I N NOVEMBER 2003 when Lucio Gutierrez, a former army colonel, got elected President of Ecuador there was a lot of cheering among progressive circles both within and outside the country. A year later Gutierrez and the Ecuadorian left are daggers drawn- determined to finish each other off. What went wrong?
For the left in Latin America, with its long history of fighting military dictators, to have applauded a former army man coming to power even through the ballot, meant there must have been something special about him.
On the face of it Gutierrez was special too. He was the key Ecuadorian army colonel behind the short-lived coup of 21 January 2000 that saw the toppling of the extremely unpopular President Jamil Mahuad from power. The coup came after weeks of national unrest, led by Ecuador’s left and indigenous movements, against Mahuad’s proposal to replace sucre, the national currency, with the US dollar. This was on top of a discontent in the nineties over successive governments whose neo-liberal policies saw Ecuador’s inflation rate touch 60 percent and unemployment soar above 17 percent.
In the days just before the coup thousands of native Indians belonging to the National Federation of Ecuadorian Indians (CONAIE) entered the capital city Quito to lay siege to the national parliament. At the same time workers in the strategic oil sector and FUT, Ecuador’s main labour federation, threatened to launch a national strike demanding the resignation of the Mahuad government, the entire parliament and judges in the Supreme Court.
On the morning of 21 January a section of the Ecuadorian armed forces, led by Colonel Lucio Gutierrez occupied the parliament, the presidential palace and the Supreme Court. A three-man junta of “national salvation” was announced, made up of Antonio Vargas, the head of CONAIE, Lucio Gutierrez and Carlos Solorzano, a retired member of the Supreme Court.
The coup lasted barely a day but was enough to force Jamil Mahuad to resign from the presidency. The new regime itself was quickly broken up on the intervention of the armed forces chief and the vice-president Gustavo Noboa was installed as the new President. Gutierrez, who was arrested for his role in the coup became a national hero overnight as a champion of the poor, the indigenous people and as a crusader against neo-liberal economic policies and US imperialism.
So in 2002 when the country went to polls again and Gutierrez put himself up as a candidate he got full backing from several sections of the Ecuadorian left including the Patriotic Society which included sections of the Ecuadorian Communist Party, the Movement for Popular Democracy (MPD) a political front of the Communist Marxist-Leninist Party of Ecuador (PCMLE), the Socialist party and Pachakutik -the political front of CONAIE.
The left at that time saw Gutierrez- with his patriotic, anti-oligarchy and anti-imperialist rhetoric, as the potential equivalent of Hugo Chavez, the President of neighbouring Venezuela. Chavez, though not a leftist in the traditional sense, had been a big inspiration to many on the left throughout Latin America for taking on the United States, supporting Cuba and advocating a radical reform agenda within Venezuela.
“ The oligarchies and imperialism have been defeated and the workers and peoples of Ecuador have achieved a major political victory, which has no historic equal” said an editorial in En Marcha, a leading left-wing journal in Ecuador, on the news of Gutierrez’s electoral victory. The left justified its open support for the Gutierrez candidacy arguing that he represented the struggle of popular organisations that are fighting neo-liberalism and corruption, and because his group had elements of resistance to US imperialism.
In terms of his own leftist rhetoric Gutierrez was impeccable too. In May 2001, Gutiérrez, interviewed by a group of young Latin Americans in Brazil, spoke for the need to fight U.S. “neo-colonialism” and achieve a “second independence” for Latin America. When asked about his ideological positions, he described himself as “nationalist, progressive, humanistic, revolutionary, and in favour of social justice.”
“Cuba is an example of resistance for all of the peoples of the world”, he said, adding that efforts to create Latin American unity should begin with support for “governments like that of Hugo Chávez”, Venezuela’s left-leaning president.
In the new Ecuadorian cabinet, representatives of Pachakutik were appointed to the ministries of foreign relations, agriculture and livestock, education, and tourism, while the MPD was given the Environment Ministry.
Things started going wrong right from start as in one of his first acts Gutierrez signaled his support to the US war on Iraq and went personally to meet George Bush at the White House where he was greeted as ‘the best ally and friend of the US in the fight against trafficking and terrorism”. In the context of the Andean region this was an indication that Gutierrez had signed on to the US counter insurgency operations against the FARC guerillas in neighbouring Colombia and agreed to allow the US increased use of military bases inside Ecuador.
Gutierrez also went back on an election promise to reconsider the dollarization of the Ecuadorian economy, which had led to a severe fall in incomes of ordinary citizens and which was ironically the issue over which the previous regime of Jamil Mahuad had fallen. And then in the biggest about-turn done in the history of ‘pseudo-leftism’ Gutierrez shamefully accepted draconian austerity measures imposed by the IMF in exchange for a US$205 million loan, barely two months after assuming power.
By August 2003, all the Pachakutik representatives in the Gutierrez cabinet had tendered their resignations over his policies while the MPD faced a potential split over the tactics vis-a-vis the new government. For all of them the haste with which they had jumped on to the Gutierrez bandwagon resulted in the waste of their own hard won credibility.
What is now quite obvious also is that Gutierrez was a straw man put up by sections of the Ecudorian military and elites in connivance with US operatives to pre-empt the emergence of a truly radical transformation- which was possible given the scale and intensity of the peoples’ movement in 2000. Interestingly enough this seems to be a well honed strategy of US elites in country after country around the world where when one pet dictator or stooge is toppled he or she is replaced by another stooge- but this time clothed in radical rhetoric.
The mistakes made by these sections of the Ecudorian left in identifying themselves too closely with Gutierrez, a populist but untested figure, is a sobering reminder of the pitfalls of trying to take the left movement forward through hasty short cuts of any kind anywhere. The resulting damage to organizational morale and the left movement in Ecuador has been immense and will take quite some time to undo. For the left outside Ecuador the Gutierrez debacle is a warning not to rush to conclusions about ‘revolutions’ in different parts of the world and to form opinions only after taking the time and effort to study results at the ground-level carefully.
Interview with Wilson Alvarracin, PCMLE
The Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Ecuador (PCMLE) was born in August, 1964 in rebellion against the revisionist leadership of the Communist Party of Ecuador (PCE) and its endorsement of the then Soviet-line of peaceful transition to socialism, the parliamentary road and peaceful coexistence with imperialism. Over the years the PCMLE, though still an underground organisation, has built mass organizations among students, workers, peasants and the general public and participates in elections at various levels to promote its vision of a new democratic and anti-imperialist revolution in Ecuador. Following are excerpts from an interview with Wilson Alvarracin, a middle-level representative of the Movement for Popular Democracy – a front organization of the PCMLE.
On the PCMLE and MPD’s support for Lucio Gutierrez:
Our party and movement supported the project of Lucio Gutierrez because at that time he emerged as a figure symbolic of the popular consciousness of the people in Ecuador for change.
Lucio Gutierrez came out of the military during the insurrection of 2000 to support the people. If he had not come out nobody would have known who he was. He was democratic and also patriotic so we thought we could reflect our own vision of the future through his project. Our problem was that we did not have our own candidate and had to use someone else to reflect our programme.
We did not support LG as a person but his project which is called New Ecuador which was a democratic proposal. It was not even anti-imperialistic but it was anti-crisis so we thought it was important to support it. For the first time in Ecuador we had a candidate for Presidency, with a chance of winning electorally, who was not a candidate of the bourgeoisie or the imperialist parties but a candidate coming out of the people, so it was important to support the consciousness of the people.
The groups of the bourgeoise were a little afraid what was going on with Lucio Gutierrez because our movement supported him with 200,000 votes. After the first round of elections (which did not result in outright victory for any candidate and forcing the elections on to the second round) the bourgeoisie did not see their interests reflected in any of the candidates so they started working on Lucio Gutierrez.
In the Gutierrez government we had one minister of environment but we were working both within and outside the government, mobilizing the people.
On the current left position against Gutierrez:
After six months of the Gutierrez regime we declared ourselves independent of his government and opposed them. We started mobilizing the teachers, farmers, indigenous peoples, when the Lucio Gutierrez government changed its stated policies. People had voted for the democratic, anti-imperialist project and not for Gutierrez as an individual. He changed and followed the line of neo-liberalism that Ecuador had before and also started negotiations with the IMF.
Now we are calling on the people to carry out an insurrection against the govt. and take power into their own hands. Lucio Gutierrez now considers us his biggest enemies.
We always were conscious about what was going to happen. Gutierrez went to the school of the Americas and was trained there. So we were working both within and outside the government and continued with our work outside.
On PCMLE record vis-a-vis electoral politics:
PCMLE is not a legal party, so we put up candidates through another political formation called the Movement for Popular Democracy (MPD). MPD is not a Communist Party on its own and only a means of expressing the goals of the PCMLE- it is a democratic and patriotic party. It is legal and anyone can join it.
Through the MPD, we always had our own candidate for Presidential elections since 1978. In 1986 our candidate was the fourth out of eight candidates for presidency.
The MPD has passed the 5 percent of votes required, more than 200000 votes, to be a recognized political party in Ecuador and we have three deputies in parliament. At the local level we have over 160 councillors in various cities. To give some context about electoral situation in Ecuador you must know that the largest party in the country receives only 12 percent of the votes and we have 5 percent.
Within the PCMLE we don’t think we can get power through peaceful means. We participate in the elections but not to get power, it is only step in that direction. Popular power cannot be constructed step by step- it has to be taken forcefully. We want to make a big front against neo-liberalism. One way is through the MPD.
We are also seeking to create the conditions for armed struggle. We are calling for a socialist revolution but a democratic and anti-imperialist one. It is not possible to go for socialist revolution in the first step. Ecuador is too dependent and the technology is not enough developed enough to have a socialistic revolution. But the final goal is socialism.