Protests, Proposals, and Tactical Innovation: Social Movements in Ecuador

By Paul Dosh

In Benjamin Dangl’s 2010 book Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America, he analyzes the tense interplay between social movements and elected left leaders.  In countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela, we observe a growing trend of presidents elected with major support from social movements, but once in office, both movement and the president awkwardly struggle to master unfamiliar roles on this new dance floor.  Presidents accustomed to taking uncompromising stances abruptly find themselves in pursuit of re-election, and the choices they make alienate segments of the base that elected them. 

Ecuador, under President Rafael Correa, illustrates this regional trend.  Elected in 2006, and re-elected in 2009 and again in 2013, Correa got off to an awkward start in his efforts to court Ecuador’s powerful Indigenous movements.  In 2005, Correa showed up uninvited at a national congress of the Pachakutik Movement for Plurinational Unity—Ecuador’s major center-left Indigenous party.  Correa gave a speech in the Kichwa language, but Pachakutik leaders saw his actions as a folklorization of their concerns and responded harshly—in English (Becker 2012: 105).

Despite this misstep, Correa secured and benefited from Indigenous support, but just a year later, that support began to erode, with former allies decrying him as a neoliberal “extractivist” leader focused on exploiting the Earth’s resources rather than caretaking those resources for future generations.  Critics noted that Correa’s firm anti-neoliberal campaign rhetoric had been replaced by talk of a socially responsible mining sector whose profits would be deployed to end the nation’s long dependence on extractive industry.

Increasingly, Correa’s supporters reacted negatively to this shift.  For example, Monica Chuji, an Indigenous leader who served as Correa’s communications secretary from 2006-2007, broke with his administration in order to work with more progressive and pro-Indigenous sectors of the 2008 Constituent Assembly (Dosh, Kligerman, Lerager, Valencia, and Flores 2010).  Chuji was one of many Indigenous appointees and administration members to defect from the Correa camp over the subsequent years.  Relations so deteriorated that, by 2011, Correa’s government had charged nearly 200 Indigenous activists with terrorism and sabotage and had imprisoned at least eight on similar charges (Becker 2012: Epilogue).

Observing movements in this era, we frequently still see common tactics of disruption, such as the January 2009 mass mobilizations, when tens of thousands marched in Quito, Cuenca, the Amazon, and on the coast in protest of Correa’s new Mining Law (Zibechi 2009).  And sometimes these mobilizations display a creative spark, such as at the April 2013 mineral and oil sector trade fair at the Quito Exhibition Center, where 30 protesters belted out a popular Puerto Rican hip-hop song, but with alternative lyrics emphasizing Ecuadoran communities threatened by mining (WW4 Report 2013).  But it remains relatively uncommon to see highly original tactics, such as those deployed by the settlers of Itchimbía, in downtown Quito, who in 1996 fended off security forces by burying neighborhood leaders up to their necks in the access road; police vehicles were greeted by “buried alive” settlers and signs that read: “You can drive in, but you’ll have to go over us” (author’s translation) (Dosh 2009: 100).

Although social movement continue to often rely on a standard repertoire of protest tactics, movement objectives have evolved considerably.  During the Correa period, for example, Ecuador’s Indigenous movements have made steady efforts to advance concrete policy proposals.  As in other Latin American nations, this represents a shift from the practices of the 1980s and 1990s when, although proposals were sometimes sketched out, the emphasis was on rejecting neoliberalism, rather than promoting an alternative.  The 2000s, however, were a period of diminished U.S. intervention in Latin America.  U.S. imperialism certainly did not go away, but the Bush-Cheney wars in Afghanistan and Iraq put Latin America on the backburner for many of Washington’s foreign policy heavy hitters, creating both space for Latin America’s electoral Left to grow in stature and space for the region’s social movements to develop policy proposal skills.

In Ecuador, this trend became prominent in 2008, when social movements flexed their muscles to shape important segments of the new 444-article Constitution.  Since 2009, Correa’s dominance of the political arena has relegated movements to less visible positions in the policymaking process, but many movement activists had gotten a taste of the legislative process through the Constituent Assembly, and we continue to see the impact of that play out as some of them run for office at lower levels and others become more effective at lobbying officials.

Such policy initiatives, of course, are often stymied.  In an interview, Marc Becker (Gottinger 2013) describes efforts to reform Ecuador’s media system to open up more space for community media.  But the proposed legislation languishes in committee.  Social movements require a diversified media that includes not only private and state media, but also community media, but Correa has resisted such changes, which would diminish his administration’s control of communication channels.

Looking to the future, I hope to see additional tactical innovation, like the Itchimbía example mentioned above.  Although their tools were humble—shovels, a simple sign, and courage—the extreme originality of their tactics drew international attention and, in that case, put a permanent stop to repeated attempts by security forces to evict the settlers.  Conventional tactics remain important, since they are easy for potential participants to understand and then choose to join in, but in my own studies of urban popular movements in Ecuador and elsewhere, highly original tactics emerge as often the most successful, and given the positive trend of movements focusing on crafting and advancing policies, rather than simply rejecting a neoliberal status quo, the need for such tactical successes remains urgent.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Latin American Movements

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