From the July-August 2022 issue of News & Letters
Editor’s note: An important update on this struggle is posted on the N&L website: “Ecuador’s Indigenous movement wins concessions” (https://newsandletters.org/ecuadors-indigenous-movement-wins-concessions/)
On June 13 Ecuador’s Indigenous people started a series of protests over the rising cost of living: fuel, food and basic necessities. Some estimate that more than 100,000 are participating in the ongoing protests, 40,000 of them in the capital, Quito. In addition to price controls they are demanding access to healthcare and education, and they are challenging the continued discrimination against Indigenous people.
The government’s response has been to use force against peaceful protesters. On June 15 the government arrested Leonidas Iza, the anti-capitalist leader and president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE).
THE HISTORY OF THE CONFLICT
In order to understand the nature of the conflict, it is necessary to understand some of the history of Ecuador. Ecuador is geographically divided into three regions: Costa, with access to the Pacific Ocean, Sierra in the mountains, and the Amazon forest.
The inhabitants of Costa are native Indian people mixed with descendants of Africans who were brought to work on the banana, coffee, cacao and other plantations. The owners of the plantations are also the bankers and industrialists who came to the coast from Lebanon, Italy and other European countries. These people came much later than the Spaniards and are less than 5% of the coastal population. They are the oligarchs and millionaires.
The inhabitants of the Sierra are Indians, working on the farms; and mestizos, Spanish descendants, owners of those farms. The mestizos historically have aristocratic privileges. Even with no money they have privileges just by not being Indian.
The inhabitants of the Amazon forest are the Indigenous peoples who maintain their own culture and language. They fight daily against invasions, particularly by transnational companies like Texaco that mine gold and other minerals and exploit whatever else they find. There are also some mestizos who live in the Amazon forest.
In the last decade the Indigenous people of the Amazon forest and the Sierra had been organizing into a very strong group, CONAIE. Their different consciousness holds much wisdom. They also have martyrs, like the people killed recently during peaceful demonstrations.
As you can imagine, the Indigenous people are absolutely poor. They can eat because they grow their own food. But they do not have healthcare, employment or means for anything. It is very hard for an Indian family to pay for transportation needed to sell their products. For them a ride on the bus means less food on the table. One point of their protests is the rising price of gasoline. Ecuador exports oil and now it is selling gas at a very high price.
The president belongs to the oligarchs from the coast and the vice-president to the aristocracy of the Sierra. The Ecuadorian government launched a campaign, as is usual for them, showing Indians as savages and accusing them of vandalism and greed for money and power. They keep mentioning that Iza, the leader of the Indigenous people, possesses a car. This has emboldened racists to say, “How many more cars does he want?”
Iza is Quechua. He is well respected among Indigenous peoples. They consider him to be honest, smart, very well informed, brave, etc. The Indigenous movement has led peaceful demonstrations in different cities. Thousands have come from far away with all the hardship that this implies.
‘LOSING THEIR FEAR OF DEATH’
During the first days of the demonstrations, they came with their hands empty, not even carrying a stick. Now, after the aggressions they have suffered, I see them carrying sticks.
Iza was arrested, and that caused the majority of those who belong to the Indigenous movement to go out into the streets. The government became afraid and let him go but with a trial pending. Iza’s car was smashed. He was inside it. It was clearly an attempt to kill him.
I recently received a message from a friend in Ecuador: “The racism gets stronger every second. The fascism gives me nausea. The situation is very tragic.”
The news says that besides the six Indigenous people dead so far, there are approximately 150 critically wounded. As I see it, the Indigenous people are losing their fear of death. They do not leave the streets in spite of the danger to their lives. In prior demonstrations, once the government started killing Indigenous people they would leave, go back to their towns. Now they are staying and getting bolder.
The situation in Ecuador is getting worse. Racism and repression have escalated. But it is being met with more support from women’s, environmental, student groups and others, including international groups like Amnesty International.
This situation reminds me of what Bolivian Indigenous women from the mines said when they were ready to confront the members of the “Peace Corps” with their armed helicopters: “We are ready to fight with our bodies. They have a lot to lose. We will lose our hunger and slavery.”
—Greta, an Ecuadorian woman