Open letter to two young indigenous Ecuadorians

My dear young friends,

I appreciate the time you have spent conversing with me over these past few weeks, discussing the election process now underway in your country. As I told you then, I was truly perplexed by the international controversy among the various party families on the left regarding that process. To recap: It seems like a case of the cunning of reason that in recent weeks the political process unfolding in Ecuador – a country located, as its name suggests, at the centre of the world – has become the arena of a fierce dispute between intellectuals and activists on the left, not only from Ecuador but also from other countries in Latin America, Europe, the US, South Africa and India. The reason for the argument is the ongoing presidential election process. The winner of the first round, albeit without an absolute majority, was Andrés Araúz, who represents, to a certain extent, a return to Correismo (a term used to describe the years of Rafael Correa’s rule, from 2007 to 2017). Guillermo Lasso, who represents the oligarchic right, was second (after a few recounts), and Yaku Perez, an indigenous candidate from the Pachakutik movement, was third. At first, the conflict focused on possible electoral fraud, which had allegedly robbed Perez of second place. But the legal-electoral debate that ensued was in fact a reworking of the earlier campaign to prevent Andrés Araúz from running on account of his ties to Rafael Correa. It is worth bearing in mind that typical lawfare strategies had been used to prevent Correa from running as Arauz’s vice president. Once this issue seemed settled, the conflict became about the decision over which candidate to support in the second round. In no time the controversy spilled beyond the country’s borders and gave way to savage insults and counter-insults, calls for censorship and counter-censorship. I found all of this not only surprising but actually quite baffling. That was why I got in touch with you over these past few weeks. It turned out that, once again – and it has always been the case in Ecuador –, the indigenous peoples were playing a key role in political change, but the overwhelming majority of the voices in the debate, both in Ecuador and abroad, were not their own. All that was known about the indigenous movement was that it was divided over Yaku Perez, given that the candidate had initially been chosen not by the indigenous peoples and nationalities, but by the Pachakutik movement. Although Pachakutik first came on the scene as the political arm of CONAIE (the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador), its subsequent political trajectory and, in recent years, its alignment in some issues with Lenin Moreno’s neoliberal right-wing government in particular, has caused some tensions with the indigenous movement. Especially puzzling was the silence coming from the young indigenous leaders, who, let us remember, had had differences with indigenous leaders and with the government in the past – a situation I myself followed closely, as you well know. When, on August 15, 2014, I chaired the Special Room on the Yasuni National Park – in the context of the Ethics Tribunal for the Rights of Nature, chaired by my friend Vandana Shiva –, you, along with the indigenous peoples, were the tribunal’s best allies.

These were the reasons that led me to consult with you. Today I am writing to let you know that I have decided not to be unconditionally aligned with one or the other side. I am aware that you will be disappointed in me; you may say legitimately say that I have wasted your precious time. That is why I want to explain to you the reasons for my decision. My reasons are, in fact, perplexities.

1. Does democracy come first? One of the lessons learned by the left in recent decades, both in Latin America and other regions of the world, is that the forces of the left are the sincerest supporters of liberal democracy, even as they recognize its many shortcomings and strive to use it in order to radicalize democracy, that is to say, to turn power relations into relations of shared authority. Experience tells us that the right is not at the service of democracy, but rather uses it when it finds it convenient to do so and discards it when it does not. I have a vivid memory of September 30, 2010 – the day the police forces attempted a coup against Rafael Correa. My friend Alberto Acosta came by my hotel and we rushed to the CONAIE headquarters, where we spent the entire day. The indigenous movement already had some just complaints against Correa at the time, but the priority, at that moment, was not so much to defend Correa as the democracy that he stood for.

If this is true, once the courts had decided that there had been no fraud in the 2021 election, the political debate should have focused on each candidate’s political platform. So why does it continue to focus on the integrity of the candidates rather than on their platforms? We must bear in mind that the neoliberal right of various countries on the continent has no platform other than the usual neoliberal recipes, and therefore has been playing the morality card against the candidates on the left, accusing them of corruption. In addition, two disturbing facts need to be taken into account.

First, a veritable legal warfare – or lawfare – is being waged in Ecuador for crimes allegedly committed by Rafael Correa, with the sole apparent purpose of neutralizing him politically. This war has been an attempt to damage André Araúz, the candidate who claimed Correa’s legacy. There have been similar campaigns of political neutralization waged against Manuel Zelaya (Honduras), Cristina Kirchner (Argentina), Fernando Lugo (Paraguay), Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff (Brazil) and Evo Morales (Bolivia). In all these instances there has been clear interference on the part of the US. I find it perplexing that many of those who have signed statements against candidate Araúz have also signed statements against Evo Morales and have refused to acknowledge that there was ever a coup in Bolivia.

The second disturbing fact is that, at the time of writing, a last attempt to invalidate the election or remove the most voted for candidate has not been ruled out. In fact, it was this very suspicion that recently prompted the UN Secretary-General to make a statement to the effect that everything should be done to hold the runoff election on the scheduled date. Only a few weeks ago, Colombia’s Attorney General went to Quito expressly to present “proof” that Araúz had received money from the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Colombian guerrilla group, to finance his campaign. Prompt denials by both Araúz and the ELN and the blatant improbability of the allegations were not enough to prevent “investigations” from being initiated. We know that Colombia is now a US satellite and that OAS secretary Luis Almagro – a sinister character who engineered the coup in Bolivia – met in Washington with Ecuador’s President, Lenin Moreno, who has made no secret of his preference for Lasso, with Perez his second-favourite candidate. Ecuadorian law is clear in this regard: candidates have immunity, and electoral laws cannot be changed during the election period. However, as we have seen in the case of Brazil, one never knows how far the persecutory wrath of lawfare will go.

2. Does the left come first? Intellectuals and activists on the left, notably from feminist and environmentalist groups, have been playing a key role in the Ecuador debate. Some of the participants are colleagues and friends of mine, for whom I have great regard and with whom I have worked over the years. If we accept that Araúz is of the left, at least when compared to Lasso, all our energies should be expected to be invested in the cause of defeating the candidate of the right, and the indigenous movement should be deeply involved in the effort. But that is not what is happening, and one of the organizations that integrates the CONAIE has decided that casting a null vote would be the sensible thing to do. One cannot belittle the reasons for such a stance. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that in the current conditions of the continent one may be neutral when faced with a candidate coming from the democratic left (however problematic) and one that is an Opus Dei banker. Are we talking about the labour pains of the birth of a new left in Ecuador, a left truly in line with the 21st century? As far as I know, this labour is always bound to be painful. Hence the next two perplexities.

3 What is the left? The left has long been conceived of as the set of transformative political theories and practices that, over the last one hundred and fifty years, have stood up to the expansion of capitalism and to the kind of economic, social, political and cultural relations generated by it, driven by a belief in the possibility of a post-capitalist future and an alternative society that will be not only more just – because it will be geared toward the satisfaction of the real needs of people – but also more free – because it will focus on creating the conditions for the effective exercise of freedom. For many reasons that I will refrain from detailing in this letter, the above definition has been the subject of much debate, of which I will offer only a brief outline. As popular movements across the world became more acquainted with each other, it also became clear that the political divides obtaining in many countries do not express themselves in terms of the left/right dichotomy. Even in those countries where that dichotomy exists, a huge debate has erupted about the actual meaning of the two terms. Thus, for example, social and political struggles against injustice have greatly expanded the dimensions of injustice and, hence, of domination. In addition to economic and social injustice there was ethno-racial injustice, sexual injustice, historical injustice, linguistic injustice, epistemic injustice, as well as injustices based on disability, caste, religion, etc. This raised new questions, such as the hierarchy of injustices and, consequently, of the struggles against them. Renewed attention was paid to the various specific contexts in which these struggles take place, and it became more and more necessary to distinguish between important and urgent struggles. It became possible, for example, to argue that the three main forms of domination created by Eurocentric modernity are capitalism, colonialism (which, after the colonies gained political independence, changed only in form) and patriarchy.

On the Latin American continent, these debates took on other, especially important dimensions. Here are the three main ones. The first was the questioning of the left/right dichotomy, in light of the models of economic and social development adopted by left-wing governments during the first decade of the century. This meant that the polarization was now between the advocates and opponents of neo-extractivism (social redistribution based on the unprecedented exploitation of natural resources, accompanied by the expulsion of native and peasant peoples, ecological crisis, and conservatism related to ethno-cultural, ethno-racial and sexual/heterosexual discrimination). “Progressivism” was the term coined to describe the governments that claimed to be of the left but were not regarded that way by the opponents of neo-extractivism.

The second dimension was the statism/movementism polarization. In the sub-continent (as in much of the world), the political forces of the left have traditionally been mostly in favour of the need to control the State in order to use it as the foundation on which to achieve the desired social transformation. Disappointment with historical experience (Stalinism being the most flagrant illustration) worsened at the beginning of the twenty-first century, as a result of the neo-extractivist developmental projects carried out on Latin America. Such projects were led by the State, almost invariably in conjunction with global neoliberal capitalism, and that, in the eyes of the opponents of neo-extractivism, meant the continuation of colonial exploitation. Hence the importance attached to conceptions such as “[to] change the world without taking power” (a John Holloway’s phrase often misunderstood), which caused the proposals of the left to focus on the struggle for a new hegemony (that of the rights of nature) and on a valorisation of community projects based on the notions of self-determination and plurinationality. While the statist conception tended to inflate the transformative power of the State – whose matrix, after all, is basically capitalist- colonialist, patriarchal and monocultural –, the movementist conception ran the risk of depoliticizing social movements, such risk being all the greater when it became evident that the support received by the latter came from non-governmental organizations financed by the Global North, for the most part in an attempt to prevent the social movements from becoming political movements.

The third dimension, although not an exclusive characteristic of the sub-continent, is the very rapid transformation of the parameters of political polarization. In face of the aggressive, and sometimes putschist, vindictiveness of the right-wing governments that followed the progressive governments, the principal form of polarization was between democracy and dictatorship. And then, in face of the particularly dramatic and painful situation caused by the incompetent, and even criminal, way in which the right-wing governments dealt with the health crisis, the main form of polarization was between politics of life and politics of death. This latest mutation is mostly to be found in Brazil and Ecuador.

The debates within the forces of the left remain open. On the one hand, they have brought visibility and political potency to a wide variety of social struggles. On the other, they have given rise to new differences that have proved difficult to reconcile. Unless this obstacle is removed, the struggles waged by the left will lead to further fragmentation instead of articulation and grow increasingly weaker instead of stronger. Two obstacles in particular are having a paralyzing effect: differences regarding the role of the State and institutional struggles; and differences regarding the hierarchical order not only of the driving forces of the struggles (social classes? ethno-racial or sexual identities?) but also of the social goals of the struggles (social redistribution? the recognition of diversity?). Underlying these difficulties is the mega-difficulty generated by the differences between developmentalism/extractivism and buen vivir/rights of nature.

The only sure takeaway from all these debates, for now, is probably that the forces of the left know better what they do not want than what they do want. They have long suffered from the political pandemic that predated Coronavirus and which took over the world after the 1980s – the notion that there is no alternative to capitalism and that we have therefore come to the end of history. Interestingly enough, the first strong signals that the forces of the left may be feeling immune to the virus of neoliberalism have come from Ecuador. Let’s see.
The Ecuador debate is being strongly influenced by the undermining of the left’s imaginary in the wake of Rafael Correa’s centralism and technocratism. More than any other left-wing political leader of the 2000s, Correa conceived of the left as a sovereignist, top-down, centralist and monocultural anti-imperialist project, committed to social redistribution, but conservative with regard to women’s reproductive rights and averse to any constructive dialogue with organized civil society. This period coincided with a phase of renewed creativity on the part of the forces of the left, which in turn resulted from several factors, among which I would highlight the end of the Soviet bloc and the emergence of new political subjects, notably women, indigenous peoples, peasants, the ecological movements, and the World Social Forum. The whole idea of alternatives gained new life with these changes and was further boosted by the political Constitutions of Ecuador (2008) and Bolivia (2009), which pointed the way to a plurinational refunding of the State and to alternatives to capitalist development based on the philosophies and practices of indigenous peoples. Although still unsure about where their struggles were ultimately headed, the new lefts seemed certain that they would necessarily involve broad processes of democratic participation, the recognition of ethnocultural diversity and of the rights of nature, the plurinational refunding of the State, and the fight against colonialism and patriarchalism. Thus, the anti-capitalist struggle – with its demand for, at the very least, better social redistribution – became articulated with the struggle against colonialism (including racism, ethno-racial discrimination, land concentration, the expulsion of native and peasant peoples, xenophobia, and the monoculture of scientific knowledge) and patriarchy (hetero-sexual domination, domestic violence and feminicide).

In view of the discrepancy between Correa’s governance and the changes in the forces of the left and the indigenous movement, frustration mounted and is very much alive, as we can see. Hence my next perplexity.

4. Who is Rafael Correa anyway? Had Correa been only, and for all Ecuadorians, the leader I have just described, is it even imaginable that the candidate with the most votes would be the one who claims his legacy? Of course not. Because Correa’s administration had many other dimensions that, although played down by certain sectors of the population, were of great importance to others. Correa maintained political stability for ten years, no small feat in a country that had had no less than seven presidents in the preceding ten-year period. He was internationally praised for launching Ecuador’s debt audit commission, which led to significant debt reduction. He made social redistribution a priority, ensuring that social benefits reached many people who had lived their entire lives without decent living conditions. Poverty dropped from 36.7 percent in 2006 to 22.5 percent in 2016, there was a decrease in inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient, and the middle classes saw their prospects improve. Correa introduced free education at all levels of the public education system and raised teachers’ salaries. He built much urgently-needed basic infrastructures and established himself as a nationalist leader, the guardian of Ecuadorian sovereignty against US imperialism (I remember the impact of the closing of the Manta base in 2009), even though, over the years, he was forced to come under another foreign influence – that of China.

The truth is that, despite all the social unrest, Rafael Correa managed to get Lenin Moreno, his vice president, elected as his successor, although shortly afterwards Moreno subserviently surrendered to the IMF and to the US geostrategic interests in the region, in addition to being complicit in the political persecution of Correa. What all this means is that the least that can be said is that at the end of his mandates Ecuador was a more just society, at least in some respects, than the country that had been ruled by successive waves of right-wingers controlled by the oligarchic elites. So why is it that now, when the oligarchic right again has a candidate in the runoff election, it is not evident in the eyes of some of the forces on the left that the thing to do is to endorse Araúz? I submit, as a working hypothesis, that part of the difficulty stems from the fact that today Ecuador is probably the country in the entire sub-continent with the widest gap between economic-social redistribution and ethno-social recognition and the fewest means to bridge it. Hence my next two perplexities.

5. What is transition? One of the main problems with which the lefts that are currently in labour will be faced is the question of transition. We are increasingly aware of the fact that we want an anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, anti-patriarchal, ecological, feminist, plurinational, radically democratic, self-determined society. We are aware of the fact that what we are talking about is a civilizational paradigm shift. How do we fight for it? First of all, we have to be aware of the fact that the fight we are talking about is eminently political. The seemingly apolitical banners of the NGOs have only one purpose, which is to disarm the popular movement. That is why they are heavily funded by the countries of the Global North. I can understand that many of you have grown so frustrated with formal politics that you would rather engage your activism outside the party system. However, while you believe that that system has any relevance, it is better to know what is at stake. Even if we conceive of the struggle as being political, organizing it is no easy task. We know institutions are not to be trusted, but we cannot live without them. We will have to fight with one foot in the institutions and the other outside of them. We will have to fight within, against and outside the State, resorting to different ways – some of them never tested before – of organizing our struggles. And what about allies? We are unlikely to find them among the forces of the right. Whenever the right returns to power, it does so with a vengeance. Take the case of Bolsonaro in Brazil, Macri in Argentina, or the putschist Añez in Bolivia. Is it wise to take the same risk with Lasso in Ecuador? Of course, everything will be easier if Araúz unequivocally shows himself attuned to the transition and not to a return to the past. You are young, the future of the country is in your hands. There are three areas to which you should pay special attention: transition away from extractivism, intercultural education, and co-government with CONAIE, aimed at bringing to fruition the plurinationality enshrined in the 2008 Constitution. The first two areas are part of Araúz’s platform, but all three of them depend on your organized political pressure, which must continue (and not end) after the election. The most important thing is to learn from the mistakes of the past.

My dear young friends:

My perplexities do not end here, but those listed above should be enough to justify my not intervening in the debate now under way in Ecuador. My wish is that you Ecuadorians, and the Ecuadorian youth in particular, will be the ones to decide the open issues with which you are faced and for which, in all truth, there are no straightforward solutions in sight. What is important is that your decisions are made after careful reflection on the conflicts now raging in your country and without any external interference from well-meaning internationalist intellectual-activists like myself – who, myself included, may very well be wrong – or from foreign countries, be they the US, European countries, Latin American countries, or China. One thing is certain: If your democracy is preserved, whatever you decide will have major consequences, whether positive or negative, for the future of those who, in the rest of the world, see themselves reflected in these polarizations. There are definitely consequences to being at the centre of the world.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Coimbra (Portugal), and Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He earned an LL.M and J.S.D. from Yale University and holds the Degree of Doctor of Laws, Honoris Causa, by McGill University. De Sousa Santos is Director Emeritus of the Center for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra and has written and published widely on the issues of globalization, sociology of law and the state, epistemology, social movements and the World Social Forum in Portuguese, Spanish, English, Italian, French, German, Chinese, Danish, Romanian and Polish.

The photograph that illustrates this article is by César Viteri

This text was originally published by Alice News:

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