Ecuadorians were confronted with a tough choice in the April 2 presidential election: to continue the policies of outgoing President Rafael Correa through the new leadership of candidate Lenín Moreno, or return to the right and give closure to more than a decade of the “Citizen Revolution” that has radically transformed the country. The controversially close election results – which marked Moreno as the victor by a narrow 51- 49 percent margin and saw Lasso crying foul – are a testament to a populace conflicted about its future direction.
Rafael Correa Delgado rose to power in 2006, offering a new sense of hope and dignity to a people who had pushed out three presidents in a decade for failing to meet their needs and demands. Under Correa, long sought social services like free access to healthcare and education went from empty political promises to actual reality.
The new Constitution in 2008 manifested most explicitly the possibility of a more just future, with the expansion of rights and protections for the people—particularly Indigenous peoples, Afrodescendants, women, and workers.
The nationalization of natural resources and the incorporation of the Rights of Nature and Buen Vivir/Sumak Kawsay, which conceived of well-being as harmony with nature, further promised a radical break from US interventionism and colonial logics of development and progress.
To show that indeed “La Revolucion ya esta en Marcha!”, minimum wage went up from $170 to $366 a month; cash bonus transfers were made available for those living in extreme poverty; electricity, gasoline and natural gas got subsidies; campesinos and housewives received special protection under social security; new highways, schools and hospitals were built and the poverty rate dropped from 38 percent in 2006 to 24 percent in 2016.
While these are major achievements, Correa has been criticized for severely curtailing democracy through expanding presidential powers, waging wars against the press, governing with hostility, signing off native territory to transnational companies for mega-extraction projects without prior consent, and systematically persecuting and incarcerating Indigenous leaders that opposed these projects.
As Correa’s historic presidency comes to an end, Remezcla sat down with six young Ecuadorian activists to reflect on the gains and limitations of la Revolución Ciudadana.
Victor Zambrano, 25 years old. Afro-Ecuadorian Health and LGBTQ rights activist
“With the new hospitals, schools, roads, social security, the change that Correa promised in his campaign was very visible, palpable. So people re-elected him. But after 2009, his popularity started declining. Suddenly it’s all about him [Correa] as he presents himself as omnipotent and omnipresent. It’s about this necessity that “I, as Rafael Correa” should be recognized for what I do, and in that necessity the theme of subjugating and denigrating others starts to emerge.
This ‘revolution in health’ also has its pitfalls. It’s a free service that guarantees attention and medication. But when a person solicits the service, they have to wait for two months. Sometimes these are emergencies but they aren’t categorized as such. The infrastructure of hospitals has changed and clinics have been built. But many places don’t have the technical equipments to attend to the people. They don’t have the specialists and professionals that could work in this field. In many instances the necessary medication isn’t available. Why have such pretty hospitals when I won’t be able to count on the instruments that I need for my illness?
Regarding public education, they started to homogenize the curriculum. That’s when they started to put aside all those institutions that imparted an education based on their own knowledge. We begin to lose all those wisdoms that have been maintained for so many years, from generation to generation. We begin to lose it because we need a “quality education.” And what is this quality education? To have a professor talk about how Greece and Rome were founded, but what happened to Ecuador?
For Afro-Ecuadorians, we have a different pedagogy. The elders sit down and begin to tell stories. Like about the African diaspora, how it happened, how we have carried these wisdoms with us, how the struggle is maintained, and the strategies that have been used. When children and young people hear this, and they start to identify (as Afro-Ecuadorian), they don’t see it as something negative. But in traditional education, when they show you the image of a black person, they show you a slave that came to work, that is useless, who has to serve another. If I hear this, I don’t want to be anyone’s slave, so who am I going to identify with? With the mestizo, because he has the power; the one that dominates. This conflicts with people’s identities. Fewer people start to identify with being Black, Afrodescendiente.”
Pedro Bermeo, 25 years old. Environmental Rights Activist at Yasunidos.
“You could say I had a Correista-to-death adolescence. This line of defending the most needy, trying to have more equity, protecting the rights of nature, talking about Yasuní [a project Correa proposed to perpetually suspend oil drilling in part of the Yasuní national park], were some of the things that motivated me a lot. In fact, the interesting thing is that [Correa] got me acquainted with Yasuní. Correa was basically the person that promoted this campaign for a lot of years and the moment he decided to cancel it [by authorizing drilling], it was basically shooting himself in the foot because he was the one who talked to us about its biodiversity, the isolated Indigenous groups that would be eliminated from their territories, and with that their culture. So he motivated us to get into activism, and the moment he backed down, we didn’t.
Since then we started to work on a referendum, which is the last option we had to stop the extractivist activity via legal means. This had never been done before so we didn’t have a precedent on how to lead this matter. We gathered almost a million signatures, but they eliminated the majority. They cancelled signatures intentionally so that we wouldn’t make it to the referendum because it would have been a huge blow to the government.
The closer we got to the referendum, the higher the degree of violence became. They threatened me at my home. They looked for ways to intimidate activists so they would stop collecting signatures. They hired surveillance intelligence and treated us like delinquents. We had three infiltrated people that worked directly with me. There’s even an intelligence report, in which you can find everything we were doing. We had a whole media machine against us. They said we were violent. They created two collectives to collect signatures with another question, in order to confuse people. They plagiarized our logo, our designs. It was a dirty campaign with all the tools they had to stop us.
What surprised us most was the image people outside (the country) had of the president, who believed that he was a president who defended nature, when here we experienced the complete opposite.”
Samay Andy, 25 years old. Indigenous and LGBTQ rights activist.
In the beginning I thought he [Correa] was doing great things, like in healthcare and education. But then I started to see how he wanted to have all the powers of the state for himself, and have control over everything. As an Indigenous woman I felt frustrated because I saw how this government was crushing us with the extractivism, the exploitation of oil. After all this talk about Buen Vivir, I felt offended. It was all a big joke.
We don’t see nature, territory, how the government sees it. As a means for profit. For us territory is something sacred, it’s part of our identity, it’s where we are born; we live with nature. It’s our home, part of us. But the government doesn’t care about that because for them the territory is theirs and if they want do something there, that matters more than what we have to say.
To change gender identity on ID cards for transgender people, there was a huge controversy. We wanted gender identity to be universal, to have identity as a basic right for everyone. But for economic and political ends, Diana Rodriguez (leading trans rights advocate) sold out our struggle to the government to make the change optional just for transgender people.* This turns us into second-class citizens, we don’t get to exercise a full and dignified citizenship.
I have realized that for our rights to be protected, both Indigenous and LGBTQ, we have to fight and unite in order to truly guarantee that a government cares about us. Because just for having a different culture, or a different identity, that shouldn’t mean that we don’t have rights. That shouldn’t be negotiable.”
*Gender identity on ID cards is now optional uniquely for transgender people, not generally applied to all citizens, which has been criticized as a way to separate and distinguish trans people from the general population rather than including them.
Kimberly Minda, 22 years old. Afro-Ecuadorian rights activist.
“My family is super Correista. He was the first candidate to ever visit here [Valle del Chota, a predominantly Black region of Ecuador], which was very significant for them because who cares about esos negritos over there, right? They felt a lot of hope for what they could get out of this presidency.
One of the changes we saw was what I call the subject of El Negro: “it’s bad that they call you negro, so you can denounce this.” What I mean is that the issue of discrimination starts to be tackled from its construction in language through the new Constitution, the new rights of Afro-Ecuadorians, and affirmative action. This has given some positive results, but sometimes it doesn’t lead to anything because it simply isn’t convenient for them.
In Valle del Chota the government gave a lot of support for the organizing processes, which capacitated the youth and got them interested in education when they previously didn’t even graduate from high school. As to health, there were significant improvements thanks to the Seguro Campesino, which helped the community a lot. But one of the most interesting things is that people have been given dignity. I have observed a different sense as to what it means to be Afro-Ecuadorian. In part because this man [Correa] came here to talk with us, he gave us value. A lot of our leaders also reached public office. From this to ‘Ok, I need a loan. We give it to you, you’re not a thief, we know you’re going to work.’
I don’t recognize this as an achievement of the Citizen’s Revolution, they came out of the processes of social organizing. But I recognize the political will, which had to do with votes; thanks to that, they listened to the people.”
Daniel Solis, 27. Social Justice Activist.
“After the Constitution in 2008, people got disengaged from politics because that’s when people got incorporated into the bureaucratic system – so that they wouldn’t participate in activism in the streets. Social organizing in parallel with the government started to be frowned upon and attacked by public opinion, because if you have disagreements with the government, they say that you don’t back the “process” and that you’re a traitor.
Because social organizing wasn’t incentivized, in huge part because of political patronage, this brought on a lot of [Correa’s] ego problems and the centralization of the political party without diversifying participation.
The government has different power matrices. So there is one wing of the government that comes out with much more left-wing proposals, like free education and social security. Then there is a much more conservative wing that signs trade agreements like the TLC with Europe, or is involved in corruption scandals.
I think one of the greatest achievements has been the establishment of a very present state. We didn’t have that before. Some people might say it’s too present but we need it to live in a just society. That, and the hydroelectrics. We need a new energy production model in order to generate a change that takes us out of the extractivist model towards another model. That’s something we still need to discuss as a country. Where do we want to go? Because up until now no one has proposed a new model. They are all talking about whether to raise or lower taxes, return or not to the neoliberal model or move further towards socialism. But no one’s saying, look, this is how we are going to evolve as a country.
At this moment, there is no other alternative but to stand up and say, we realize that the whole political class is lying to us, let us organize again and not lose this idea that to walk forward we need to be organized. Because otherwise, big capital will eat us alive.”
Yolanda Hernandez, 29 years old. Sexual and reproductive health rights activist.
“The 2008 Constitution was constructed from grassroots social movements, many of them feminist. Sexual and reproductive rights, domestic violence as a problem that must be addressed, and youth as a group that must be guaranteed rights like health, housing and education all got protection. We lost on some fronts, like abortion and same sex marriage, but that’s how it goes. Women’s issues are often brushed aside.
It’s true that in these last 10 years the state has weakened social organizing. I went from activism against the state over the issue of abortion to aligning myself to the political project as part of a team that shaped public health policies. In the fight for abortion things got very polarized over whether or not feminism should support the political project. Personally, in 2011, I separated myself from everything because I had this worry, you know? That the government was bad on this front but good on others.
Then I saw a chance to work on a national strategy for family planning and the prevention of teenage pregnancy (ENIPLA) that came out of the demands from the grassroots feminist movement. At the Ministry of Health it advanced the guaranteed right to sexual and reproductive health, access to information and services to exercise sexuality and reproduction. At the Ministry of Education it worked towards the institutionalization of sex education and at the Ministry of Social and Economic Inclusion to bring the most vulnerable sectors closer to information and services of sexual and reproductive rights, to break with the violent machista patterns that limit inclusion.
This was unilaterally closed down in 2014 because the country in general, and Correa specifically, is conservative. They still believe in the family of mother, father, son and daughter. They think homosexuality can be cured. In two years of ENIPLA, that can’t be changed.
There’s a new wave of political youth that is aligned with the government but is critical regarding some things. My candidate is Lenín because while it’s true that there’s a lot to change, with Lasso that simply won’t be possible. The feminist struggle needs to be continued from within with those that are willing to play along.”