Don Carlos, caro amigo:

Ralph Della Cava, professor de história da 'City University of New York', meu velho amigo, enviou-me este comentário de I. Wallerstein, que considero importante fazer circular em HaD.


Eduardo Diatahy B. de Menezes

Comment No. 33, Feb. 1, 2000

"Indigenous Peoples, Populist Colonels, and Globalization"

In the first month of the twenty-first century, a small drama was enacted in Ecuador, a country whose politics seem obscure to most people elsewhere in the world. This small drama however illustrated one of the key issues of the next fifty years. If the last half of the twentieth century was a period of so-called decolonization everywhere - that is, the end of colonial rule by European powers over non-European territories - it is now the turn of the "internally colonized" to make their voices heard.

What happened in Ecuador can be briefly summarized. In a country suffering from the highest inflation in Latin America and very high unemployment, the President, Jaime Mahaud, announced his solution - further integration into the world market via "dollarization," that is, pegging the Ecuadorian currency to the U.S. dollar. The cup of discontent overflowed. An organization representing the "indigenous peoples" of Ecuador (CONAIE) announced a march on the capital. After about a week, a large number of persons had arrived. A group of "populist colonels" in the armed forces supported them. Suddenly, a peaceful coup occurred. A junta of three persons assumed executive authority. The three-person junta was comprised of a populist colonel, the head of CONAIE, and a former Justice of the Supreme Court (representing presumably middle-class urban professionals). The junta thought it had the support of the army, at least their passive support. In about a day, the populist colonel was replaced by a less populist general. The U.S. sent envoys to make "suggestions" to this general, threatening the economic isolation of Ecuador. And one day later, he resigned, dissolved the junta, and convened the Congress not in order to reinstall the President (who had always refused to resign) but to make the Vice-President President. The populist colonel in the junta was arrested; the head of CONAIE and the justice of the Supreme Court went into hiding.

The Vice-President, now President, announced that he would continue the economic policies against which CONAIE was protesting, and that he would seek to punish the army rebels. The U.S. government promptly recognized the new government. The head of CONAIE emerged from hiding briefly to announce that the army had betrayed CONAIE by breaking their solemn promises, that he would seek to negotiate with the new President, but that if, within 3-6 months, there were no changes, the situation might well deteriorate into civil war.

A tempest in a teapot? Or a harbinger of things to come? How could a group of indigenous peoples overthrow a President? What are populist colonels? And why was the U.S. government so exercised about the events and so prompt to intervene? Let us start with the "indigenous peoples" - who are they? In Latin America, the answer is rather clear: this term refers primarily to populations called Indians who lived in the Americas before the European conquest. In a series of countries along the long Cordillera that runs from Mexico to Chile, such peoples are a large percentage of the population - almost always largely rural, very poor, and not allowed to participate actively in the political life of the countries.

In Ecuador, such peoples are about 40-50% of the population. Ecuador is divided into three geographic zones: the Altiplano, where Quechua-speaking peoples live; the Amazonian region, with other peoples; and the Coast which has relatively few Indians but a Black population of ex-slaves. CONAIE had been able, over the past decade, to build a fairly strong organization with strength in all three zones, even if their greatest strength was in the Altiplano. They had been involved in local elections, and had been beginning to win some of them.

Ecuador was one of four Andean countries, which have all had different forms of popular revolt in recent years. Colombia has been the scene of a almost 30-year long civil war, in which the rebels (FARC) have been waging a relatively classic insurrection and now control a good portion of the country. Peru was the scene of a civil war, led primarily by a less "classic" organization, using far more radical tactics than FARC - Sendero Luminoso. This organization has been largely suppressed by the Peruvian army after a ruthless campaign by President Fujimori. Venezuela was for a long time the most "parliamentary" of the four countries. Its politics were a battle between two centrist parties, one of Christian Democratic coloration and one claiming a Social-Democratic past. A few years ago, a revolt of a populist colonel was suppressed. Last year, this populist colonel, Hugo Chávez, swept the elections and moved quickly to suspend all the traditional structures, using an anti-intellectual rhetoric, and replacing them with a new Constitution and new structures, and won overwhelming popular support in a referendum (to the dismay not only of the middle classes but of the traditional left intellectuals).

Ecuador had been the quiet spot, relatively speaking. It is quiet no longer. One can see why the U.S. government was so exercised. After a long struggle, Peru may be back in line for the moment, but in Colombia the government is in a shaky position, and in Venezuela, a populist colonel of uncertain trajectory is solidly in power. The U.S. obviously felt that an Ecuadorian junta could only weaken the U.S. position throughout the region.

And the populist colonels, who are they? In Latin America, as in many parts of the world, the army is a means of upward social mobility. Many of the officers, from lieutenants to colonels, are from popular backgrounds and have not yet cut their ties to them. But such persons seldom make general. Generals tend to come from more oligarchic backgrounds. So every once in a while, these colonels (or lieutenants) make the leap to become "revolutionary." They are not reliably so, as CONAIE found out, but they can cause trouble, as the U.S. well knows. Some of the Ecuadorian colonels have now taken refuge in Venezuela.

But the most serious problem was that the "indigenous peoples" were so well organized. They were the real threat. They demanded "more, sir", like David Copperfield. And they were quite clear that "globalization" was making their demands less, not more, possible. CONAIE had learned well from their brothers elsewhere - the Mayans who had been so brutally suppressed in long wars in Guatemala and El Salvador, the Chiapas Indians who have been using such intelligent tactics in their long struggle with the Mexican government (and who were denounced, just this week, by President Zedillo as persons with whom one couldn't negotiate).

CONAIE knew that it couldn't undertake itself an armed rebellion - not yet, at least. They needed support, and turned to the army. They have been burned. They will try again. And they are being watched by others. Spokespersons for the Mapuche Indians of northern Chile said that the events of Ecuador was "a great experience from which we must all learn." And in Guatemala, the Defensoría Maya warned the government that they were tired of the systematic oppression and were going to take a lesson from what happened in Ecuador "in their untiring end poverty, discrimination, and corruption."

Will anyone listen to such words? Probably not, but then the "indigenous peoples" will simply continue to organize, and perhaps soon we may have more surprises like that of Ecuador. While this was happening, at the other end of the world, in India, President K.R. Narayanan made a nationwide television address on the eve of the 50th Anniversary of India as a constitutional republic. The President is the first "untouchable" (India's equivalent of Ecuador's "Indians") to serve in this ceremonial post. It is a post without power, but it is a symbol, and it was thought symbolic to have elected an untouchable. What did he say? "One-half of our society guzzles aerated beverages while the other has to make do with palmfuls of muddied water....Our giant factories rise from out of squalor; our satellites shoot up from the midst of the hovels of the poor." His conclusion? "Beware the fury of the patient and long-suffering people."

Immanuel Wallerstein