Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 417 | Abril 2016


Latin America

Ecuador: A citizens’ revolution …without citizens?

Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa runs the risk of wanting to implement his Citizen’s Revolution even without citizens.... or with submissive ones who don’t fight for their rights, just accepting whatever is given to them. Analyzing the features of the Ecuadoran model, one more of the 21st-century socialisms, one more of the ALBA countries, reveals the limitations of this trend the author classifies as a generator of the most brilliant period of history of the Latin American Left

Boaventura de Sousa Santos

Latin America’s leftist intellectuals, of whom I consider myself one by adoption, have made two mistakes in their analysis of the political processes of the last hundred years, above all when there are new elements such as ideals of development, alliances to build a hegemonic bloc, institutions, methods of struggle and political styles. Of course, the intellectuals from the right have also made a lot of errors, but I won’t deal with them here.

The first mistake has been not to make a serious effort to understand any of the Left’s political processes that don’t easily fit into the inherited Marxist and non-Marxist theories. The first reactions to the Cuban Revolution are good examples. The second type of error has been to suppress their criticisms of the mistakes, deviations and even perversions of these processes, whether due to complacency or fear of favoring the Right. In so doing they lose the opportunity to transform critical solidarity into instruments of struggle.

The Left’s most brilliant period

Since 1998, with Hugo Chavez coming into power, the Latin American Left has lived the most brilliant period of its history and maybe one of the most brilliant of the global Left. Obviously, we can’t forget those first moments of the Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions or the successes of European social democracy during the postwar period.

The progressive governments of the last 15 years are especially notable for several reasons. They have come about at a time of great expansion of neoliberal capitalism, which has been fiercely hostile to national projects that diverge from it. They are internally very different, showing a diversity of the Left unknown up until then. They were born of democratic processes with strong grassroots participation, be it institutional or not. They don’t demand sacrifices from the majorities on behalf of a glorious future, but, on the contrary, have tried to transform the lives of those who never had access to a better future.

I write this article very aware of the existence of the errors mentioned above and don’t know if I will successfully avoid them. Moreover, I have chosen to focus on the most complex of all of those that make up this new period of the Latin American Left. I am referring to Rafael Correa’s government in Ecuador, in power since 2006.

Starting points

To begin, some starting points. First of all, one can argue about whether Correa’s administrations have been leftist or center-left, but it seems absurd to me to consider them of the right, as some of his leftist opponents claim. Given the polarization currently in place, I believe these opponents would only recognize Correa as being of the left or center-left in the months (or days) following the possible election of a government truly from the right.

In the second place, it is a widely shared opinion that Correa has been, “in spite of everything,” the best president Ecuador has had in recent decades and the one who has guaranteed the greatest political stability after many years of chaos.

And third, there’s no doubt that Correa has taken on the greatest redistribution of resources in Ecuador’s history, helping to reduce poverty and strengthening the middle classes. Never before did so many children from the working class go to university. But this begs the question of why all of this, which is a lot, isn’t enough to calm the governing party and convince it that Correa’s project will go on, with or without him, after the next presidential elections in 2017?

Nationalism, populism and statism

Even though Ecuador lived some moments of modernization in the past, Correa is Ecuadorean capitalism’s great modernizer. Because of its scope and ambition, his program has some similarities with that of Kemal Atatürk in Turkey during the first decades of the 20th century. Both are dominated by nationalism, populism and statism.

Correa’s program is based on three main principles. The first is the central importance of the State as the driver of the modernization process and, linked to it, the idea of national sovereignty, the need to make public services more efficient and the anti-imperialism towards the United States. The latter involves closing the military base in Manta, expelling military personnel from the US embassy, and an aggressive struggle against Chevron and the environmental destruction it has caused in Amazonia.

The second principle is to do everything “without harming the rich.” In other words, generating new resources quickly and without altering the capitalist accumulation model to finance the implementation of social policies—compensatory in the case of resource redistribution and potentially universal in the case of health, education and social security—and the building of infrastructure (roads, ports, electricity, etc.) to make society more modern and equitable.

The third principle is based on the idea that, given its historical underdevelopment, society isn’t prepared for high levels of democratic participation and active citizenship; with the risk that they could become dysfunctional for the rhythm and effectiveness of the policies underway. To assure that this doesn’t happen, a lot needs to be invested in education and development. In the meantime, the best citizen is the one who trusts the State and understands its genuine interest.

All this remains for the long term

Does this vast program clash with the 2008 Constitution, considered one of the most progressive and revolutionary in Latin America? Let’s look at it.

The Constitution aims for an alternative development model, in fact an alternative to development, founded on the idea of good living, a new idea that can only be formulated correctly in a non-colonial language, Quechua: sumak kawsay. This idea presents very interesting dual thinking: Nature as a living being and therefore with limits, both the subject and object of care, and never as an inexhaustible natural resource (the Rights of Nature); the wide diversity of the economy and society, oriented towards reciprocity, solidarity, inter-culturalness and pluri-nationality; State and politics with a highly participatory characteristic, involving different forms of exercising democratic citizen’s control of the State.

For Correa, almost all of this is an important, but long-term objective. In the short term, there’s an urgent need to create wealth so as to redistribute income and implement social and infrastructure policies essential for the country’s development. Politics have to take on a sacrificial character, setting aside what is valued the most so that it can be rescued someday. Thus, the exploitation of natural resources (mining, oil and industrial agriculture) must be intensified so later it can become possible to depend less on them. For this, an aggressive reform of higher education and a vast scientific revolution based on biotechnology and nano¬technology is essential to create an economy of knowledge in accordance with the wealth of biodiversity in the country. All this will bear fruit—taken on faith—many years later.

In light of this, the Amazonian Yasuni National Park, perhaps the richest in biodiversity in the world, has to be sacrificed and its oil deposits exploited, despite initial promises to not do so, not only because the international community didn’t contribute to the proposal to avoid exploiting it, but above all because the expected income from the exploitation is linked to current foreign investments and financing, particularly from China, in which oil production is the collateral.

Following this line, the indigenous peoples that have opposed the exploitation are seen as obstacles to development, victims of manipulation from corrupt leaders, opportunist politicians, NGOs at the service of imperialism or middle class ecological youths who are manipulated or simply inconsistent.

No citizen participation,
but ratification by the people

The efficiency required to execute such a broad modernization process can’t be compromised by democratic dissension. Citizen’s participation is welcomed, but only if it is functional with regard to the time being and that can only be guaranteed if it receives greater guidance from the State, i.e. the government.

With good reason, Correa feels he’s a victim of the media at the service of the Right and capitalism in general, as happens in other countries of the continent. He tries to regulate the media and his proposed regulation has very positive aspects, but at the same time it creates tensions and polarizes positions in a way that is just a small step from demonizing politics in general.

Journalists are being intimidated, social movement activists—some with a long tradition in the country—are accused of terrorism and consequently the criminalizing of social protest seems ever more aggressive. The risk is great of transforming political opponents with whom one must debate into enemies one must discredit and eliminate.

Under these conditions, the best democratic exercise is the one that allows Correa direct contact with the people, a new kind of plebiscitary democracy. Like Chávez, Correa is a brilliant communicator and his habitual weekly appearances on the Saturday radio and TV programs are a very complex political exercise. The objective of direct contact with the citizens is not so they participate in decision-making, but more so they will ratify those decisions through the presentation of a seductive socialization devoid of contradictions.

Already weak and now eroded institutions

With reason, Correa does not believe the State institutions have ever been socially or politically neutral, but he appears unable to distinguish between neutrality and procedural objectivity. On the contrary, he thinks the state institutions should be actively involved in the government’s policies. That’s why it seems natural to demonize the judicial system if it makes any decision hostile towards the government and to celebrate it as independent in the opposite case. It similarly seems natural for the Constitutional Court to abstain from issuing decisions about controversial issues, such as the case of indigenous justice in the community of La Cocha, if the decision could harm what is seen as the State’s greater interest; or for a director of the National Electoral Council, responsible for verifying the signatures of a grassroots petition against oil exploitation in Yasuní promoted by the Yasunidos Movement, to publicly speaks out against the consultation even before doing the verification.

The erosion of institutions typical of populism is dangerous, especially when the institutions aren’t very strong to start with due to the eternal oligarchic privileges. So when the charismatic leader leaves the scene—as tragically happened with Hugo Chávez—the political void reaches incontrollable proportions due to the lack of institutional mediations.

It’s a post-neoliberal version
of 21st-century capitalism

This becomes even more tragic as Correa sees his historical role as the builder of a nation-State. In these times of global neoliberalism, this objective is important and, in fact, decisive. Yet the possibility escapes him that this new nation-State could be institutionally very different from the colonial state model or from the national mestizo State that followed it.

That is why the indigenous claim of pluri-nationality, instead of being managed with the care the Constitution recommends, is demonized as a danger to the State’s unity—equivalent to centrality. Instead of creative dialogues between the civic nation, which by consensus is everyone’s homeland, and the ethno-cultural nations that are demanding relative autonomy and respect for their differences, the social fabric is fragmenting, focusing more on individual than collective rights.

The indigenous peoples are seen as active citizens in the construction, but the independent indigenous organizations as corporative and hostile to the process. In other words, civil society is good as long as it’s not organized. Is that an insidious neoliberal presence within post-neoliberalism?

In the final analysis, what’s happening here is 21st-century capitalism. Any talk about 21st-century socialism is, for the time being, a remote objective at best.

In light of these characteristics and dynamic contradictions contained in the process directed by Correa, center-left is probably the best way to define it politically. Perhaps the problem lies less in the government than in the capitalism he’s promoting. Paradoxically, he seems to be composing a post-neoliberal version of neoliberalism. Each ministerial reshuffling has strengthened the business elite linked to the Right. Could it be that the center-Left’s inexorable destiny is to slowly slip to the right as has happened with European social democracy? If this were to happen, it would be a tragedy for the country and the continent.

A citizen’s revolution...
without citizens

Correa generated a mega-expectation, but perversely, the way he intends to prevent it from turning into a mega-frustration risks pushing the citizens away, as was demonstrated in February 23, 2014, local elections when the “Alianza País” movement, which supports him, suffered a strong reverse.

It’s hard to believe that Correa’s worse enemy is Correa himself. Thinking he has to defend a citizen’s revolution of citizens who are unclear, ill-intentioned, childish, ignorant, easily manipulated by opportunist politicians or enemies from the right, Correa runs the risk of wanting a citizen’s revolution without citizens, or what’s basically the same, with submissive citizens. Those who don’t fight for their rights, but just accept what’s given them.

Can Correa still rescue the great historical opportunity to lead the Citizen’s Revolution he set out to do? I believe he can, but his maneuvering room is decreasing and the real enemies of the Citizen’s Revolution seem to be closer and closer to the President. To avoid this, those of us in solidarity with the citizen’s Revolution must all help drive it forward.

Three pending tasks for Correa

I identify three basic tasks. First, democracy itself needs to be democratized, combining representative democracy with truly participatory democracy. Democracy built from above risks turning into authoritarianism relative to those below. As hard as it might be for him, Correa will have to feel sufficiently sure of himself to dialogue with the movements, social organizations and Yasunidos youth, even if he does consider them “infantile ecologists,” instead of criminalizing dissent—which is always easy for those in power. The youth are natural allies of a Citizen’s Revolution, of reforms to higher education and scientific policies if it is done wisely. Alienating the youth seems like political suicide.

Second, social life has to be decommodified, not only through social policies, but also through the promotion of non-capitalist, peasant, indigenous, urban and associative economies. Certainly, it’s not consonant with “good living” to give bonds to the grassroots classes so they can poison themselves with the junk food that inundates the shopping malls. The transition to post-extrativism is done with some sort of post-extractivism, not by intensifying extrativism. Capitalism, left to its own, will only lead to more capitalism, however tragic the consequences.

Third, the efficiency of public services must be made compatible with their democratization and decolonization. In a society as heterogeneous as Ecuador’s, one must acknowledge that the State, if it is to be legitimate and effective, must be heterogeneous, coexisting with inter-culturalness and also in a gradual process with pluri-nationality itself, always within the framework of the unity of the State guaranteed by the Constitution.

The homeland belongs to everyone,
but not in the same way

The homeland belongs to everyone, but it doesn’t have to belong to them all in the same way. Societies that were colonized are still divided today into two groups: those who can’t forget and those who don’t want to remember.

Those who can’t forget are those who had to take a country that began by being imposed on them by foreigners and build it up as their own.

Those who don’t want to remember are those who have a hard time acknowledging that the country of everyone has within its roots an historical injustice that’s far from eliminated and that everybody must work to gradually eliminate.


Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos is a professor at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, and atthe University of Madison, Wisconsin. This text is found in several digital sites with the title “¿LA revolución ciudadana tiene alguien la defienda?” (Does the citizen’s revolution have anyone to defend it?”)

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