Indians vow to continue fighting free-trade pact
Although Indians in two provinces pulled out of protests last week, leaders of Ecuador’s indigenous groups said they would continue to demonstrate against any free-trade agreement with the United States.
By Carla D’Nan Bass
Special to The Miami Herald
QUITO - When Ecuador’s Indians start building roadblocks and organizing other protests, they usually spark fears that the country’s president will soon be toppled.
Thousands of Indians joined with armed forces members in a coup that ousted President Jamil Mahuad in 2000. He was one of the country’s seven presidents in the past decade. Huge marches in the early 1990s spawned the Pachakutik indigenous political party, which helped elect President Lucio Gutíerrez in 2002.
So when several thousand Indians last week started blocking roads in the central mountain region with rocks and felled trees, demanding the cancellation of talks with Washington on a free-trade agreement, the government was quick to show concern.
President Alfredo Palacio accused the protesters of trying to destabilize democracy. Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrín said force would be used if necessary to clear the roads. And Interior Minister Alfredo Castillo resigned in opposition to this aggressive government approach.
The country’s largest Indian organization, known by its Spanish acronym as Conaie, wants the president to call a national referendum on its two demands.
’’The Ecuadorean government calls us troublemakers,’’ said one Conaie leader, Manuel Castro. ``But we just want a different kind of democracy for Ecuador. Our central objective is not to overthrow the government.’’
This time, they did not come close to doing that. Although indigenous groups claim that 40 to 60 percent of Ecuador’s 13.3 million people could claim Indian heritage, only about 5 percent identified themselves as Indians on the 2000 census.
Indians in two provinces pulled out of the protests last week after Palacio’s government promised local politicians extra money for public works, as they had been demanding. Although Conaie leaders insist the protest is still on and will resume soon, the slow reopening of many roads over the past few days tells a different story.
Some observers say the indigenous groups have in fact weakened in the past few years, going from a powerful social force to just another party in Ecuador’s chaotic politics.
Pachakutik was weakened by its support for former President Gutíerrez, a leader of the 2000 coup who campaigned on a relatively liberal platform but switched to right-wing economic policies after taking office. He was removed by Congress in early 2005 amid an uproar over his meddling with the country’s Supreme Court.
Indigenous leaders may have a chance to redeem themselves at the presidential and legislative elections in October.
’’These kinds of protests in the provinces are frequent . . . in election years for all groups, including indigenous groups,’’ said political analyst Adrián Bonilla. ``The local caudillos need to promote their names, justify their presence and obtain resources for their clients.’’
According to initial estimates, the Palacio government has promised close to $1 billion in extra payments to local governments in order to stop the protests.
But indigenous leaders insist their protests are motivated strictly by their opposition to a free-trade pact and foreign oil companies, not a search for dollars.
’’It is not correct that the people are leaving protests and returning home because their local governments have received promises of funds,’’ Castro said. ``We are simply pulling back for now to reorganize.’’
Supporters of a free-trade agreement counter that there is no time for a referendum. Ecuador has been lagging behind its partners, in the negotiations with Washington, Colombia and Peru, on a deal that would lock in trade benefits that otherwise will expire at the end of the year.
’’There are about 150,000 jobs in the shrimp, lumber, agriculture and other industries which could be lost if this agreement is not signed,’’ said Pichincha province Industry Chamber of Commerce Executive President Mauricio Pinto.
’’I understand that the worry of the indigenous groups is that the smaller, inefficient agricultural sectors will not be properly reconverted to produce other things,’’ he said. ``But that is an internal responsibility of the country to push for these programs.’’
Indigenous movements in several other Latin American countries have been unable to stop free-trade agreements with the U.S. government. But Ecuador’s Indian leaders have vowed to keep trying.
’’The people have the right to be consulted,’’ said Lourdes Tibán, indigenous representative to Palacio’s Cabinet. ``I have told the president that he really should listen to us.’’