Revista Yachaikuna
Working Papers
Boletin ICCI Rimai
A monthly publication of the Institute for Indigenous Sciences and Cultures (IISC)
Year III, No 27, June 2001

General Edition: Pablo Davalos
Editorial Direction: Luis Macas
Design: Rocamadour
Electronic Edition: Marc Becker


También disponible en español.

The dialogues between the Government and Indigenous people: Political traps


During the indigenous uprising at the end of January through to the first week of February 2001, the Ecuadorian Government agreed an agenda with the Indigenous movement to discuss its twenty-three principle demands. These points became the basis of the present "Mesas de Diálogo" a set of discussion working groups between the Indigenous organizations and the Government, which carried on from the process initiated with the previous government of President Jamil Mahuad (1999-2000) that had been started as a result of a previous indigenous uprising as a way of seeking to resolve conflicts and avoid future confrontations.

Dialogue is a special feature within the Indigenous movement. More than just a simple mechanism for resolving conflict, dialogue is a central element of indigenous organization through which communities and organizations reach consensual, collective agreements and obligations. Dialogue is the means to reach agreement and agreement is the fundamental basis for community-based organization and social regulation.

For the Indigenous movement, calling for dialogue implies recognizing that differing positions are relative to each other and that there may be elements within the other side's arguments that can lead to a common understanding and form a basis for agreement. Consensus generated through dialogue is vital for the Indigenous movement's political and organizational development, without which complex organizational structures would not have sufficient legitimacy or credibility to sustain the Movement's ability to unite and bring people together.

It is significant that since the June 1990 uprising one of the Indigenous movement's central demands has been to establish bases for dialogue within society in order to debate and discuss common issues, such as plurinacionalidad ("pluri-nationality"), interculturalism, participative democracy, etc. It is precisely because the country's dominant class has blocked these alternatives that the Indigenous movement seeks to establish them through a number of initiatives such as the call for a Constituent Assembly, which was first mooted in 1990 and was finally held in 1998.

The experience of these dialogues, starting from the 1990 uprising, has shown that the country's elite has always used these dialogues as a political strategy to illegitimatize the Indigenous movement, to gain time or to avoid facing up to fundamental issues by tying them up in protracted bureaucratic or technical procedures.

However, there are specific factors that are part of a new dynamic within this process that have emerged during the last uprising, as discussed below.

1. The Indigenous movement's unity

It is the first time since the 1990 uprising that all the national indigenous and peasant organizations (CONAIE, FENOCIN, FEINE, FEI and CONFEUNASSC) agreed on a common strategy of action and negotiation with the Government. Previous governments had always used the Indigenous movement's organizational disunity to disregard their demands, make agreements that favored some over others or to divide them. This time the main organizations agreed a common strategy, which is a new factor in the Ecuadorian Indigenous movement's political history and opens the way for the future.

However, this newfound unity between national indigenous and peasant organizations also creates a number of problems that directly or indirectly influence the negotiation process with the Government. An initial problem is the diversity of criteria concerning some issues on the negotiation's agenda. For example, CONAIE's criteria do not always coincide with FENOCIN's, nor the latter's with FEINE and so an internal process of harmonizing proposals, statements and strategies is needed. However, given the present political situation, this harmonization could not be established within the Indigenous movement, that helped the Government's side, which acted on a politically solid and coherent basis. The existing disagreements, both in form and substance, within the Indigenous movement limited its possibilities to apply real political pressure on the Government.

A second problem is each national indigenous and peasant organization's different priorities, internal agendas and political timetables. For example, CONAIE is thinking of its own internal timetable as its leadership elections draw near. The fact that each organization has its own specific agenda and priorities means that each one privileges certain aspects of the dialogue over others - and these various priorities do not necessarily coincide among the organizations. Up until now no organization has thought it necessary to harmonize its internal agenda as part of the overall negotiating strategy with the Government. These divergences, which spring from differing internal political agendas, influence the framework within which the organizations are carrying forward the dialogue and mainly benefit the Government.

A third problem is that the indigenous organizations have over-emphasized the ethnic elements at the expense of the overall political ones, to the detriment of other social sectors. Indigenous and peasant organizations do not object to the inclusion of other national ethnic organizations but they have emphatically rejected the inclusion of other sectors of society that are not related to ethnic issues. The ethnic dimension is the basis for the confluence of political interests between these national organizations, which position themselves within an ethnic framework and from where they seek a common negotiation strategy vis-ŕ-vis the Government. However, at the same time as ethnicity plays a unifying role it is also poses the biggest threat to the national indigenous organizations.

A fourth problem lies in the fact that the national indigenous and peasant organizations have not up until now discussed a common platform of political goals, either as the Indigenous movement or as part of Ecuadorian society as a whole. There is a general desire to oppose the dominant elite and its impositions, and there are specific elements within each organization's political program that coincide but there is no internal discussion about the society they are trying to build and the means for reaching that goal. Paradoxically, while the Indigenous movement demands that society opens itself to dialogue it has not managed to establish a broad internal dialogue to agree a common political program for achieving the long-term vision of the country it wants to have. It is therefore necessary that, starting from the last uprising, the indigenous and peasant organizations establish an internal dialogue to harmonize their diverse political projects.

A fifth problem concerns the current national situation in which every national indigenous and peasant organization has a stake, its own setting, its own tactics and members. So when election time approaches each of the indigenous and peasant organizations, with their own established political positions, privilege their specific strategies as regards the present situation. This leads the current process of unifying strategies and policies to face a number of threats to its internal coherence, which threaten to weaken this very same process.

2. The exclusion of other social sectors from the dialogue

These dialogues express a dialectic between the Ecuadorian Indigenous movement's organizational strength and its political weakness, which goes against its interests. It was the indigenous peoples, during this year's February uprising, who were the only social actors capable of forcing the Government into a dialogue and to agree an agenda. It was they who led the marches and mobilizations; it was their grassroots organizations and organizational structures that played a leading role during the uprising; and it was their leaders who spoke and defined strategies.

Meanwhile, society as a whole stood aside: a range of social actors, individuals and rural and urban sectors who, apart from expressing some form or other of sympathy or doubt, were not drawn into or involved in this process.

The February uprising obliged the Government to commit itself and to acknowledge the Indigenous movement as a legitimate interlocutor and actor in these dialogues. However, the Indigenous movement's organizational strength, once it had agreed to these negotiations with the Government, became a political weakness.

Indigenous people entered into the talks with the Government alone, but society and the country's future as a whole were included in their agenda and priorities. The fact they went alone was a recognition of their role as protagonists in the recent protests - no other social actor could politically compare or claim this role and it was on this basis that the Indigenous movement saw themselves as justified in excluding other sectors from the dialogue. But this exclusion of other social sectors implied a political defeat for the Indigenous movement.

Consequently, the Indigenous movement could not present a national agenda because these dialogues did not have national representation. Its organizational strength conspired against its desire to become a national reference point. The agenda for the dialogues was intended to become a national agenda and to be coherent with the Indigenous movement's stated aim of "nothing just for the indigenous peoples". But how is it possible to talk in society's name when society is not represented in the dialogues? How can indigenous people talk in the name of other social actors and their demands while excluding them from the dialogues? How to claim legitimacy when they were acting alone? How to involve society when a highly exclusive posture has been adopted?

These questions began to weigh down the Indigenous movement at the same time as the dialogues were set up. In this way the political triumph of February's uprising was turned into a strategic defeat. The problem deepened when it was realized that it was too late to involve other social actors and that each of the national indigenous and peasant organizations had their own distinct appreciation about other social actors who could have participated in the dialogues.

The inability to resolve this political conflict is shown in the method used to set up the dialogues with the Government. The way they have been organized privileges technical aspects (the Technical Commission) over political aspects (the Political Commission) and allows the Government to articulate a coherent strategy that has lead the Indigenous movement to be isolated from the rest of society and to find itself tied up in questions over the definition of specific and technical aspects over and above fundamental political issues. The problem is that the Indigenous movement now finds itself trapped in a situation in which it knows that these dialogues with the Government are leading nowhere but it doesn't know how to get out of this process without losing legitimacy and credibility.

3. The closed agenda

An important factor that needs to be highlighted within the dialogues is the fact that the Indigenous movement entered into this process with a closed agenda. The agenda was drafted in the heat of the moment in which short-term demands were privileged over long-term ones, such as the lowering of public transportation fares, the price of domestic gas and gasoline, etc.

In contrast to previous processes, this agenda was drafted following the uprising and tried to include the main demands of grassroots organizations and other poor sectors of society. As in previous cases this minimal agenda was called a "Mandate" that served as the basis for the negotiations with the Government.

As it was an uprising in which all the various national indigenous and peasant organizations acted together for the first time, the Mandate was drafted with the aid of technical teams from each organizations, which lead to the final document assuming a technical rather than political character.

The Indigenous movement's error was to have used this document as the principal basis for negotiation and not just as a reference point for dealing with immediate and short-term issues. This mistake is understandable because each organization believed that the document included the most immediate issues and demands that had come from their grassroots, as well as having been drafted through a consensual process among the different organizations.

When the dialogues were set up the joint technical team's proposal became the political proposal and thus the main basis for the dialogues. The Indigenous movement accepted entering into the dialogues with a closed agenda that contained the 23 points and did not consider the possibility of widening the agenda and treating it merely as a supporting document in discussions over more fundamental issues. In this way, the Indigenous movement postponed and removed the most important issues of its political project from the negotiations.

As a result, the agenda does not deal with the most fundamental issues facing the Indigenous movement and society as a whole, such as political reform of the State, "pluri-nationality" and interculturalism, the existing economic model, the need for a more democratic system of representation, decentralization, local autonomy, the Plan Colombia, dollarization, and so on.

When the Indigenous movement agreed to a closed agenda it limited its field of action and its political ability to make further demands concerning major national political issues. Even though questions such as the price of gasoline, domestic gas, public transportation, etc., are important, these are only part of a much wider political dimension relating to the existing economic model. The political juncture should have been used to open a debate within society about the current economic model.

In this way the Indigenous movement and the peasants wasted a historic opportunity to debate the fundamental issues facing the country. The basic feeling among Ecuadorian society as a whole is that these dialogues are a matter between "the Indians" and the Government and are not of great importance to the country as a whole. "The Indians" are thought to be negotiating only for themselves, not for the rest of society, and that the most important questions that society needs to debate lie outside these dialogues.

4. Is the dialogue viable?

The Indigenous and peasant movement's political errors have a number of repercussions. Firstly, they have contributed towards legitimizing the Government's policies at the same time as it has managed to demobilize and limit the Indigenous movement and other social sectors' ability to respond. In fact, while the Government and the Indigenous movement were in full dialogue, the former was able to impose an economic package that includes the raising of valued added tax, authorizes the contentious new oil pipeline, continues pouring taxpayers' money into the bankrupt financial system, continues "reforming" the social security system, and so on. All these policies were passed with hardly any resistance from society or any pronouncement on the subject by the Indigenous movement.

Secondly, the dialogues have raised expectations among grassroots indigenous and peasant organizations that are not going to be met and will likely lead to pressure being put on the indigenous leaderships to radicalize their positions, with the risk of further confrontation and conflict, including possible new protests and uprisings. Given this context, and in virtue of the fact that the dialogues are preventing fundamental issues being discussed and dealt with, those involved will blame the other side for the breakup of the dialogue and for any confrontation that may ensue. This is a lost opportunity and could have serious repercussions for Ecuador's democracy. These dialogues could have become a socially valid means of mediating conflicts and avoiding stoppages as well as contributing towards broadening the participatory social base for establishing new forms of democratic decision making, which over the longer term could have led to institutionalizing this process and so deepening democracy. But the way the current situation is developing it is generating skepticism about the dialogues and has wasted its potential as a democratic possibility for the future.

Institute for Indigenous Sciences and Cultures (IISC)

Address: Buenos Aires 1028 y Estados Unidos
Quito, Ecuador

P.O. Box: 17-15-50B
Tel/Fax 593-2-2229-093
E-mail: icci@waccom.net.ec

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