Sunday, March 26, 2006

ECUADOR - Indigenous-led uprising challenges FTA, U.S. domination

Ecuadorian Indigenous organizations are in the leadership of the most recent uprising in that country, which began on March 13. Tired of being lied to, exploited and excluded, they have taken on the courageous road of challenging the Free Trade Agreement that is secretly, behind closed doors, being negotiated with the United States by President Alfredo Palacios.

The treaty with the U.S., already signed by Colombia and Peru, is scheduled to be finalized on March 23 in Washington, D.C.—but not with the acquiescence of the Ecuadorian masses.

Their demands also include the termination of the government’s contract with U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum, rejection of Ecuador’s participation in Plan Colombia, the ousting of U.S. troops from Manta military base and the convening of a Constitutional Assembly.

On the 13th, the Ecuadorian Confed eration of Indigenous Nations (CONAIE), the principal and most influential Indigenous organization, and the Confederation of Peoples of the Kichwa Nation (ECUARUNARI) initiated a series of actions in which their voices were heard loud and clear. They closed down traffic on highways all over Ecuador with marches, demonstrations and roadblocks made of burning tires, tree trunks and rocks.

Organizations of peasants, students, workers, home makers, professionals, retirees and small businesses supported and actively participated in various actions. The transport union has been threatening a national strike, since 4,000 trucks have been idled due to roadblocks.

This campaign is called the National Mobilization in Defense of Life and says “No to the FTA, out with Oxy, no to Plan Colombia, yes to Life and yes to the National Constitutional Assembly.” Within a few days it had paralyzed commerce and traffic in 11 of Ecuador’s 22 provinces.

The government has responded with fury. Marchers, including women, children and elderly persons who are suspected of participating in the revolt and oppose the FTA, have increasingly been harassed, teargassed and detained. They are subject to searches and seizures even in their own homes.

The police have used brutal force to prevent demonstrators from reaching the government palace and the cathedral in the capital, Quito. On March 20, in response to the government’s failure to respond to their demands while escalating repression, CONAIE renewed the actions and started a general Indigenous uprising, calling for broadening it into a national peasant and popular uprising. Their slogan is “shuk shunkulla” (one heart), “shuk makilla” (one fist), “shuk shimilla” (one voice).

The police in turn have been detaining any person who “looks Indigenous.” They board buses that arrive from the southern part of the country and detain by force all those with Indigenous features or whom ever they suspect are protesting against the FTA.

A march to Quito from the Amazon region that started in mid March was stopped for more than three hours by police; 25 of the marchers were detained and their whereabouts are unknown.

As of March 21, 30 peasants had been hurt and hospitalized and 100 had been arrested. Luis Macas, president of CONAIE, and Humberto Cholango, president of ECUARUNARI, have been threat ened with arrest if they do not stop the national uprising. Their response has been to call for an increase of the resistance until the government ceases its negotiations with the U.S. for a “free trade” agreement.

The Indigenous and peasants appear determined. Maria Sillo, who makes $15 a week by selling the vegetables she plants, says, “This trade deal will starve us to death. We prefer to die fighting this deal than to starve to death.” The FTA would flood Ecuador with cheap, subsidized U.S. agricultural products to the detriment of the country’s small farmers.

Sillo echoes the reasoning of the ECUARUNARI/CONAIE organizers who wrote in a news release: “Now 50 out of 100 Indigenous children suffer from chronic malnutrition, hunger; with the FTA that will affect the production of food, it will be millions of children and adolescents along with their parents that will suffer hunger and will have to migrate to the big cities or to other countries.”

President Palacio took office 10 months ago after a popular uprising ousted Lucio Gutierrez. Ironically, Gutierrez had been elected with the strong backing of the Indigenous movement, but soon sold out to U.S. interests.

Palacio has not been any different. None of the promises made to the people have been met, including the convening of a Constitutional Assembly. The popular movements charge that he has ruled only for the benefit of the oligarchy and U.S. corporations, and has added ultra-reactionaries to his cabinet. For example, he named a representative of the flower industry, which will be a major beneficiary of the FTA and is an infamous transnational exploiter of women in particular, as his secretary of commerce.

Under Palacio’s administration, the repression of the social and popular movement has increased. He has repeatedly declared states of emergency in order to suspend civil rights, including the rights to associate and mobilize freely, and carry out indiscriminate house searches. Like President Alvaro Uribe in neighboring Colombia, he has called social and popular leaders criminals.

He has accused the protesters of “destabilizing” Ecuador. A March 19 report by Reuters quoted Enrique Proano, Palacio’s spokesperson, as saying: “We will not allow these marches to reach Quito because they aim to destabilize democracy,” adding, “The armed forces have dispatched a contingent along the highways leading to Quito.”

Palacio has also facilitated U.S. intervention in the region by collaborating with the U.S. and Colombian military against the insurgent forces of Colombia. U.S. troops are now stationed in the Manta base.

His government is also helping the U.S. in its quest to isolate the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. During the current uprising, the president of the Ecuadorian Congress stated that “external forces” were responsible for the Indigenous and popular uprising, directly blaming Venezuelan President Hugo Ch├ívez.

But recent history has shown what the unwavering determination of the Ecua dorian masses, led by the Indi genous, can accomplish. In 2000 they helped overthrow President Jamil Mahuad; in 2005 it was Gutierrez’s turn. Now the future is in their hands.