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2000-01-25

Ecuador’s Indigenous Say They Were Betrayed by Army After Coup

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Ecuador’s largest indigenous organization, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), has accused the Ecuadorian military of betraying them after thousands of indigenous people and a group of mid-level military officers took over the country’s congress and overthrew its president. [includes rush transcript]

The nonviolent coup ousted President Jamil Mahuad and briefly installed a three-member junta known as the "Junta for National Salvation," which included an indigenous leader, a former president of the supreme court and an army colonel.

However, that junta was removed when the military backed Vice President Gustavo Noboa as the country’s new president. He was sworn in as president on Saturday inside the Ministry of Defense.

CONAIE, which is an umbrella organization comprising hundreds of indigenous groups around the country, had mobilized throughout the country against Mahuad’s economic policies. The rebellion, which put thousands of indigenous people on the streets of Quito, attempted to install a "people’s government" that would transform Ecuador’s political reality. But with the swearing in of Noboa, a conservative, the indigenous retreated back to their communities without achieving that goal, and the group’s leader, Antonio Vargas, went into hiding.

With two-thirds of Ecuadorians living below the poverty line, Ecuador this past year plunged into its worst economic crisis in recent history. A banking crisis led to the closure of most banks for several weeks, and Mahuad bailed them out with public funds. This past December, Ecuador’s currency, the sucre, fell from 7,000 sucres per dollar to 25,000 sucres per dollar.

Mahuad responded to the devaluation with an announcement that he would introduce the dollar as Ecuador’s currency, which prompted the indigenous rebellion that ended his presidency. Noboa has pledged to continue with Mahuad’s plans to dollarize Ecuador’s economy.

Guests:

  • Juan Fernando Teran, researcher for the Center for Economic and Social Rights in Quito, Ecuador.
  • Diego Quiroga, professor of anthropology at the University of San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador. He studies Ecuador’s indigenous movements.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Ecuador’s largest indigenous organization, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, known as CONAIE, has accused the Ecuadorian military of betraying them, after thousands of indigenous people and a group of mid-level military officers took over the country’s congress and overthrew its president. The nonviolent coup ousted Ecuador’s President Jamil Mahuad and briefly installed a three-member junta known as the “Junta for National Salvation,” which included an indigenous leader, a former president of the supreme court and an army colonel. However, that group was removed when the military backed Vice President Gustavo Noboa as the country’s new president. He was sworn in as president Saturday inside the Ministry of Defense.

CONAIE, which is an umbrella organization comprising hundreds of indigenous groups around the country, had mobilized throughout Ecuador against Mahuad’s economic policies. The rebellion, which put thousands of indigenous people on the streets of Quito, attempted to install a, quote, “people’s government” that would transform Ecuador’s political reality. But, with the swearing in of Noboa, a conservative, the indigenous retreated back to their communities without achieving that goal, and the group’s leader, Antonio Vargas, went into hiding.

With two-thirds of Ecuadorians living below the poverty line, Ecuador this past year plunged into its worst economic crisis in recent history. A banking crisis led to the closure of most banks for several weeks. And the president at the time, Mahuad, bailed them out with public funds. This past December, Ecuador’s currency, the sucre, fell from 7,000 sucres per dollar to 25,000. The president responded to the devaluation with an announcement he would introduce the dollar as Ecuador’s currency, which prompted the indigenous rebellion that ended his presidency. Noboa has pledged to continue with Mahuad’s plans to dollarize Ecuador’s economy.

We’re joined right now by two people from Quito, Ecuador. Juan Fernando Teran is a researcher for the Center for Economic and Social Rights, and Diego Quiroga, professor of anthropology at the University of San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador.

Let’s begin with Professor Quiroga. Is this unusual, what has happened in Ecuador, this coup, and then, well — and then the replacing of that coup by the vice president?

DIEGO QUIROGA: Unfortunately, this type of event has happened before. Throughout the last — two or three years ago, we had another president replaced through a similar move, although in this case the move — the manifestations were much larger. But Abdalá Bucaram was replaced three years ago by a similar set of manifestations. CONAIE has mobilized in different occasions. Since 1990, the indigenous organization called CONAIE has been mobilizing in the country. They have done different roadblocks, and they have mobilized different occasions for different issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Fernando Teran, what about CONAIE? What is this organization? In most parts of Latin America, it would be unheard of that an indigenous organization was able to topple the government.

JUAN FERNANDO TERAN: Well, the Ecuadorian indigenous movement is the most important indigenous movement in Latin America right now. And it has been going through very — through different processes, and it has been learning a lot in these times. After last week, after all of these problems in Ecuador, the indigenous movement is going through a very difficult situation, in the following sense. On the one hand, there is a real threat of repression. Most traditional conservative parties are willing the government to take actions against indigenous leaders and the colonels involved in the riot. On the other hand, there is a sensational defeat and sadness. It seems that, once again, the traditional and conservative party and the corrupt politicians were able to do what they want, which is to keep a political system based on the lack of democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the demands of CONAIE, of the indigenous people?

JUAN FERNANDO TERAN: They were demanding more democracy, because in this country, there is no real democracy. They were asking for economic reforms in support of the people. They were asking to stop dollarization. This was a very important point, in the following sense. The Jamil Mahuad administration decided to dollarize Ecuadorian economy, but it was decided that in terms of getting political support. Even our central bank was opposed to the dollarization. However, Jamil Mahuad decided to go on with the dollarization. The social movement was asking to stop this process, because if we go on with the dollarization process, we will have deeper problems in our balance of payment and in our banking system. Additionally, if the dollarization policy is a reality, the government will have to put down most of the social programs, programs helping the poorest population of this country, which deals — which implies to have more inequalities and more economic problems. So, the main point, in that sense, was to stop the dollarization, because it is not feasible in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Fernando Teran, I’m going to continue with Professor Diego Quiroga. But your line isn’t good enough to stay with us. Juan Fernando Teran, researcher for the Center for Economic and Social Rights in Quito, Ecuador.

JUAN FERNANDO TERAN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you. Professor Quiroga, what is the relationship between the U.S. and Ecuadoran governments?

DIEGO QUIROGA: The U.S. government was very — I think was very important. It played a critical role in this whole process. I think one of the major reasons why the coup was not successful — not the only one, but a very important reason why the coup was not successful — was because there was a call from the U.S. government threatening that Ecuador will become the Cuba of the Andes — in other words, that there will be a blockade to Ecuador, if Ecuador goes ahead with the coup. So it was the United States, in this case, played a very important role in what happened in the case of the coup. Most of our exports, most of our imports come and go from the United States, so the United States is a key commercial partner of Ecuador. And a lot of financial aid also comes from the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you say it’s fair to say that Noboa, the vice president now installed as president, I assume the U.S.’s choice, will represent the most conservative forces in Ecuador, the banking interests and the moneyed groups?

DIEGO QUIROGA: I imagine that Noboa will not change some of the policies that in the past indigenous people have felt held mostly the banking and the industrial interest. So, in that sense, yes. I mean, Noboa will probably have more policies that favor the private sector and the more conservative groups of the country, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Diego Quiroga, how does the dollarization of the economy, using the actual U.S. dollar instead of the Ecuadoran sucre, affect indigenous people?

DIEGO QUIROGA: There’s different ways in which this program would affect them. I mean, the dollarization was created to stop inflation. We were on the brink of run-off inflation, so it was created also to stop that process. But there are different negative effects that this can have in the indigenous economies. One can be that we’ve seen in the past days — we’ve seen the prices of the most basic goods increase tremendously. So, that has created a lot of — people are very upset, especially poor people are very upset, with this process of the price increase. Prices of basic products such as sugar and salt have increased tremendously. The other problem is there’s always a symbolic aspect of the sucre. The sucre has been the currency for the last 150 years. So that’s the also symbolic aspect related to the sucre, is the loss of this value. There’s also a lack of knowledge of how to use the dollar, and that’s been mentioned by several indigenous people.

Also, what was mentioned before, that the amount of money that the government may have to use in social programs can decrease, because one way that the government in the past has been able to satisfy some of the demands of the poorest people has been by creating money, by printing money, which in turn has led to inflation. But that’s one of the most common ways. Now, if you have a dollarized economy, our central bank will pretty much disappear. And that means that new emissions of money will disappear as far as social programs. So they are probably very — the indigenous groups are also afraid that some of the very already — some of the already meager funds that go to social programs are going to even decrease even more.

Another thing that indigenous people have been protesting against are the privatization of some of the major industries. Ecuador is still — some of the telecommunications and some of the power industries are still in the hands of the government, and there’s been a process of privatizing some of those. And indigenous people have been protesting against those.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Diego Quiroga, professor of anthropology at the University of San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador. He studies Ecuador’s indigenous movements. Can you put this rebellion in the context of previous indigenous rebellions in this century or before?

DIEGO QUIROGA: Yeah, there’s been previous rebellions. There was some in the Central Highlands. It was last century, at the end of 19th century. There was a couple of very big rebellions. What makes these rebellions, this set of rebellions that started in 1990, what makes them different than previous ones is the level of organization that indigenous people have been able to achieve. In the past, indigenous rebellions have been very localized, have been localized in provinces, whether they are in the highlands or in the tropical forest in the Amazon region. Today we have a much more important level of organization, as far as indigenous people. They are organized at the national level.

CONAIE right now, the indigenous organization, is composed of three main blocs — one of the indigenous people of the coast, the other one of the indigenous people of the highlands, and the third one of the indigenous people of the Amazon region. So, when CONAIE organizes something, they really mobilize two or three million people, two or three million indigenous people. Now, what we have since the ’90s is that CONAIE has been able to mobilize people both in the highlands and in the jungles in the Amazon region. And that has had a lot of impact as far as the national politics go. So, this latest — this latest — I don’t know if to call it rebellion, but this latest mobilization is just one more of a series of mobilizations that has happened throughout the last decade and that are — compared to previous ones, are at a much larger level and involve much more — many more people.

AMY GOODMAN: Diego Quiroga, can you explain also the place of the military in Ecuadoran society? I was just handed an Associated Press piece talking about the military being one of the few public institutions that enjoys widespread support in Ecuador, known for its honesty, compassion, providing health services and education to impoverished communities long ignored by the government — hardly what Latin American militaries are known for.

DIEGO QUIROGA: Yeah. And as far as the military goes, they have — as you probably know, we’ve had an ongoing conflict with Peru. Since 1941, Ecuador has been — has had a border dispute with Peru. The last year, the peace was achieved with Peru, and a peace treaty was signed with Peru. Because this was coming, the military has started to change a bit its role. Its major role before was that of negotiating and being ready for a war with Peru. Recently the military has started to change its role to a more civilian type of a function. Now, it is true that in the last 10 or 20 years, the military has started to do social work in some of the rural communities.

What we saw today — what we saw in this weekend was that there are some very deep and important divisions within the military. Apparently one of the major things that the previous president started to do was he started to cut some funds that were going to the military, and that probably has created also some resentment among some of the middle-level officers among the military. The colonels were — apparently some of the colonels were not very happy also with some of the budget, new budget, budgeting issues. So, we are seeing that the military have been — are probably now divided around this issue and that there are some important groups there that are not too happy with what’s going on as far as the changes in the budget and changes in the way they relate to the government.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Diego Quiroga, professor of anthropology at University of San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador. Thank you.

DIEGO QUIROGA: Thank you.

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