Ecuador’s Historic Strike
For eighteen days this June, thousands of Ecuadorians participated in a national strike that blocked highways across the country, paralyzed the capital city of Quito, and obstructed oil wells and mining sites from the northern Amazon to the southern Andes. Led by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), an umbrella group of Indigenous organizations founded in 1986, this mass mobilization was the first of its scale in Ecuador since 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic and before the conservative president Guillermo Lasso, the former CEO of one of Ecuador’s largest banks, took office. For two weeks, Indigenous and peasant families, including women, men, elders, and children, came to Quito from across the country and flooded the city’s streets, joined by members of social organizations and labor unions. Those who stayed in their communities participated in different forms of direct action to pressure Lasso’s conservative government into negotiating.
CONAIE and its allies were protesting the government’s handling of the country’s economic, social, and environmental crises. Today, one in four Ecuadorians lives in poverty, and half work in the informal sector with no statutory rights and precarious labor conditions. In 2019 then-president Lenin Moreno attempted to remove fuel subsidies—a practice that CONAIE has called an austerity measure that hits the poor the hardest, increases the price of other basic commodities, and makes it more difficult for domestic producers of goods like milk to compete with imports from other countries. He reversed that decision when Ecuadorians, led by the Indigenous movement, went on a twelve-day strike. But fuel prices continued to rise, first as a result of regressive economic policies implemented during the pandemic and then due to the war in Ukraine. In the Amazon, meanwhile, fifty years of oil exploitation and recent mega-mining projects like the open-pit copper mine Mirador have brought little to no economic benefit to the region’s Indigenous and peasant communities. Instead, they have left polluted rivers and degraded soil, led to the murder of three Indigenous leaders, and violently displaced hundreds of people.
Media outlets in the US, including The New York Times and Foreign Policy, have explained this summer’s eruption of social unrest as a direct response to the recent increase of gas and food prices. But while Ecuador’s uprising was in part influenced by record inflation, it cannot be reduced to an anti-inflation protest. The distinctive character of the 2022 national strike is that it combined two ostensibly contradictory demands: fuel subsidies and a moratorium on oil extraction. These two agendas—resistance to austerity on the one hand and to natural resource plundering on the other—had never before been equally prioritized in a national strike. During the 1990s and early 2000s, CONAIE led nationwide anti-neoliberal protests while Indigenous groups affiliated with the Confederation continued their decades-long resistance to oil drilling in the Amazon. Under the progressive government of Rafael Correa—which ruled from 2006 to 2017 and relied on drilling and mining to sustain its resource-dependent economic model—CONAIE came to devote more of its energies to protesting extraction.
As the scholar Thea Riofrancos shows in her book Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador (2020), the expansion of oil and mining projects under correísmo divided the left into two flanks: the resource nationalists who supported Correa and the anti-extractive grassroots activists led by CONAIE. Contributing to the schism was Correa’s history of repressing and criminalizing protest. During his tenure, several Indigenous leaders—including Marlon Santi, CONAIE’s former president—were accused of sabotage and terrorism for participating in demonstrations. The two flanks of the country’s progressive forces remained in tension after Correa left power, making a united front of left resistance almost impossible and contributing to Lasso’s victory in last year’s presidential elections.
During the 2022 strike, however, anti-neoliberal and anti-extractive demands—including an oil and mining moratorium—both appeared on CONAIE’s list of proposals. The strike concluded in dramatic negotiations with Lasso’s government, and on June 30 a “peace agreement” was signed that addressed the most significant demands: cuts to the prices of fuel (from $2.55 to $2.40 a gallon) and diesel (from $1.90 to $1.75 a gallon); a repeal of Lasso’s Decree 95, which had sought to deregulate the oil and gas industry, and a reform of Decree 151—Lasso’s subsequent attempt to expand mining exploration—that prohibits mining in Indigenous territories, archaeological areas, and water-protection areas.
The deal also includes price controls on certain goods, an emergency declaration for the public health system, and forgiveness of up to $3,000 of overdue loans held by the state-owned bank, BanEcuador. Lasso did not participate in the negotiations, instead delegating his minister of government, Francisco Jiménez, to represent him. It was a notable victory for the Indigenous movement and its allies. At a time of environmental devastation, neoliberal restructuring, and worsening living conditions for impoverished and indebted people around the world, it bears looking closely at why and how they won.
Ecuador is one of Latin America’s smaller countries, but its Indigenous movement is among the strongest and best-organized social movements in the region. Since CONAIE’s founding, Indigenous peoples have been on the front line of resistance to the so-called Washington Consensus, a list of market-driven policy prescriptions for countries in crisis—including the reduction of public subsidies, the privatization of state enterprises, and the loosening of trade regulations—supported by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and United States Department of the Treasury.
In its first two decades, the Indigenous movement transformed Ecuadorian politics, even precipitating the removal of presidents. One of them was Jamil Mahuad, whose handling of a series of economic crises—floods caused by El Niño, the collapse of oil prices, and the bankruptcy of most of the country’s private banks—led Ecuador into one of its worst national recessions in 2000.
Following Mahuad’s announcement of the “dollarization” of Ecuador’s economy, which entailed the replacement of Ecuador’s domestic currency, the sucre, with the US dollar, demonstrators led by CONAIE, in concert with the military, rose up against him. After days of Indigenous-led highway blockages and CONAIE’s occupation of the National Congress—where Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez; CONAIE’s president, Antonio Vargas; and the former president of Ecuador’s Supreme Court, Carlos Solórzano, announced the formation of a ruling junta—Mahuad left the presidential palace. CONAIE’s alliance with the military was short-lived. Just a day after the occupation of the National Congress, the vice president, Gustavo Noboa, took office with the support of the Ministry of Defense—a move CONAIE’s leaders considered a betrayal.
In 2002 the Indigenous party Pachakutik, considered CONAIE’s political arm, supported Colonel Gutiérrez’s presidential campaign. But just weeks after taking power, Gutiérrez moved to support neoliberal policies like a free trade agreement with the United States. By 2006, Pachakutik had relatively weak support from its Indigenous base, and although the party ran its own candidate in that year’s elections, several members of the Indigenous movement tacitly supported Correa’s candidacy from within Alianza País, a political movement that promoted him to the presidency.
Correa came to power with the promise of bringing the country out of what he called, borrowing a popular phrase from the 1990s, its “long and sad neoliberal night.” Once elected, he convoked a constituent assembly—a demand advanced by CONAIE in 1997—which was installed with broad popular approval in 2007. A year later, after a successful referendum, Ecuadorians adopted their first new constitution since 1998. Alongside other proposals developed by CONAIE, it included the Kichwa concept of Sumak Kawsay (“Good Living”), which the preamble calls a “new form of public coexistence, in diversity and in harmony with nature”; it declared Ecuador a plurinational state, a proposal inspired by Indigenous practices of territorial self-determination; and it recognized the rights of Pachamama, Nature. Article 71 recognizes Nature as a legal subject that “has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.” After decades of Indigenous-led mobilization on the streets, CONAIE’s political proposals had found their way into Ecuador’s institutions. Constructing a new, plurinational state became a real possibility.
Yet from the start of Correa’s tenure, conflicts began to surface. His agenda of social transformation, which included redistributive social policies, depended on the expansion of natural resource extraction. The administration moved to take advantage of high commodity prices by opening large-scale oil and mining projects, which mostly affected Indigenous and peasant communities in the Amazon rainforest and the Andes mountains. The combination of the government’s extractive agenda and a discourse that prioritized social spending put CONAIE in a difficult position. With a self-declared anti-neoliberal president in power, CONAIE lost its purchase on the anti-austerity discourse to which it had contributed during the previous decade. Only when it called for the national strike this June—in alliance with the Confederation of Campesino, Indigenous and Black Organizations (FENOCIN) and the Council of Indigenous Evangelical Peoples and Organizations of Ecuador (FEINE)—was CONAIE able to fully connect its economic demands of the 1990s to the longstanding anti-extractive agenda that motivated its confrontation with correísmo in the 2010s. Two recent developments made this convergence possible.
The first was Lasso’s election. His predecessor, Lenin Moreno, a former president of Alianza País, had won his election in 2017 with Correa’s support but quickly broke from correísmo and turned to the right. According to some Ecuadorian analysts, Moreno’s political transformation can be explained both by the seriousness of Ecuador’s economic situation and by his interest in finding someone to blame for it. At the beginning of his term, Moreno accused his predecessor of having made up figures about Ecuador’s debt: while Correa’s government evaluated the debt at 27.7 percent of the country’s GDP, analysts appointed by Moreno calculated 59 percent. In 2019 Moreno agreed to a $6.5 billion loan agreement with the IMF. To meet the loan’s conditions, Lasso not only retained Moreno’s reforms but also launched an aggressive plan to expand domestic drilling and mining.
Soon after Lasso’s election, Ecuador’s National Assembly approved the “Defense of Dollarization Law,” which reformed the country’s monetary and financial system to guarantee the “independence” of Ecuador’s Central Bank and the accumulation of international reserves. For a country lacking its own currency, international reserves serve as collateral for the payment of external debt, which protects the interests of bondholders. The law was one of the commitments Moreno made as a condition of the IMF’s loan in 2019, and Lasso’s government has complied with the IMF’s mandate to the letter. Since 2021, it has sent millions of dollars to Ecuador’s foreign reserves rather than allocating them to the public health system, which has been under severe strain since the start of the pandemic.
Last year Lasso also signed two decrees, 95 and 151, that aimed to expand oil and mining exploration in the Amazon as well as shift both industries to the private sector. The first of these would have transferred 71 percent of Ecuador’s oil production, currently controlled by the state, to private corporations. Indigenous, peasant, and urban organizations mobilized against these projects. In the second half of 2021, CONAIE, in alliance with environmental groups such as Yasunid@s, Acción Ecológica, and Amazon Frontlines, submitted an appeal against both decrees to Ecuador’s Constitutional Court, on the grounds that they did not guarantee the right to prior, free, and informed consultation; failed to respect Indigenous peoples’ territorial rights; and violated the rights of Nature.
These organizations were already mobilized against extraction under Correa. But the Lasso administration’s move to privatize extraction has made it possible for them to link such projects to IMF austerity reforms: Decree 95 was, among other things, a way for Lasso to comply with the IMF’s loan requirements to audit and reduce state-owned companies, including the public companies Petroecuador and Petroamazonas. “Where,” CONAIE’s president Leonidas Iza asked in an interview, “is the money from the difference in the price of a barrel of oil that amounts to $115 dollars, when it is budgeted at $50 dollars, going? These resources are in the international reserves.”
The second development that made CONAIE’s achievement possible was Iza’s election as the Confederation’s president last year. Iza, who had taken a major part in the 2019 national strike, belongs to a younger generation of Indigenous leaders who represent a more left-wing and class-based—as opposed to only ethnic-based—position within CONAIE, closer to the historical legacy of Indigenous leaders like the communist Dolores Cacuango and to the thought of the Marxist philosopher José Carlos Mariátegui. Iza and other younger leaders such as Nayra Chalán and Apawki Castro have distanced themselves from Indigenous leaders like the former presidential candidate Yaku Pérez, an important figure in the anti-mining movement in the southern Andes who in his presidential campaign tried to pursue his anti-extractive goals by supporting neoliberal appeals to shrink the state.
Iza’s leadership has also made possible a recent wave of alliances between the Indigenous movement and other grassroots anti-mining organizations. In August 2021, soon after Lasso signed Decree 151, seventy-eight delegations—including CONAIE, local governments, communities, and activist organizations from around the country—founded the Frente Nacional Anti-Minero. The coalition’s priority has been documenting the influence of transnational mining capital on Ecuador’s legislation and persuading broader sectors of Ecuador’s society that mining projects would generate minimal revenue for the state and create very few jobs, since automation has enabled large-scale mining to be more capital-intensive than labor-intensive.
This new national coalition used the 2022 uprising as a chance to connect the violence against Indigenous and peasant communities to the country’s broader patterns of dispossession.
The 2022 strike was brutally repressed by the police and military. During both the uprising itself and the subsequent negotiations, the government made unfounded and racist allegations against the Indigenous movement, accusing CONAIE of financing the strike with money from drug trafficking. On the second day of the strike, an elite group of the police and armed forces arrested Iza without a warrant on the accusation of “sabotage” for allegedly blocking the Pan-American highway. CONAIE livestreamed his arrest on Facebook, where viewers saw him forced into an unmarked white pickup truck. Footage was later released of him being transferred in a helicopter from Quito to a jail in the city of Latacunga. The next day, after social movements and human rights organizations demanded his release, Iza was freed and protests around the country intensified. At least seven people died in the following fifteen days—six protesters and a soldier. Iza survived an assassination attempt; his car was shot at, shattering a window.
Two days before the signing of the peace agreement, President Lasso unilaterally suspended the negotiations and accused Iza of terrorism, claiming that the Indigenous leader was responsible for inciting “violent” protests that cost the life of a solider in the northern Amazon region. He did not mention the six protesters killed by the police and the military. Such accusations helped incite an aggressive, racist response from upper-class members of the mestizo population, particularly in the cities of Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca, where countermarches called on people to arm themselves and repeated hateful chants.
What sustained the strike was the solidarity and collective action of organizations from the parts of Ecuadorian society hardest-hit by the economic crisis. Feminist collectives like Mujeres de Frente, dozens of communes located in the outskirts of Quito like San Miguel del Común, and young students from public universities like Universidad Central turned lecture halls into shelters, houses into community kitchens, and storage facilities into donation centers for Indigenous and peasant families coming from around the country. After the negotiations concluded, the Ecuadorian digital research outlet Plan V shared a survey by the Peruvian firm Imasen, which reported that about 51 percent of Ecuadorians thought that CONAIE comported themselves best during the strike—14 percent more than said the same about the police and the armed forces. Meanwhile, 86 percent thought Lasso had acted worst.
Since the pandemic started, life has become increasingly precarious for many Ecuadorians. Lasso has become widely unpopular; when the strike started, his approval rating dropped to under 30 percent. But many working-class Ecuadorians also have a long memory of participating since the 1990s in forms of resistance like community kitchens, and see their own concerns mirrored in those of the Indigenous movement. It was in shelters or on the streets that Indigenous people and urban Ecuadorians could share seemingly disparate stories—from the health crisis in city hospitals to the recurring oil spills in the Amazon—and wonder why so many years of extraction have not improved their lives.
Andrea Sempértegui is an Assistant Professor of Politics at Whitman College and a member of the anti-extractive collective Comunálisis, based in Quito, Ecuador. (October 2022)
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