the target of weekly insults by Correa in his radio program “Enlace Ciudadano” (Citizen Link). The president began to call CONAIE, characterized by its struggles against neoliberalism, an ally of the radical right in order to alienate their supporters in close organizations and to confuse indigenous bases.

But the onslaught against CONAIE was not limited to weekly insults. Correa began to split organizations, to classify indigenous people as good or bad depending on their affinity for the government. The indigenous institutions were dismantled, and eventually they were asked to leave the building that, 25 years ago, the government of former President Rodrigo Borja (1988-92), had loaned them as an act of recognition of their political existence and as compensation for previously disregarding them.

“None of the previous governments, labeled as neoliberal by President Correa himself, had tried to deny the political significance of CONAIE,” says Nina Pacari, another historic leader of CONAIE. “Ironically, a government that claims to be from the left is causing the greatest damage to the indigenous movement.”

Correa’s final decision against the indigenous movement, to take away their headquarters, aroused anger among the president’s supporters, organizations and intellectuals who had supported him in the past.

“Mr. President, know that in expelling the CONAIE from its headquarters, you are driving away a lot more people who had even disagreed with certain CONAIE options in the past. And, above all, know that the homeless are today a very strong movement in our continent. The CONAIE homeless will get people talking and will continue making history,” said Brazilian intellectual Boaventura de Sousa Santos, in a letter to Correa in which he rejects Correa’s conduct.

Parallel indigenous organization
The legal actions taken by CONAIE and its allied organizations to stop the eviction and the solidarity shown to the indigenous movement, including from prominent members of the ruling party such as representatives Virgilio Hernández, Miguel Carvajal and María Augusta Calle, have not been able to change Correa’s decision to dismantle the indigenous movement. On one hand, the president has confirmed his decision to evict the CONIAE from its headquarters and, on the other hand, he has launched a campaign to create his own indigenous organization, which would be called “Indigenous Alliance for Citizen Revolution.”

For his part, Pacari is not worried about this new government action. “Others have also wanted to do the same. Lucio Gutiérrez and his Minister of Social Welfare, Bolívar González, tried and were overthrown,” she says.

Even when the CONAIE was created in 1986, then-President Leon Febres Cordero (1984-88) attempted, but failed, to create an indigenous organization within the Ministry of Social Welfare. Yet, the situation now is different because the government officials who wanted to create a parallel organization in the past had tried to do so with leaders who did not have much legitimacy. Correa, however, has within his ranks historical leaders of the indigenous movement, such as Carlos Viteri, now a representative for the government movement Alianza PAIS and who was the architect of the first indigenous uprising that began in the Amazon in 1990, or Ricardo Ulcuango, former leader of the Kichwa Confederation of Ecuador (ECUARUNARI) and now an ambassador in Bolivia. Also among Correa’s allies are Pedro de la Cruz, historical leader of the National Confederation of Peasant, Indigenous, and Black Organizations (FENOCIN), Mariano Curicama, indigenous leader from the central highlands, Lourdes Alta Lima, ruling councilwoman in the indigenous county of Otavalo with influence in the north of the country, and others who maintain leadership in large indigenous sectors.

Although CONAIE leaders have called those indigenous leaders who are allied with the government “felipillos,” referring to the indigenous man who served as Gonzalo Pizarro’s translator during the conquest of America, the action of those leaders linked to the government can bring problems to CONAIE. Even the current president of CONAIE, the Kichwa leader of Cotopaxi, Jorge Herrera, admitted in an interview on Dec. 23 with the government-allied newspaper El Telégrafo, that his organization has lost 40 percent of its members, which is a danger that CONAIE should carefully asses.
— Latinamerica Press.


CONAIE protest on Jan. 6 the presidential order to vacate its headquarters. (Photo: Jessica Matute)
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Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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