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From newsdesk@igc.apc.org Thu Feb 17 14:11:04 2000 Date: Wed, 16 Feb 2000 15:20:09 -0600 (CST)
From: IGC News Desk <newsdesk@igc.apc.org>
Subject: POLITICS-ECUADOR: Power Is Not Indigenous Goal, Says Leader
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Article: 89206
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Copyright 2000 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.

Power Is Not Indigenous Goal, Says Leader

By Kintto Lucas, IPS
2 February 2000

QUITO, Feb 2 (IPS) - The objective of Ecuador's indigenous peoples is not power, but to create social change "from within," assures Antonio Vargas, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), a leading force in one of Latin America's best organised native movements.

"There are many things more important than power: social change from within and building lives that are more colourful, more lively, and awareness that there is a serious problem here - and that change is necessary," Vargas stated in an interview with IPS.

According to Vargas, the indigenous peoples were close to power during their January 21 insurrection, but they were not obstinate about it.

"If we had been stubborn about power, there would have been confrontations and death. But since we weren't, we offered the possibility of another path. The important thing is that we caused a shake-up in the political class, and it was made clear that there is a rebellious population here that will make change without violence," he maintained.

The CONAIE directorate, accompanied by tens of thousands of indigenous people from throughout the country who had gathered in Quito, led the insurrection alongside military officials who stepped outside the chain of command.

The uprising occurred, in part, to protest president Jamil Mahuad's proposal to replace the Ecuadoran sucre with the US dollar as the nation's currency.

But the armed forces launched a coup d'etat, overthrowing Mahuad and replacing him with his vice-president Gustavo Noboa, in order to prevent the insurgents' "National Salvation Junta," installed in the parliament, from taking over the entire government.

The uprising has "shown Ecuador and the world that there are people living marginalised from government decisions," affirmed the indigenous leader.

"We achieved our objective of bringing down the three government branches, even if it was just for a few hours. But above all we were able to put the branches' lack of prestige in the centre of debate. Many said that this was a fantasy, suicide, a crazy idea of the leaders, but we proved them wrong," Vargas said.

He criticised the "apartheid" the indigenous peoples suffered when military personnel forced anyone wearing a poncho to get off buses destined for Quito, in an attempt to prevent them from amassing in the capital for the protest.

"They arrived anyway, on foot. And it created great unity for the different actions we have underway," he stated.

The leader, who for the first time since January 21 agreed to reflect on the insurrection, affirmed that it was not a defeat because "it served to strengthen the indigenous movement and deepen the unity among Ecuadorans who want change."

"Since July 1999, CONAIE has become the unifying axis between social sectors and the indigenous world. Perhaps one mistake was not being able to put a more social emphasis in our political plan, but it is true the media hit us hard," he commented.

According to Vargas, the indigenous people never felt they were being used, because their actions were the result of their own reflections.

"We never let ourselves be used. Sometimes discrepancies arise with some sectors that want to move ahead in a hurry, and this hurry ends up as little marches and confrontations with the police, without moving anything forward because the government has them (stopped)," Vargas affirmed.

Some television stations tried to provoke fighting among the indigenous groups by "giving space to certain personalities who did not represent anyone, in order to highlight differences and open wounds, but they were unsuccessful," said the leader.

"They were also anxious to release a falsified document, in which the alleged signature of (indigenous leader) Salvador Quishpe appeared, that said 'kill the mestizos,' and later, when it was disproved, they did not give the issue the same space," he argued.

Antonio Vargas is of the Kiwcha indigenous group, and became CONAIE president in 1996 at a time when the movement suffered an acute division between groups from the Amazon and those from the Sierra. The tensions were fomented by then-president Abdal  Bucaram, who parliament removed from office in February 1997.

Vargas was re-elected as CONAIE president this year, and was a key player in the alliance between the indigenous movement and junior officers from the armed forces during the insurrection.

He stressed that the officers and the troops supporting them represent the beginning of a change in attitude in the military ranks.

"From this experience, a new military is born, which sees change is possible. It is the hope that the generals do not have, because they are more involved in corruption and defending their interests," asserted Vargas. "There is a seed that one day will germinate throughout the armed forces."

The indigenous leader believes it may have been a mistake to launch a take-over of the Government Palace and leave behind the legislative Congress the rebels had already occupied. From a position of power, "perhaps" they could have negotiated some important points with the new government.

"There was great pressure from poeple who wanted to take over the presidency because it was another symbol of corruption. Perhaps it was a mistake, and if we had stayed in Congress the results would have been different. In any case, the events have already occurred," he said.

The leader also accused the military's upper echelons of having prepared a coup attempt that they later aborted thanks to the actions of the indigenous groups and junior officers.

"When we arrived at the Government Palace, the generals had prepared a proclamation and a communique in which they announced they were taking over all government branches and that we had not accepted it. That's why they had to sit down and talk with us."

Vargas acknowledged another mistake of the uprising, which was accepting that general Carlos Mendoza, then Chief of the Joint Command, take part in the National Salvation Junta, which also included Vargas and former Supreme Court president Carlos SolĒrzano.

"Maybe it was a mistake to accept Mendoza, but if we hadn't a great deal of blood would have been spilled, and neither the colonels nor the indigenous leaders were willing to take that risk," he explained.

The Noboa government, which CONAIE has granted a six-month truce, could make changes if it has the will to do so. "If it doesn't, it will fall in the same mess as Mahaud and will be digging its own grave," Vargas maintained.

"If (Noboa) thinks what we want are some little agreements for some communities, he is mistaken and has not understood anything of what happened, because what we want goes much deeper. We are not asking for handouts."

"Many times the authorities are where they are because they are educated, but in practical terms they are ignorant because they don't understand the situation of the people," stated Vargas, "Therefore they fail."

The leader expressed hope that there will be changes in Ecuador's future.

"Change will arrive without violence, peacefully, directed at the communities. What occurred Jan 21 was a rehearsal. It made people feel in their hearts that it is possible, that they must not remain quiet because it only serves to help the same politicians as always."

Vargas rejects violence because he believes it will not get the indigenous movement anywhere, and argues that "mobilising great masses using organisation is the best road for seeking change."

"If (change) doesn't come it may unleash violence, but we must manage ourselves with caution so that doesn't happen. In any case, one must realise that in the future there could be a huge social explosion, even a civil war, because the people may go out and loot and plunder if they don't have anything to eat."

Along with the CONAIE announcement that it would give the new government a six-month truce, the organisation proposed that president Noboa convoke a plebiscite on four questions, "in order to reaffirm democracy."

One of the questions for the Ecuadoran people is whether they agree with the removal of former president Jamil Mahuad and the destitution of legislators and Supreme Court ministers.

Another asks if they want "Ecuador to maintain its monetary sovereignty and the sucre to remain the official currency, and reject the 'dollarisation' plan."

The plebiscite would also request the public's opinion on whether the State should "maintain control and ownership of petroleum, electricity, telecommunications and social security."

Vargas argues, "If they (government officials) love democracy so much and fill their mouths with it, they should return sovereignty to the people in a plebiscite and prove they are truly democrats."

If Noboa rejects calling a national vote on these issues, CONAIE and the social movements would have to gather approximately 605,000 signatures in order to legally require a plebiscite - which may be the indigenous movement's next major challenge.


Origin: Montevideo/POLITICS-ECUADOR/

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