Between the Volcano and the Tyrant: Political Dissent Erupts in Ecuador

After 134 years of dormancy, Ecuador’s Cotopaxi volcano began spewing ash on August 13th. The 5,897-meter giant’s initial rumblings generated wide-spread panic due to its close proximity to the nation’s heavily populated capital, Quito. Possible mud and volcanic rock-flows pose a lethal threat to a population of 325,000 people that live near what is considered one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes.

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Unfortunately, this geological incident coincides with the growing political unrest prompted by the despotic measures taken by Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa. A week before Cotopaxi’s awakening, 100,000 citizens marched against Correa in a nation-wide protest organized by indigenous communities and labor unions.

Groups such as the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or CONAIE, have been extremely vocal about their discontent with the President and his policies. Indigenous groups have banded together against Correa’s recent platform that reduces welfare payments to the poor, restricts access to water sources, and permits oil drilling in ancestral property such as the Yasuni nature reserve in the Amazon rainforest. These policies ultimately favor multi-national corporations that are allowed to encroach upon indigenous land for mineral and petroleum extraction. To maintain this unjust economic situation, Correa has jailed various indigenous leaders to prevent further opposition to his policies.

Initially, Correa was heralded as an advocate for indigenous rights during the early part of his Presidency due to his ability to improve the living conditions of the poor. Ecuador’s oil revenue was used by the President to help modernize the nation and make it one of the fastest developing countries in Latin America. Many indigenous groups benefitted from Correa’s economic strategies that brought in money for social programs. However, a recent drop in oil prices and increased borrowing from China, has placed the nation in debt and eliminated many government services for the poor. This dramatic shift has consequently affected the living conditions of Ecuador’s indigenous people and their land that has been exploited for its resources.

Beyond indigenous concerns, other assemblages have joined forces with CONAIE to oppose another one of Correa’s unfavorable policies that seeks to raise inheritance tax to 77%. Assets such as residential property, businesses, technology, life insurance policies, and money can all be taxed by the government if their value exceeds the $34,500 threshold. While being promoted as a strategy to democratize property, many citizens fear that this measure will provide Correa’s with an absolute control that will send Ecuador along the same path as Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. Accordingly, in an earlier protest against Correa’s inheritance tax, residents of the city of Guayaquil continually chanted “Ecuador is not Venezuela!”

These various political concerns are all the more valid when considering that Correa is preparing to change Ecuador’s constitution to allow him to become President indefinitely. Rather than be limited to two four-year terms, Correa is seeking to remain in power and continue to pass his agenda with the help of his sycophantic Congress.

In response to Correa’s proposed constitutional amendment, former President of Ecuador Osvaldo Hurtado told the Wall Street Journal that “The yearning of all autocrats is to stay in power for life, and that was Correa’s plan from the start.”

Correa’s progression towards totalitarianism reached a tipping point the same day Cotopaxi began showing signs of its imminent eruption. As if to reflect the volcano’s ominous message, 10,000 indigenous members marched on the Pan-American highway to reach Quito and voice their opposition against Correa. Along the way tree trunks, rocks, and burning tires were used to block major roads to paralyze transportation and commerce.

An indigenous woman participates in the anti-Correa rally in Quito. Source: Amazon Watch
An indigenous woman participates in the anti-Correa rally in Quito. Source: Amazon Watch

To disband the march outside the Presidential Palace, police brutally clashed with citizens and arrested 47 people that included indigenous leader Carlos Peréz and Franco-Brazilian journalist Manuela Picq. Both detainees have been openly critical of Correa and were sought after by the police for incarceration. After her arrest, Picq’s visa was quickly rescinded yet her deportation was prevented by a judge that declared her detention was unlawful.

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Manuela Picq and Carlos Peréz being arrested by police during anti-Correa protests in Quito. Source: Manuela Picq’s Facebook Account

“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Patricia Gualinga, a Kichwa leader from the Amazon, told the Guardian. “Total brutality. They were using motor-bikes, horses and tear-gas bombs. You can’t imagine what it’s like if you didn’t see it.”

To quell the rising wave of opposition, Correa has conveniently used Cotopaxi’s recent activity to declare a “state of exception” that is meant to prepare the nation for natural disasters. However, many citizens are suspicious of this measure since it suspends constitutional rights that are essential liberties needed to depose of Correa.

Accordingly, CONAIE issued a statement in regards to the dubious “state of exception” that declares:

“We want to make it clear that the nationwide declaration of State of Exception is not justified to respond to the emergency presented by the Cotopaxi volcano, and the restriction of constitutional rights to the inviolability of the home, to movement, to assembly and to correspondence in the entire Ecuadorian territory even less so. It surprises us that this declaration includes zones that are not affected, especially when there are demonstrations underway demanding the president and his government rectify their policies directly impacting the rights and freedoms of [indigenous] Peoples and Nations, as well as Ecuadorians in general.”

The suspension of the constitution also terminates the press’ ability to inform citizens and the world about Ecuador. This form of censorship is in line with Correa’s oppressive tactics that continually silence local journalists and media outlets who condemn the president. Most recently, Martin Pallares, a former journalist for the Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio, was fired from his position due to an anti-Correa tweet.

Pallares exposed Correa’s censorship methods in a recent New York Times’ article that stated:

“Journalists in Ecuador are warned on a daily basis about possible legal action that may be taken against us if we criticize the government, and the companies we work for constantly warn us of the risks we take by raising issues the government is particularly sensitive about. Newspapers are being forced to publish corrections, on the front page, with text, headers and layouts sent directly from the Presidency’s Secretariat of Communication.”

Ecuador’s state of emergency continues to be in effect which regrettably means that Correa has free reign to control the people’s rights, property, and ultimately their lives. Without the ability to protest or assemble, citizens are now disempowered and unable to rally against the rising authoritarian. The lack of media coverage about Correa’s political crimes has put a repressive gag over the mouth of the wailing country. This situation ultimately leaves Cotopaxi or the people of Ecuador to be the force that will oust Correa from his seat of power.

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José Sebastián Terneus

José Sebastián Terneus, born in Quito, Ecuador, is a doctoral candidate at Arizona State Univeristy. Currently, he is writing his dissertation that examines the intersection of multicultural British literature, postcolonial theory, and consumer culture.

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