Ecuador's Youth Rally Behind Correa

Kavitha Chekuru
November 21, 2006

Oil fuels our cars and buses and is, many believe, at the center of the war in Iraq. The statement "No blood for oil" has appeared on many signs held in protest against the war. But for the citizens of Ecuador, as with many South American countries, oil and blood are one and the same -- oil is blood of the earth.

"Oil in Ecuador is sacred; it is like a national inheritance," says Jorge Rojas Cruzatti, a member of the youth division of the Ecuadorian leftist political movement Alianza PAIS. Rojas joined AP over a year ago to support Rafael Correa, the Alianza PAIS candidate in the runoff elections for Ecuador's next president.

Victor Argoti Doylet, a recent engineering school graduate, is another member of Alianza PAIS's youth front and organizes with other members in Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city. The youth group numbers over 200 in Guayaquil, but has several other chapters across the country. Alianza PAIS has been helping Correa for the past year, vigorously campaigning and organizing to mobilize support. "For me, Alianza PAIS is the materialization of a common aspiration in the people of Ecuador -- that we will find better days through a more just society. What motivates me is the firm conviction that 'Another World Is Possible' and I see Alianza PAIS as a step towards that."

The runoff will be held Nov. 26, a followup to the first elections held on Oct. 15. Correa, an accomplished economist and self-proclaimed Christian of the Left, received 22.8 percent of the vote, just a few notches behind banana tycoon candidate Alvaro Noboa, who received 26.8 percent of the vote. (If neither candidate gains over half the votes or a minimum of 40 percent with a 10 percent lead over the closest rival in Ecuador, a runoff election determines the winner.)

Ecuador, one of the largest exporters of crude oil in Latin America, is not known for its stability, having ousted three presidents between 1997 and 2005. The change that Argoti, Cruzatti and others who have joined Alianza PAIS hope for is one rooted in a history dominated by foreign intervention and the exploitation of natural resources -- a history common to many countries in Latin America.

Of protests and presidents

On April 20, 2005, the then-president of Ecuador, Lucio Gutierrez, was ousted from power after a week of violent protests and exiled from the country. He was accused of many things, including replacing all but two of 17 justices in Ecuador's Supreme Court with members who were pro-Gutierrez, as a method of preventing possible impeachment.

Gutierrez had good reason to fear impeachment, as dissent had been building for some time. The general reasoning behind the dissent was a consensus that the president had not upheld the promises he made when he began his term in 2002. Gutierrez had won over much of the population in the 2002 elections by expressing desires to end corruption in the country and promote social justice and equality through a variety of reforms. In a nation where roughly 40 percent of the population identifies as indigenous, he was seen as a candidate who would put an end to a long history of discrimination and marginalization. Luis Macas, Gutierrez's minister of agriculture and a member of the indigenous community, said his community broke with the president in August of 2003 when Gutierrez began to engage in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over Ecuador's oil.

The vice president at the time, Alfredo Palacio, also began to criticize the president and his policies in the months leading up to his impeachment. Gutierrez then lost support from the parties on the left. Then came the people and the protests.

After Palacio was sworn in as the interim president by Congress, he appointed Rafael Correa as his minister of finance. An economist educated in the United States, Correa began to reshape Ecuador's economy by moving policy away from an economic model that relied heavily on trade with the United States.

TLC is not "Tender Loving Care"

"One of the most important issues that will play out in this election is the economic, political and social future of Ecuador in regards to free trade agreements -- we cannot sign one with the United States," Argoti says.

At the center of the free trade debate is Occidental Petroleum, also known as Oxy. In the early 1980s, Oxy set up shop in Ecuador, taking over land that included protected forests and biological reserves. Today, Oxy extracts over 100,000 barrels of crude oil a day.

In 2004, Oxy sold shares of its fields in Ecuador to the Canadian oil firm Encana without consulting the government of Ecuador, giving the government, and the many Ecuadorians who wanted Oxy out, reason to take legal action. This past May, President Alfredo Palacio acted on the wishes expressed by thousands of protesters against Oxy, and he ended the contract with the American company.

The cancellation of Oxy's contract in Ecuador is considered a huge victory for the youth of Alianza PAIS and numerous indigenous groups. It was also seen as a strike against the IMF and the U.S. government, and a decisive step to the left.

Blanca Chancoso, an organizer of the indigenous protest movement, told Green Left Weekly that the end of Oxy's contract "means dignity and sovereignty for the people. Oxy and the TLC (free trade agreement) were an attack on the economic independence of Ecuador; more than that, the TLC was an attack on the life of all the people. It was a means of annexing the country, to make it a colony of the USA. It was a form of unequal trade."

For many in Ecuador, this week's election is about more that oil, trade and the presence of foreign players such as the IMF and World Bank; it's about quality of life. According to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), 90 percent of Ecuador's oil revenues currently go towards paying the country's debt to the IMF. This has left little to no funding for things like health care, education and the kinds of social programs that help people out of the cycle of poverty.

New generation, new policy

One of Correa's major initiatives has ben organize a constituent assembly to rewrite Ecuador's Constitution. On October 6, 2006, the youth of AP organized a mock constituent sssembly that included members of their division as well as older members of Alianza PAIS, including professionals, local students and members from other social organizations. Attendees formed discussion groups according to topics such as economic reform and health care, and agreed to produce reports to present to Correa at the end of the meeting.

"We have participated in all the activities of the campaign, but [we have] mainly given more force to fresher proposals and in a language more adapted to young people," says Cruzatti.

Group members have distributed fliers on college campuses to show their peers the benefits of a constituent assembly and mobilize them for the election. They have also held conferences at universities around Ecuador to discuss Correa's governmental plan, marched in support of a Constituent Assembly, participated in protests such as one against Oxy, and even organized a bike-athon in Guayaquil, which Correa attended.

The 43-year-old former professor has drawn comparisons to Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia for his leftist platforms that are also decidedly against U.S. policy. But Correa and his supporters see him as someone far away from the extremity of Chavez, someone who is aiming to take Ecuador beyond colonialism. In Correa, indigenous movements and student movements alike have found a candidate that they see as a part of the process of defining the country for and by themselves.

If elected, Correa says he plans to raise taxes on foreign companies in Ecuador, as well as increase Ecuador's revenues from foreign investors. With Oxy's land now in the hands of the state-owned company Petroecuador, Correa has a good foundation for doing so.

If Noboa wins the elections, however, there is a strong chance that he will invite Oxy back into Ecuador and overturn Palacio's decision to seize the company's land. What bodes worse for some is Noboa's relationship with the United States and his intention, if elected, to "reactivate" the negotiation and sign a free trade agreement between the two countries.

As Victor Argoti Doylet puts it, "What is most important in these elections is the very real opportunity we have for a profound change, one from our foundations and not simply a facade, a lie. There are a lot of us in Ecuador that, even when we are in a bad situation and we are conscious of that situation, we fear change and prefer the promise of stability. This is the biggest challenge of Nov. 26 -- to get rid of our fears and allow ourselves to find for ourselves, and for those that will come after us, a better Ecuador."

Kavitha Chekuru is a recent graduate of Northwestern University. She is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker who focuses on urban development and Latin American studies.