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Postcard from Ecuador: A Living, Breathing Democracy
Quito, nestled high in the Central Andes between snowcapped volcanic peaks, feels in many ways more like a European city than the capital of a third world country. The city is dotted with beautiful public parks endowed with sports fields, bike and skateboard ramps. Beautifully adorned squares and arches space out the restored and brightly painted buildings of the historic centre. Well maintained footpaths line the streets, as does an extensive network of bike-lanes, down which people often ride the shared bikes provided by the city, use of which is available for a tiny yearly fee. Every Sunday a north south route through the city, including Avenue Amazonas, one of the city's main arteries, is given over entirely to cyclists and pedestrians, who come out in the thousands. The old airport, having been engulfed by urban expansion and replaced earlier this year, has also been turned over to the public as a park, and is already in use.
In Sydney, that space would have sat unused for months, or more likely years, as developers, Macquarie Bank and the slime-balls from the two major parties bargained and leveraged for prime positions at the trough. Then the feeding frenzy would have started. Have a look at Barangaroo, or watch the progress of the docks and train-yards yards at Glebe Island for confirmation of my thesis.
Quito's extensive public transport system, it's newish vehicles and clean seats also reminiscent of the first world, offers the traveller their first glimpse beneath the hood and into the engine that has driven this remarkable growth in what was once the original banana republic. Most taxis and many of the buses in Quito are operated by cooperatives, part of the booming solidarity sector made up of tens of thousands of community banks and credit unions and worker owned enterprises in the manufacturing, housing, agriculture and transport industries. It's important to note that this sector has grown along side, rather than instead of the traditional private and public sectors which have also seen healthy expansion.
Of course, outside the big cities, indeed outside the nice parts of the big cities, Ecuador is still a wild, poor and dangerous place where arguments are on occasion still brought to a close via machete to the side of the head of one participant. The gap is closing however, as living standards shoot up (from a very low baseline) and inequality falls. Basic services and economic support have been rolled out to a population used to begging, borrowing and doing without.
Almost all this progress has occurred under the leadership of President Rafael Correa, a former economics professor who was made finance minister in 2005 during one of Ecuador's recurrent economic crises, running for the presidency the following year, assuming the office in 2007, and quickly bringing an era of unprecedented stability and prosperity. By the end of of 2012, unemployment had fallen to 4.1 percent, its lowest level on record and the poverty rate to 27.3 percent - that's 27 percent below what it was when Correa took power.
That does not mean he can take credit alone, in a sense, fixing the country was the easy part. The hard part was what happened beforehand to make it possible: mass movements, grassroots organisations of indigenous people, workers, students, academics, small businesses and alliances between them, had risen up in reaction to the constant economic injustice and repression imposed by US backed and trained (in free-market economics and counter insurgency) elites. Before Correa, the last president to serve out a complete term without being ousted was Sixto Durán Ballén, (from1992 to 1996). For a decade, one leader after another, emerging from and owing loyalties to the existing elite, was unable to act in accordance with the will of the people. It took a nobody.
Correa broke the stalemate, coming into power with a mandate from the people to challenge the “twenty families” who traditionally ruled the country. They also owned the banks who owned the TV channels. Correa's media diversity bill proposed splitting the spectrum into 34% of all frequencies to community media, 33% to public ones, and 33% to for-profit private businesses, causing ferocious debates about its implementation and putting Correa on a collision course with the media.
This, of course, is exactly the kind of context missing from the frequent, and rather shill reporting on Ecuador's press freedom that have, coinci-bloody-dentally, become so common since the Latin American country offered asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
A clear demonstration of the cynical, hypocritical and hollow nature of these attacks can be made using the case of Alexander Barankov, a Belarus dissident who, for a brief period between overstaying his visa and being granted asylum, was detained in an Ecuadorian prison – just like hundreds of asylum seekers currently in Australian immigration detention centres, only with better access to lawyers and press, (and they haven't set up a special processing centre in the Falklands).
In their barrel scraping desperation, many of the corporate shills who pose as an adversarial press corp somehow attempted to turn this into a freedom of expression issue. Articles about “Ecuador's Julian Assange” popped up everywhere, as the fate of this former soldier and policeman suddenly mattered – until it didn't any more.
Compare the ferocious attention paid to any possible encroachment by the government of Ecuador with the attention (or lack of it) that these brave protectors of free speech have given to Honduras, where a coup government is (strongly) suspected of having murdered 22 journalists, and many dozen morepeasant and worker activists, in the three years since the US backed military threw out the elected government.
I find myself reminded of Chomsky's recent comments when asked about the “issue” of press freedom in Venezuela. He replied that the topic was “a bit of a joke...¨ continuing:
“there's a strong opposition press bitterly attacking him all the time. Much more of an opposition press than there is in most of Latin America... Globovision, which is cable TV... a huge audience... was very anti Chavez... there is some repression of the press, but it's mostly kind of verbal intimidation... there was one channel RCTV... which wasn't shut down, it was moved over to cable... and it continued to function... I was asked about it at the time, I said I agreed that it was the wrong thing to do and that it couldn't happen in the United States. But I added something that prevented my comment from being published. I said it couldn't happen in the United States because if say, CBS, had done anything like what RCTV would've done, had done, you wouldn't wait a couple of years for their license to be changed to cable because the managers and owners would have been lined up before a firing squad and shot. They supported the overthrow of the government, a coup that overthrew the government...”
He then, tiredly, compares the minor aggravations faced by Venezuela's press with the horrors of “US Domains” such as El-Salvador and Columbia, “the list goes on”. The interviewer, who clearly considers himself informed and politically aware, if not radical, is apparently oblivious. Such is the success of the “fair and balanced” propaganda model.
As highly motivated as these “press freedom” concerns are our Western Liberal worries about environmental and indigenous rights in Ecuador, and how they are threatened by mountaintop removal gold mining projects in the south-east, near the Peruvian border that Correa is rushing forward with despite local opposition... except the locals aren't all so opposed.
Take this story, by Salon's Alexander Zaitchik, where we are presented with the positions of various “tribal leaders” and “chiefs” depicted in full traditional headgear with spears and all – no doubt representing a vital and unique element of the local culture and society – but just one.
Zaitchik allows these men to present their opinion as one which is shared universally by their compatriots. The reality, as usual, is a little more complex. Of the two major political foundations established by the Shuar people – which are at least as much of a factor in their continued cultural existence than the tradition of fearsome military resistance which Zaitchik emphasises– one has thrown it's weight behind the mining project, believing the Correa governments promises that this time, the locals will benefit too in the form of roads and schools and hospitals.
It's also interesting to note, that as real as the environmental concerns might be, the moral algebra is different than in the west, mining issues usually pit the interests of the environment and local populations, often indigenous, against those of the very wealthy. When a politician in Australia tried to take 40% he got stomped like a lightbulb under a tank.
Correa, soon after coming to power, reversed the proportions of government vs private revenues from oil extraction. Now Ecuador gets a little over 80% and the companies get a little under 20%. It used to be the other way round.
When the profits from domestic resource extraction are going not into the pockets of Gina Rinehart and the one percent, but into the coffers of a government that has shown a willingness and capacity to dramatically improve the lives of its citizens, the issue becomes more difficult. As does commending from the already rich (and environmentally rapacious) West, the wisdom of – literally - sitting on a goldmine.
That is not to underestimate the risks. The history of such projects should give even Correa's strongest supporters pause for thought. Of particular note is the horrific damage done by Texaco (now Chevron) and it's dodgy oil drilling practices, including direct dumping of waste into rivers and soil, over decades. In this case the Correa administration is clearly on the side of the indigenous, who are without doubt suffering terrible health consequences from the company's neglect. Just recently a Canadian court blocked enforcement of an 19 billion dollar ruling against the company. Zaitchik and his ilk were, amazingly, nowhere to be seen.
This conflict between material development and enviro-cultural preservation, two of the left's most important impulses, is a real issue in Latin America and the developing world more generally for this reason. It is a conflict, however, that for the moment the developmentalists seem to be winning. If the Shuar are split, the broader Ecuadorian population has a clear preference. As Correa pointed out, slightly smugly, during a recent interview, the anti mining parties mustered only three percent of the vote in the last election, compared with his sixty.
Perhaps these governments of the Latin left are replaying the mistakes previously made by their English speaking counterparts, but it would be very wrong of us to assume this. In so many ways the countries of the long, sustained, Bolivarian Spring, are way out ahead of us.
They are still poor, but their wealth is growing and their politics is full of hope. While leftwing academics moan in comfort of the impossibility of change, the people of this region have united against much greater odds, much fiercer repression and won.
This struggle has, in the Latino context, been associated with left wing governments, however, it was only when these governments embraced democratic popular struggle, rather than armed conflict, that they found success. What's more their moderation has been mirrored by the Latin American right, which has begun producing leaders capable of economic compromise, and who seek more and more to disassociate themselves from paramilitary thugs and other local manifestations of US power. They just want to be conservative politicians, and while they want to win, they increasingly see the value of doing so inside the democratic system. The presence of Columbia and Chile's right wing leaders at Chavez's funeral (and their acceptance of his successor Maduro's victory in recent elections, despite the United State's arrogant refusal to do so) is a testimony to this.
The key to this rebirth of regional unity and national self determination has been a commitment to democracy as a living breathing force – one which can re-shape the world. It has been driven by political inclusion and an empowerment of the popular imagination. This is the same principle that motivates WikiLeaks and the global community that has formed around it, and that has inspired the formation of this party.
More than any specific policy or social vision, followed by Ecuadorians or anyone else, what the WikiLeaks Party is about is raising the intellectual, technological and democratic standards by which our decisions are made. As Ecuador's explosive success in the face of opposition from the world's superpower demonstrates, democracy, when pursued with enthusiasm, works wonders.