The Ecuadorean indigenous movement


I. Indians, players in the political power

Talks between the Ecuadorean government and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (Conaie) will reportedly resume soon though the terms and schedules for President Gustavo Noboa Bejarano to meet with the head of the indigenous group Antonio Vargas have not been fixed yet.

The CONAIE will propose to set up policies benefiting the indigenous population in four specific fronts: education, health, infrastructure and economic recovery. As regards the first two, the Confederation will pursue the enforcement of what the Constitution establishes concerning collective rights and mainly, the support to the national administrations of Bilingual Intercultural Education (Dineib) and Indigenous Health fostering practices of natural and alternative medicines as well as saving the cultural principles of communities through education.

Indigenous nationalities in Ecuador (By region and language)





Costa y Sierra













Castellano *









Huao Tiriro





Amazonía y Sierra

Quichua (Runa-shimi)

* Original language has disappeared after five years of colonization

The approach occurs within the framework of the introduction of dollarization and other IMF recipes: in view of the new economic and political policies, the Noboa administration attempts to convey to the international community a spirit of agreement and consent through dialogue with all sectors.

The Ecuadorean socio-political scenario, however, depicts a structural power disruption since the incidents of January 21, 2000 when in a bid to oust President Jamil Mahuad Witt a mid-rank military-Indian junta established a short-lived government of ‘National Salvation’.

Within the framework of a speculative dollar surge, when some economy sectors pressed the government to adopt currency board or dollarization, the January 2000 incidents placed the indigenous movement as one of the country’s most relevant political players.

However, the political role they assumed frightens a considerable sector of society. The reasons for this attitude could be explained by the still-prevailing abysmal ignorance of this social and political player that was excluded for long and now rises after having stayed on the sidelines for decades. The Ecuadorean society has given marked signs of racism: not only does it deny its indigenous roots but also shows indifference and even certain contempt for the Indian culture symbolism. While in Peru the ‘inti’ is the legal tender and Bolivians shamelessly sing and dance to the tune of their Indian instruments and rhythm, in Ecuador it is common to hear labels like dirty or nasty Indian (indio ‘longo’).

The indigenous upraising was given many interpretations: some attributed it to a manipulation from the military forces, others held a ‘paternalist’ opinion reducing it to a fair claim from the excluded sector and mainly ruling party advocates rated it as a ‘coup attempt’ and ‘ venturesomeness’.

II. The Indigenous movement in the ‘90s

Mahuad’s deposition put an end to a cycle of complex internal changes in the Ecuadorean indigenous movement that unfolded in the last decade.

From the 1990 upraising, which introduced Indians as a powerful social player in the national stage, to their political involvement in 1996 through the Pachakutik movement, they changed their speech structures and issues, which ranged from the fight for lands (fundamental vindication between 1950 and 1980) to the current demand for ‘multinationalities’, which includes the mentioned claims for bilingual intercultural education, health system, social development, remaking the original peoples, among others.

Pachakutik is a political organization independent from the Confederation despite being closely linked to it since at least 50% of its Executive Board is made up by CONAIE representatives and the coordinator, Miguel Luco, is a historical Indian leader. In 1997 the party managed to set up a 15-deputy bloc (8 Indians and 7 allies) over 70 at the National Assembly get the appointment of 10 mayors, councilmen in 11 towns and provincial aids in 13 provinces (over 21).

The 1998 Constituyente (constitutional reform), which recognizes collective rights for indigenous peoples, entails a change that goes beyond the movement’s demands. The introduction of ‘Collective Rights’ into the current Constitution poses hard problems to solve such as the agreement with the existing laws and the deontological definition of the rights’ subject.

Despite the government-supported openness and multinationality approach the exclusion, marginalization and poverty harassing indigenous groups is totally undeniable: 45% of the population are native Indians, 80% of rural inhabitants live in abject poverty and even when peasants produce 75% of essential goods they only get 35% of the sierra production.

The successive uprisings of March and July 1999 repealed a reality that in fact excludes them socially, politically and economically. By these means, the Indians managed to reach a ‘negotiations table’ in March and have a stringent adjustment in the oil and gas price reviewed plus the government’s pledge to carry out urgent social policies in July.

Estimated indigenous population in Ecuador

Pacific Coast















Siona Secoya








Source: Las nacionalidades indígenas en el Ecuador: Nuestro proceso organizativo, 2d ed. (Quito: Ediciones Abya-Yala, 1989),Condeferation of Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE)

Unfortunately, although both uprisings had similar impacts results lasted little: ‘negotiations tables’ failed due to the strongly official attitude while the Government’s commitment to adopt a social policy and review adjustment programs crumbled four months later when the State launched a stringent package of economic measures which drove the fuel price up, froze salaries and ruled out social subsidies.

The period from July to December 1999 was plagued by people’s discontent and Mahuad’s Christian Democrat regime’s attempt to rebuild his political force and reach agreements at a Parliamentary level to implement his privatization project.

III. Chronology of the January 2000 uprising

The first weeks of January were critical for Ecuador. From the moment Mahuad announced on the 9 his intentions to implement dollarization of the economy to the 21 uprising a series of protests gripped the whole country through demonstrations and blockades that were carried out despite repression and the State of Emergency ruled by the government. Protesters, joined by a rebel military group, forced the President out of power but failed to prevent Vice President Noboa’s assumption who proved to follow through his predecessor’s plan and adopt dollarization.

Those accountable for these events were the CONAIE, the Social Movements Coordinator (CMS) and other workers, peasants and popular organizations that encouraged a national march towards Quito within the framework of the National Parliament of Ecuadorean Peoples (PNPE) –an organization created on January 11 to centralize the fight and made up by the CONAIE, the CMS and some unions such as the oil one- where over 800 representatives took part. Also, provincial and local Parliaments were set up as referents.

On January 21 some 20 thousand protesters managed to reach Quito and seize the agitated downtown which was protected by the police. Against this backdrop, some 200 army officers stepped in, neutralized the police and allowed the crowd to seize the National Congress and the Supreme Court.

At the same time, the governments and city councils of a dozen provinces were also occupied.


That same day the National Salvation Junta was created. Its first decree circumvented the three powers of State and took its first resolutions. The junta was composed of the President of the Republic Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez, the Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colonel Fausto Cobo, Army Chief Colonel Luis Aguas, Head of the Army Chief of Staff Colonel Gustavo Lalama, Chief of the Ground Force Colonel Jorge Brito and Attorney General former Judge Carlos Solórzano.

Before leaving the Carondelet palace Mahuad announced the press he would not abandon his post and denounced a coup attempt short after the Armed Forces withdrew support. In his speech he stated the coup plotters lacked the academic formation and the capacity to rule the country and decided the militaries had to resume control and punish those held accountable because Ecuador could no be ruled by a group of coup plotters and an Indian leader.

Ignoring Mahuad’s statement the Junta member marched at night towards the Government building joined by the crowd to begin talks with Chief of Joint Command of the Armed Forces General Carlos Mendoza and other brass. Although Mendoza was in charge of most units, the rebel militaries were backed up by a faction of the Army plus that of the indigenous group and social organizations.

During the meeting Mendoza pledged to respect the popular uprising and crack down on corruption. However, three hours later he announced he would quit the Junta and called for Vice President Gustavo Noboa to take power restoring a popular-backed civilian-military rule. Vargas condemned Mendoza’s attitude as treason.

In the light of Mahuad’s irreversible deposition Vice President Noboa signed decree 001 through which he assumed the Presidency and gave his first speech before the nation from the sessions room of the Joint Command of the Armed Forces located in the National Defense Ministry building surrounded by the Army commander Telmo Sandoval, Air Force commander Ricardo Irigoyen and Navy commander Enrique Monteverde and Jorge Villarroel from the National Police.

A day later, the Public Ministry announced it would file criminal action against the militaries and civilians that prompted rebellion against the constitutional order.

The role of the Armed Forces, though unexpected, proves apparent today: while organizing, Vargas was already inviting the Army and the Police to join the group. On the other hand, the militaries expected to build on the popular protest to carry out their plans though they would have never imaged the true protagonists of the fight were the Indians and not they.

The National Salvation Junta immediately dissolved after attaining its political goal of seizing the Government and later handing it over to give the revolutionary crisis a possible end.

IV. Current situation and perspectives

The request for the dissolution of the three powers (Executive, Legislative and Judiciary) and the creation of a new government of ‘National Salvation’ in which the indigenous group had a direct involvement clearly shows a new dimension to the organizing dynamics of the movement. The harsh criticism to the government and the alliances forged with the mid-rank soldiers show the qualitative change that enables them to negotiate with power. At present, the Indians hold power at a national level despite their apparent flaws to get organized.

The new political role of indigenous and social groups of Ecuador set a new stage in the unsettling Andean Region which adds to the already established ones by the Colombian guerrilla for the presence of a military front of the FARC some 70 kilometers from the Panama Canal and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’ unpredictable policies. This occurs within a framework of corruption, armed clashes, weak political parties and a stark poverty and social inequality along the Cordillera (Andean mountain range).

While in the ‘80s trade unions took up political conduct of resistances to power, in the ‘90s it was the indigenous group that comes to perform this task. Its move awakened expectations and introduced the possibility of forging the necessary changes in Ecuador’s social agenda.

According to the CONAIE, when the group criticized the three powers of the State and called for sweeping changes to the policy, it was widely supported by society and its proposal captured 75% of the citizenship –so far it had served as a legitimate referent of social counterpower.

From this moment on, this groups’ eagerness to become a feasible choice for power turns difficult since they should change the action logics with which they have built their history of resistance and organization.

Today, they fundamental challenge is linked to the Popular Query they have been promoting since March this year and has the goal of changing the country’s political and economic structure. Some of the issues to address would be ‘dollarization’ and the granting of Manta for the American fight against drugs trafficking.

The CONAIE-hosted popular query would be launched when dollarization still does not report positive economic results (although the switch to the US currency is virtually widespread) and the Ecuadorean economy is still down sending only slight and scarce signs of recovery. Inflation in Latin America reached its peak in June to 103% and the granting of the Manta base fueled by the forthcoming implementation of the ‘Plan Colombia’ stirs up heated controversy over the fear of the impact it may have on the county (similar to the one caused by the fumigation of coca plantations in the low Putumayo and the excessive control of the Armed Forces which fueled the drop of trade and massive immigration on the Ecuadorean border populations).

The Pachakutik Multinational Movement also seeks to introduce into the query the issue of the amnesty to the officers involved in the coup.

The country now is experiencing the incipient dollarization of the economy and its future will depend as never before on its capacity to successfully venturing into the world market through a growth in exports and the skill to lure in foreign investment.

Another aspect that calls analysts’ attention is the autonomous process taking place in many Ecuadorean states. As a result, five provinces on the coast border -Guayas, El Oro, Manabí, Sucumbíos and Los Ríos- have voiced their support to autonomy while Esmeraldas is preparing the popular query, which will surely follow the same course.

But the ‘autonomist spree’ revealed in the plebiscite is already facing the first objections. In 6 provinces of Sierra and Amazonia and in 20 manabitas cantons, where the poll has been conducted, most voters failed to understand the semantic difference between ‘descentralization’ and ‘autonomy’.

Now the government needs collective consent to carry out its program and the Indians are not only staking their claims through concrete proposals –though some face opposition- but also admitting past mistakes. The political will of both parties will enable agreement on a plan that does not trigger new and regretful confrontation.

Norma Domínguez

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