On 10 August 1979, after 10 years of military dictatorship, Jaime Roldós was sworn in as Ecuador’s elected President. He made his first speech to the National Congress in Kichwa, the main indigenous language. Politicians and landowners never forgave him, despite the use of indigenous icons - such as Rumiñahui, who led the fiercest resistance against the Spanish conquest - for patriotic purposes. Roldós died in suspicious circumstances - an air crash - in May 1981.
In 1982 his successor, Oswaldo Hurtado, wore the presidential sash with words written in Shuar, another indigenous language, when he gave his end-of-year report to Congress - and faced a political trial for doing so.
Ingrained racism among the white élite made it hard to accept the country’s multicultural reality. Anything ‘Indian’ was an insult, synonymous with slavery and ignorance: ‘Indian shit’, ‘Indian porter’, ‘to play the Indian’ (act stupid) are terms found in many editions of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language Dictionary. They are still used to degrade the indigenous peoples of the South American continent, or Abya Yala as many now prefer to call it.
‘I used to cry when I was called “Indian”, as I wasn’t raised as an indigenous person. As an adult I had to struggle to recover my own language and cultural heritage,’ recalls José Yungán, a leader of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE).1
In June 1990 the established political order was shocked out of its complacency when thousands of indigenous people held their first national uprising, including roadblocks throughout the Andes and a march in Quito, the seat of political power.
‘1990 was not the beginning of a process, but rather the conclusion of a long and drawn-out first stage of their struggle for autonomy, identity and respect,’ says sociologist Alejandro Moreano.
Until then, indigenous political demands had been channelled through established political parties and enlightened sections of different churches. They played an important role in guiding indigenous leaders and helping to form indigenous organizations, such as the Ecuadorian Federation of Indians (FEI), founded in the 1930s by the Communist Party, and the Shuar People’s Federation, established with the help of missionaries in the Amazon.
The 1990 uprising was also a moment for the recovery of indigenous history. In the 1930s Dolores Cacuango founded four indigenous bilingual schools where children could write in their own language. She coined the legendary cry: ‘We are like moorland grass that grows again after it has been uprooted, and from this grass we shall sow the world.’
Cacuango was a leader of the FEI, as was another Kichwa leader, Tránsito Amaguaña, who founded the first indigenous agricultural workers’ union and led the first indigenous peasant strike in 1944. Now in her nineties, ‘Mama Tránsito’ still has the strength to browbeat younger leaders who don’t fulfil their people’s mandates.
Throughout the 1990s the indigenous movement grew in political strength and influence. For the first time other Ecuadorians began to learn directly from the actors themselves, not from those who had spoken on their behalf.
‘They misrepresented our ways, they didn’t understand our philosophy. “Solidarity, complementarity and reciprocity” is more than just a slogan - it’s our economic system,’ says Rodrigo Collaguazo, a leader of CONFEUNASC, the campesino social-security union. ‘Ama shua, ama quilla, ama llulla (don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t be lazy) are our guiding principles.’
In economic terms, ‘solidarity’ means helping those who have less. ‘Complementarity’ assumes that production is both a common right and a duty, so that communities cover shortfalls and distribute surpluses. ‘Reciprocity’ equates to: ‘Today for you, tomorrow for me.’ These three principles underlie one of the Andean people’s greatest strengths: the minga, communal work such as harvesting or building an irrigation system.
‘Landowners misunderstood the minga,’ continues Collaguazo, ‘they thought of it as free indigenous labour for them - but that’s serfdom. Minga means working together and everyone knowing that they’ll get help when they need it. That’s reciprocity.’
Since 1990 the concept of the minga has been used to bring people from all communities together to change the country. The Pachakutik political movement was founded to contest the 1996 general election, when seven Pachakutik deputies were elected to Congress. The indigenous movement’s real strength was shown in the ousting of two corrupt presidents: Abdala Bucaram in February 1997, and Jamil Mahuad in January 2000.
’We are like moorland grass that grows again after it has been uprooted, and from this grass we shall sow the world’
‘Although we couldn’t form an indigenous government in 2000, we established a precedent: indigenous people are a force capable of attaining political power,’ says Salvador Quishpe, a recently elected Pachakutik deputy.
January and February 2001 witnessed one of the largest and most effective uprisings. It paralyzed many parts of the country and again filled Quito’s streets with indigenous-led marches. This time their demands became those of that large majority of Ecuadorians: the rural and urban poor.
In 2002 the indigenous movement entered the Presidential and general elections. It supported Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez Borbúa who, against all expectations, won the presidency on a radical ticket. His meteoric and contradictory political career was launched by the key role he played in the impromptu alliance that overthrew Jamil Mahuad. Pachakutik2, with its national and local community-based networks, delivered a large proportion of the rural vote that ensured the victory of Colonel Gutiérrez.
Since Gutiérrez assumed the Presidency the indigenous movement has been living through the most complicated moment in its history. Two indigenous leaders, Luis Macas and Nina Pacari, became Ministers, of Agriculture and Foreign Affairs respectively.
Luis Macas belongs to the Saraguro Andean people of southern Ecuador and is one of the key thinkers on the Left of the indigenous movement. He takes over a ministry historically known for catering to the big Andean landowners and the coastal agro-industrial exporters.
Nina Pacari has her work cut out in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As Marco Antonio Rodríguez, of the Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, explains: ‘The Foreign Ministry is where the descendants of colonial counts and viscounts go. The fact that an indigenous person has arrived there as Minister will be a great shock. In the end, those with a complex about “purity” will just have to accept that this country is a diverse one.’
To see two of their foremost leaders in important government positions has generated expectations among the poor and marginalized of Ecuador’s divided society. However, the initial economic measures of the new government have already begun to create concern about the real extent of political clout that Pachakutik and the indigenous movement have over Gutiérrez and his advisers.
The first worrying sign was the economic team, made up of people linked to the country’s traditionally corrupt and inefficient banking system. Within a couple of weeks they had raised fuel prices and public-transport fares - measures that enabled Gutiérrez to borrow $500 million from the IMF. ‘The IMF is not so inflexible or as hard as some believe,’ Gutiérrez assured the international press during a visit to Washington DC. Back in Ecuador, Pachakutik leaders confessed to not having received details of the agreement.
After years of protest against any price hike in fuel and fares, indigenous leaders of Ecuador - like the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela and the PT Workers’ Party in Brazil - now have to juggle with the contradictions facing them in government. They know their decisions could lose the movement legitimacy and the respect it has gained from years of hard, principled struggle. But they also know that this is an historic opportunity to make a change in favour of all of Latin America’s poor and marginalized peoples.
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