The following is a report on Ecuador’s Citizens’ Revolution by Denis Fernando. It previously appeared at Occupy London.
I have just returned from Ecuador where I went to see for myself the gains of the country’s Citizens’ Revolution and the lessons it has for activists seeking to build a better world.
The Citizens’ Revolution – as the process of change is known – takes place against a backdrop of a decades long struggle by social movements against the neo-liberal consensus of Ecuadorian elites and governments. Powerful social protest culminated in seven successive presidents being removed from office in the decade before the election of President Correa in 2007.
Ecuador’s achievements in the seven years since Rafael Correa became President are an inspiring example of how to take a society forward in the midst of the economic crisis, with many of the advances standing in direct contrast to the austerity driven policies of Europe.
Correa’s first act was to create a Citizens’ Assembly whereby the different communities and social movements went from ousting governments’ to directly shaping a new society by drafting a new constitution. This was overwhelmingly backed in a referendum. It’s been noted as one of the most progressive in the world and enshrines rights for long excluded people as well as being the first country on Earth to give rights to nature. I was especially impressed by how these rights are enforced through a mechanism that allows any citizen to take the government to court, without the need of a lawyer, if they are not receiving the provisions made for them within it.
This was not an end in itself but the starting point for political transformation. A poor country by western standards, the Citizens’ Revolution has since sought to turn these rights into reality by rapidly increasing living standards of the population to ensure basic needs such as access to free healthcare, education, a decent home and three meals a day are met. The development model to achieve this is known as ‘Good Living’ and emphasises ‘a style of life that enables happiness…, cultural and environmental diversity…, equality equity and solidarity.’ As Ha-Joon Chang, author of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, has said this understands the importance of the ‘economic development …. [but] maintains a broader view in which nature, climate, culture and social evolution each play a part’.
Despite the Citizens’ Revolution taking office on the eve of the global financial crisis, Ecuador has experienced 4.2% average growth over the past 7 years. This has been primarily because it has rejected neo-liberal policies and the devastating debt mechanisms of the IMF, has progressively taxed the rich and cut out tax avoidance resulting in a tripling of income to invest in developing public services. This is a model that serves the majority as shown by the cancellation of illegitimate foreign and banker’s debt that was starving public services of resources – a development that offers concrete lessons for Europe. It helps that the government correctly identifies that it’s a lack of financial regulation that led to the economic crisis in 2008 and Ecuador’s own crisis of 1999.
Then the bankers had created such economic catastrophe that it forced up to 15% of the population to emigrate in just a few years! By laying the blame at the correct source, rather than blaming the poorest and most vulnerable in society, Ecuador has found a coherent, practical way to deal with the economic crisis. Increased financial regulation that benefits people is apparent in a living wage policy explained to me by Minister Carrasco, in charge of Labour Relations. He explained that companies can only pay dividends on shares when they are implementing a living wage (not just the minimum wage). He explained that the central principle of this was to give people dignity through their income. This was just one of the measures that has seen poverty slashed by third – with one million lifted out of poverty – and one of the greatest reductions in inequality in Latin America. The latter is important as Latin America has been described as the most unequal region in the world, with Ecuador and the Andean region being the least equal amongst these.
Alongside growth has been a strong emphasis on equality. I had the chance to visit the Government’s Disability Secretariat, much of this work is thanks to paraplegic former Vice President Lenin Moreno. Ecuador’s approach to supporting disabled people has much to teach Britain. Whilst the rhetoric and policy here has seen disabled people wrongly assessed as fit to work, resulting in benefit cuts Ecuador has seen a meteoric rise in disabled people going into work over the past 7 years. This is because Institutions are required to employ 4% of disabled people, who are entitled to equipment, benefits and loans at a low rate of interest for starting up new enterprises.
An emphasis on public services that facilitate participation in society is also clear. Free healthcare is now guaranteed and investment in is now four times greater than that carried out by the previous four government. Likewise Education has been prioritised and free education for all is a constitutional guarantee. That means that all children now get to go to school for free but has also seen access to university spearing. Education is not a commodity but valued as a way of developing a new kind of society. It lies at the core of the plan to turn the country from a commodity exporter, seen as reinforcing low pay and inequality, into a country where jobs are based on bio-research, green energy, education and the knowledge economy. More scholarships than ever before are being allocated giving people the ability to study at the best universities in the world, with living expenses covered, on the proviso that they return to Ecuador to work for a fixed period in constructing Good Living.
A particular highlight was meeting Gabriele Rivadeneira, who at 31 years old is the youngest and first ever female president of Ecuador’s National Assembly, which consists of more women MPS (40%), indigenous, African descent and young people (28% of MPS are under 30 years old) than ever before. Rivadeneira quoted Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner, saying that for the first time in its history, the leaders of Latin American countries look like their people.
Of course, challenging the old order meets fierce resistance. I visited the square where people gathered to oppose the attempted coup d’état was attempted in 2010, which the US funded National Endowment for Democracy is said to have played its part, just as it has in Venezuela, Honduras and other Latin American countries in recent years. Nonetheless Gabriele’s speech defiantly spoke of breaking free from the domination of the most powerful country on Earth and building true independence. She stressed how Ecuador’s rejection of the policies of the IMF, closing the US military base in Manta (unless the US granted Ecuador one in Miami!), taking oil resources out of the hand of the multinationals, and the political asylum that Ecuador has granted to Julian Assange who is currently residing in the Embassy in London reflect how foreign policy will also reflect the countries new values of peace and solidarity.
Rivadeneira described the Citizens’ Revolution as ‘an alternative to the demon of neo-liberalism’ and called on supporters in Europe to communicate widely the gains of the revolution in order to defend it. She outlined that the Latin American process is very new and as such was vulnerable, so needed to be defended with solidarity from across the globe. A century of US backed military interventions and support for dictatorships underlines this point. As does the attempt by Chevron to undermine Ecuador to avoid its responsibilities for creating one of the world’s largest oil disasters there.
Whilst I was in Ecuador, President Rafael Correa was giving speeches in the US at Harvard and Yale Universities. These lessons should be heeded. Ecuador has much to teach the world on how to deal with the economic crisis that puts people over profit. It is a poor country which is trying to overcome decades of under-development whilst constructing a new way of doing things. Balancing competing demands of providing basic services – such as clean water and tackling diseases eradicated in Britain decades ago – with a commitment to sustainable development presents real challenges and these are being openly debated.
However the Citizens’ Revolution provides evidence that there is a way forward for humanity that does not believe that markets and profits are the answer to all questions. As such it should be defended and its positive aspects should be promoted in Europe, where there are no comparable processes. President Correa himself said that movements like Occupy are central to changing global power relations. Linking up with the processes in Ecuador and in other Latin American countries can only make the struggle against austerity and for the bottom 99% here stronger as they provide tangible alternatives to austerity.
The article previously appeared at Occupy London where it can be seen here.