Coup is over, but Ecuador's Indians aren't going away

Indigenous groups are gathering in regional assemblies to address

The capital of Ecuador is quiet now, but indigenous leaders and many others say the story is far from over. They say their movement - which briefly toppled the government last weekend - has gained more strength from the experience. They are forming and solidifying alliances, and say that the government has yet to hear the last of them.

The events of this weekend, "were not a failure for us. The indigenous movement has gained strength with the support not only of indigenous people, but of all sectors of Ecuadorean society," says activist Julio Gualan, a Saraguro Indian. "We will continue the nonviolent battle, and at some moment we will come into power."

A month of protests by native Indians demanding the president's resignation resulted in a short-lived military-civilian coup Friday night that toppled the president.

Within a few hours of assuming power, the military member of the ruling triumvirate - which also included the leader of the indigenous movement - buckled under international pressure, dissolved the junta, and turned over the nation's leadership to the vice president. The following day the thousands of indigenous protesters who had descended on Quito returned to their homes.

The new president, Gustavo Noboa, invited the indigenous movement to engage in a dialogue with the government. But CONAIE, the confederation of indigenous nations of Ecuador, which led the protests, has refused to recognize Mr. Noboa.

In his first televised interview, on Saturday, he said that while he understands the desperation and suffering of the indigenous people, he believes "they were wrong in their tactics."

He has vowed to continue former President Jamil Mahuad's plan to replace the national currency with the US dollar, in an attempt to rescue this nation from the worst economic crisis of its history.

It was precisely this plan to "dollarize" the economy that sparked the protests last week. Indigenous leaders claim these measures will devastate the 60 percent of the nation that lives in poverty. In addition, they say Mr. Mahuad may be out of office, but the government is still riddled with corrupt officials.

The movement now has not only the motivation but the structure to oppose the government.

"This weekend's events do not impede the movement from continuing to gain force," says Fernando Garcia, a political analyst and expert in indigenous movements here. "Their strength is that they have a good organizational structure, which has not changed and is still very much intact."

Indian leaders have returned to their provinces and early this week resumed sessions of their provincial-level parliaments. These grass-roots assemblies will determine what actions the movement will take next and whether it will accept the new president's public offer of a dialogue.

What may have changed, however, is the movement's alliance with sectors of the military. This alliance, analysts say, was the key in briefly catapulting them to power this weekend. They say the fissures in the military - between the cohort of junior-level officers who embraced the movement and the higher-level officers who opposed it - have been patched over while the ringleaders await military proceedings.

But other alliances seem to be gaining strength.

"We now have a much stronger alliance with other groups of civil society," says Antonio Vargas, president of the indigenous federation and a triumvirate member. "And we have created parliaments in all the provinces, which is what gives us unity."

A Cedatos-Gallup poll taken after the coup and released Sunday shows that 71 percent of the country supports the native Indian movement.

The movement now has 6 out of 121 representatives in congress and eight city mayors. And municipal-level elections are just around the corner in May.

"I think they are trying to strengthen their power on a local, municipal level and then continue advancing with the election of congressional representatives. Mr Garcia says. It wouldn't surprise me if they ally themselves with another political force and launch a presidential or vice-presidential candidate in 2003."

Of course this doesn't necessarily mean things will be quiet in the interim. While it is dedicated to nonviolence, the movement is renowned for its ability to block the nation's highways and shut down the capital.

"If the president continues with the same politics, there will be no change, and the same problems will persist. In three months or in six months, the same thing will happen. But the next time it won't just be the indigenous people but all Ecuadorean people," says Vargas. "And this time it will be much stronger."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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