Tuesday, March 2, 2021
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Silence, fear and coercion
Luis Ángel Saavedra*
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Government implements new ways to criminalize and control social protest.

The Ecuadorian government has decided to confront the social organizations opposed to its political project by taking the organizations’ leaders to court to imprison them or restrain them with indefinite trials in order to silence them. Likewise, the government seeks to close down the organizations through a decree that threatens their stability and limits their activities. The organizations, meanwhile, have not yet defined their strategies for dealing with the government threats, but there are looming options for social unity that concern the government.
In 2008, the Constituent Assembly granted amnesty to more than 360 people whose trials were related to protests and acts of resistance. All of these trials began before the government of Rafael Correa, who started his first term in 2007.

In 2011, the Ombudsman’s Office of Ecuador, led at the time by Fernando Gutiérrez, issued a report which found that the practice of criminalizing social protest continued in the government, for it showed the existence of 21 new cases between 2008 and 2010. The new Ombudsman, Ramiro Rivadeneira, who is aligned with the government and who took office in late 2011, chose to cast into oblivion his predecessor’s report, citing methodological errors.

Since then, the government has lashed out in various ways against the organizations and the social protest. Salvador Quishpe, indigenous leader and prefect of the province of Zamora Chinchipe, in the southern Amazon, summarizes these new ways of lashing out, citing the control of the media; control of the poorest social sector through monthly installment of US$50, which is called “human development bonus” and is given to nearly two million people; the division of social organizations and associations; cooption of community leaders with job offers; and finally, the initiation of trials against those not docile enough for the government.

“Since you refuse to submit yourself, now you’ll go to trial,” says Quishpe while analyzing the ciminalization of social leaders.
Harassment of social organizations
Ecuadorian social organizations have slowly moved away from government influence and have began to take actions of opposition, such as the demonstrations of September and November 2014 in which they rejected, among other things, the labor reforms that restrict workers’ rights, the enforcement of Decree 16, issued in June 2013, which controls social organization, restrictions on freedom of expression and the criminalization of social protest.

Last Mar. 19, social movements staged another day of protest in nine cities. In addition to those issues already raised, women’s groups joined to reject the new sex education policy that is based on morality and abstinence, and other consumer groups affected by the new tariffs on imports also joined.

Decree 16 violates the right to freedom of association by requiring a series of reports with which the government can know about the actions and thoughts of organizations.

“The entire state apparatus is controlled by an authoritarian government to shut down social organizations; they want to force us to report on each assembly, each meeting; say what resources [we have], what we have invested, who has given [the resources]. That is, they want a source of information that violates the right to free association,” said Nina Pacari, an historical leader of the indigenous movement, to Latinamerica Press, in regards to the requirements under Decree 16 for an organization to exist.

For his part, the current president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE), Jorge Herrera, expressed his concern about the use of this decree to close indigenous organizations down.

“Decree 16 is a measure that has caused unease within our organizations; it is a measure of bad faith that violates the constitutional framework,” says Herrera.

Within the context of the People’s Summit held in Quito on March 5 and 6, the CONAIE staged a march toward the National Assembly and the Constitutional Court to demand the repeal of the decree.

“We have made a claim of unconstitutionality but so far the judges are asleep and have not responded in regards to this request,” says Herrera. The CONAIE’s demand is the fourth claim of unconstitutionality that Ecuadorian social organizations have filed in regards to Decree 16 and that has not been processed by the Constitutional Court.

So far Decree 16 has been the basis for the December 2013 closure of the Fundación Pachamama, non-governmental organization in defense of the environment. It is feared that the decree will also be the basis for the dismantling of the CONAIE as the General Comptroller of the State is demanding a number of documents and reports that go beyond the powers of the Comptroller and that seek to control activities and private decisions of an organization. 
Threats and trials
The forms of social control and criminalization of protests that Quishpe has referred, has resulted in the silence of many organizations, some of which are linked to the government through economic agreements. Others are fearful of speaking out to avoid becoming vulnerable to possible closure.

Moreover, many leaders have also become silent. “They are threatened with a trial and many avoid comment publicly on the government. Also there are death threats,” says Marlos Santi, former president of CONAIE, to Latinamerica Press.

Indeed, in recent months social leaders, accused of sabotage and terrorism, have been arrested and sentenced, as in the case of campesino leader Javier Ramírez, who was released on Feb, 10 after spending 10 months in prison, or the case of Manuel Molina, another campesino leader detained for four months after being accused of the same crimes. For these same crimes, the government seeks to arrest Mery Zamora, teacher and former leader of the National Union of Educators, despite having already been acquitted of the charges against her. At the request of the President, the Attorney General’s Office asked the Constitutional Court to annul the acquittal the National Court granted to Zamora.

Ramírez was arrested after participating in a meeting with the Ministry of the Interior which he had attended to ratify the decision of the people of Intag, in the north of the country, to oppose mining. After his arrest, the National Mining Company entered Intag and now is a divided population, without the power that once allowed them to stop mining activities in their territories for over 20 years.

Arrested on July 9, 2014, Molina is accused of sabotage and terrorism for participating in a protest against the water law in 2009. Molina had no legal defense for three months because he was advised to “not make a fuss.” He was finally released on Dec. 4 of last year. Molina’s case shows another government strategy that is to initiate lawsuits and keep them open to use when a leader attempts to participate in a new protest.

Other open trials can also buy the silence of organizations, especially when these have maintained agreements with the government that have not been successfully fulfilled. Some organizations, especially indigenous organizations, that wished to participate in the March 19 protests, had to desist from doing so because were  activated pending lawsuits from some years ago for failing to comply with the agreements signed with state institutions of this and previous governments.
Almost nonexistent options
The social movement’s options for resistance are few because the government’s control leaves few opportunities for participation. This has caused those from the left and right to begin discussing ways of restoring autonomy to state institutions, especially to justice agencies and the electorate.

The talks the indigenous movements have with right-wing leaders have put them in the eye of controversy. This is used by the government to discredit the indigenous leadership and to plan for the formation of a new indigenous organization that brings together indigenous people who in the past were also questioned for their actions, as is the case of Antonio Vargas, Miguel Lluco or Delia Caguano.

In this scenario, social mobilization is presented as the only form of political participation that can return social movements their previous strength and capacity of advocacy.
—Latinamerica Press.


Javier Ramirez, campesino leader arrested for fighting against mining, on the day of his release after 10 months in prison. (Photo: Jessica Matute)
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Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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