In extracts from a wide-ranging interview with Paul Gottinger, for White Rose Reader, US academic Mark Becker, who studies indigenous movements in Latin America, discusses the relationship between President Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s indigenous communities and different sectors of the country’s left. The interview took place before the February 17 elections which returned Correa to power with a large majority.

Paul Gottinger: In the US Rafael Correa is portrayed as a leftist, but in Ecuador some of the Indigenous movements and other leftist social forces accuse him of implementing neoliberal policies.  How would you characterize his policies?

Mark Becker: I’ve long worked with leftist indigenous movements in Latin America, so in a lot of these issues I follow along with their interpretations. But, calling Rafael Correa a neoliberal is maybe an overstatement, or a bit polemical.  A better question is whether he has completely broken from the neoliberal patterns. Correa presents himself as a leftist and the question here is what exactly does he mean by that. A concern here is that he comes out of a technocratic, academic, pragmatic left, rather than a social movement-left. This is a distinction that some activists make.  The electoral-left versus a social movement-left.

PG: How does Correa balance his image as a leftist when he has tried to implement water privatization and continues with oil exploration, mining and other policies similar to those of Ecuador’s previous presidents? And how do these policies affect his relationship with the indigenous communities and movements?

Correa with indigenous peopleMB: There are two different visions, that go back for decades, and there is this indigenous critique that says the left is part of the same old European forms of modernization that inform capitalism. Correa is very much in that line.  He embraces an extractivist-modernization-type of mentality. Part of the problem you’re seeing in Ecuador is that this contradicts directly what was codified in the 2008 constitution, which was supposed to incorporate indigenous sensibilities. This is particularly true in terms of plurinationalism and sumak kawsay (the good life). This is supposed to incorporate alternative visions of development and Correa wants to see those exclusively as symbolic statements rather than something that will be operationalized. That’s the problem we’re seeing with the indigenous movements. They don’t see this as something symbolic, but something that needs to be operationalized and put into practice.

PG: Are many of the indigenous movements anti-development?

MB: They would not say that and their allies would not say that. The difference is talking about what is and what is not sustainable.  One place where this really struck me was at the world social forum in 2005 in Porto Alegre, Brazil.  Hugo Chavez came and he gave a talk where for the first time he defined himself as a socialist. He said he have two paths that we can follow, socialism or death.  If we continue to follow along the capitalist framework we will destroy the planet. The planet cannot sustain this extractivist, commodity based, development-at-all-cost mentality. It will lead to death. The other option is to look for more sustainable ways of surviving.

Chavez defined the sustainable path with socialism. He’s saying we need to figure out a better way to survive on this planet or we will destroy the planet and human life as we know it. The indigenous critique is of this development-at-all-costs model that the Chinese and Correa are following. So, its not an anti-moderization, anti-development mentality… That’s what the sumak kawsay is about. It’s saying how can we develop in a sustainable way.

That’s really the debate that is going on in Ecuador around mineral and petroleum extraction and water usages. Is there alternative ways to pursue these issues in a way that is sustainable and benefits everybody? Rather than saying we are going to modernize our country even if it ends up destroying it, which is what the indigenous left accuses Correa of following.

PG: How do you see Correa’s relationship to the non-indigenous left in Ecuador?  Is it substantially different from his relationship with the indigenous left?

MB: The people who seem to be most opposed to Correa’s policies are what I would call the ‘center-left’. A social democratic-left or moderate-left.  For the most part I would group most indigenous movements in to that category. I think it’s a mistake to see the indigenous movements as separate from the broader political phenomena in Latin America. That’s for a variety of reasons. They are indigenous movements—and I use the plural intentionally because the indigenous movements are not homogenous—there are multiple positions here.

So, there’s not really a [single] indigenous position. In the upcoming elections on February 17 there are these conservative, evangelical indigenous communities that will probably vote heavily for Lucio Gutierrez the more conservative candidate, or what I would characterize as the neoliberal candidate. There are also other wings of the indigenous movement, particularly in the Amazon, that would be characterized as anti-modernization and anti-development left.

In the groups that I work with there’s a dominant centre-left position that is looking for how to develop Ecuador along the lines that benefit all of Ecuador and not just the indigenous movements. In many ways the argument would be that we’re not doing this just for indigenous peoples, or even just Ecuador, but we’re doing this for the world as a whole. The indigenous movements there have become some of the strongest opposition [to Correa] from the left because they have historically been the best-organized sectors of Ecuador.

There are also the remnants of what I would call a Stalinist-left. That strongly supports Correa and these are people who are Stalinists in the sense that they are advocating for strong government structures as a way to solve problems. Correa is providing, really for the first time, an example of somebody that is making strong use of government structures in order to improve society.  A lot of his support comes from that part of the left.

Then there is another part, which I could call the technocratic-left, NGO-left, academic-left.  I wouldn’t say a lot of these people are ideologically committed to a leftist agenda. They’re more a group of people who are technocrats that are taking advantage of the government that’s currently in power in order to position themselves into positions of power.  Some of these people who have positions of power in Correa’s government have long been in government and have worked with previous neoliberal governments.  This is where Correa comes from.  He’s never been part of the leftist political party, he’s never been an activist, or involved in social struggles.  He has the outlook of ‘how can we solve problems with technocratic solutions?’

The left that is opposing the Stalinist and technocratic-left is a social movement-left that is more committed to a participatory left.  They are committed to trying to mobilize people and involve people in political processes. Some people see them as more of an anarchistic-left because of their opposition to strong state structures and opposition to authoritarianism.  I don’t think in the Ecuadorian case it’s really proper to characterize this segment of the left in that way. There are some anarchistic tendencies there, but for the most part it’s not really an anarchistic model similar to the Zapatistas in Chiapas. The influences and ideas are a little bit different. […]

PG: What’s your guess at how Correa sees the indigenous movements and the social forces to his left?

MB: The Correa administration occupies political and social spaces that indigenous movements previously occupied.  He appears to view them as a political opponent. He sees it as something to combat.  If you look at this as part of a broader phenomenon its not at all unique. For example, in Chiapas, Mexico there was a struggle between  subcomandante Marcos and Bishop Ruiz over who was going to lead the masses. There’s a competition there. It’s not exactly the same as in Ecuador, but it is a similar type of dynamic.

Protest against water privatisationThe question is: are the social movements going to set the agenda, or is Correa going to set the agenda? In some ways Correa seems to see it as a zero sum game.  I don’t think it is the best way to see it.  In the 2006 election when Correa won, Pachakutik (the indigenous party) pulled 2%. This time [the interview took place before the February 17 election, but detailed results have not yet been published] it looks like they’re on line to pull maybe about 5%. Correa says: this is an insignificant percentage of the population and I don’t need to bring it into my coalition as an electoral calculation to gain power.  In fact, my colleagues in Ecuador say that since Correa was elected there’s been an increase of racist incidents and racism in general.

This is a phenomenon we see elsewhere, like Colombia for example. The indigenous movements are so well-organized that they gain political space that exceeds their numerical representation in the country. In  Ecuador there is a certain amount of resentment by non-indigenous of indigenous for gaining political power and political space. It appears that Correa plays the race card and plays into the latent racist attitudes of the dominant population of white and mestizo people. You see this in Correa’s rhetoric.  He says very nasty things about indigenous people, environmentalists, and what he terms ultra-leftists. He seems to make these statements in order to shore up his electoral support among other sectors of the population. It’s a populist strategy to cement his electoral support rather than mobilizing the population as a social movement. That’s what concerns a lot of us.

PG: Why is the indigenous left so well organized compared to other sectors of the left in Ecuador?

MB: Some of it is a matter of leadership, such as who emerges and who is able to organize a sector of society. Part of it is an economic and social context that provides a situation where you can organize effectively. Part of it is a historical trajectory and momentum.  Part of it is the ability to make effective use of discourse. There have been times where the indigenous movements have made very good use of the nationalist discourse in order to mobilize people.  The nationalist discourse hasn’t been as effective at making structural changes, or addressing class based issues.  One of the reasons why Ecuador’s indigenous movements have been so successful is because they are able to intersect issues of racial discrimination with class oppression. Weaving together multiple issues in a way that imagines another world and that addresses oppression on a variety of levels. So, there’s a series of practical, personal, ideological, and economic conditions that converge and lead to these indigenous organizations.

PG: How have Correa’s policies impacted the urban poor and how have they impacted the rural or indigenous poor?

MB: For the urban poor Correa’s policies have been the best things. I would say Correa is the best president that Ecuador has ever had.  In ways, that says more about the other presidents than about Correa.  In the history of the world I would say there are very few presidents that have made really positive contributions to their societies.  So, it’s important to understand Correa’s policies in this context. A lot of Correa’s policies have resulted in demonstrable improvements for the urban poor. There are a couple criticisms though.

One is that there is human development bond, which is like welfare payments. This was recently increased from $35 dollars a month to $50. The social movement-left says: this is nothing more than neoliberalism. This is just handouts rather than dealing with structural problems in society. These types of polices play really well in terms of bringing the urban poor into Correa’s coalition.  The social movement-left criticizes this as being a populist strategy.  This is a broader theme in Latin America where there is historically a lot of tension between populists and Marxists. The populists are appealing to the economic interests of the population that seemingly should provide the base of support for a Marxist class based movement.  But, the populists use this rhetoric to supplant this.

In Ecuador this has historically been a problem.  Correa has been far better about this than past populists at using this discourse, these handouts, and these policies in order to mobilize the electoral base. This is in contrast to past presidents never doing anything to actually benefit the people.  I think this is some of Correa’s longevity. He actually follows through on welfare payments to the lower classes. While poverty rates, inequality, extreme poverty, illiteracy, all of these socio-economic indicators are moving in very positive directions in terms of the urban poor. But, Correa’s policies are not having that impact among the rural poor.  One interpretation is that Correa isn’t interested in the rural poor because they provided the base of support for the indigenous movements. These are his political opponents, so why cater to them.  Some people say it’s because of the demographic shift and this is electoral calculation. In Ecuador, as is the rest of the world, is becoming increasingly urbanized, so rural issues like agrarian reform don’t have the electoral importance that they previously had. The most recent numbers I’ve seen indicate that the socio-economic indicators are improving in the countryside, while initially they were going backwards. So, there may have been a lag there.

PG: How have indigenous and general left protests moved Correa’s policies to the left and what has been Correa’s response to the protests?

MB: For me this is really a key issue. This is something that indigenous and social movements across Latin America have faced.  About 5 years ago the thinking really shifted. If we look back at the neoliberal 90s the social movements always provided the check against neoliberal policies. We see this in Ecuador where these social movements have pulled down governments that were ruling against their class interests. But, the problem is if you pull down a government that ruled against your class interest and you don’t have a positive alternative to implement, then a new neoliberal government comes into place. This is what dragged social movements into the electoral realm. There was a need to create a positive concrete alternative.

In the era of guerrilla warfare this wasn’t an issue. For instance, in the Cuban revolution they organized a guerrilla war and overthrew the government and put themselves in power, but social movements aren’t able to do that because they’re not organized along that type of structure. About 5 years ago there emerged a common slogan in the indigenous movements across the entire continent, which was ‘From Protest to Proposal’. It was this idea that we’re no longer protesting policies we disagree with, but we’re putting forward concrete proposals. That’s been driving this.

The social movements have provided checks on implementing policy. If it weren’t for the social movements the Correa administration would be farther right. In that way their results are positive. But, to take an entirely different example there has been languishing in the congress for two years or three years now a law to reform the media system, which would open up more space for community media. But, the legislation never gets passed… Community media, in terms of creating participatory governance, is something that Ecuador is really missing and the social movements are pushing for it. This is part of the problem with Correa.  He would have to give up control and he’s not willing to give up that type of control over those structures…

The full interview can be read here.