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March 29, 2002
Camping Out
Plan Colombia, globalization stir unrest in Ecuador.
A protester shot in the leg during social justice demonstrations in Quito, Ecuador.

Hundreds of indigenous people, environmentalists and activists set up a “Permanent International Camp for Social Justice and Dignity of the Peoples” in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, in mid-March to protest the effects of Plan Colombia and globalization on the small Andean nation.

Protests and events were held in Lago Agrio on the Colombian border, at the U.S. military base in Manta and in other parts of the country, involving a slew of Ecuadorian indigenous and community groups as well as hundreds of activists from other parts of South America and the world.

The mainly peaceful March actions, which included teach-ins, demonstrations and caravans, are the latest in a wave of periodic mass mobilizations that have gone on in the country since plans to dollarize the economy were announced two years ago. Former President Jamil Mahuad’s plans to make the U.S. dollar the official Ecuadorian currency sparked a brief coup on January 21, 2000, when a coalition of indigenous and military leaders backed by thousands of protesters deposed Mahuad and set up a short-lived government. Less than 24 hours later, power was ceded to former Vice President Gustavo Noboa, who went through with the dollarization plan anyway.

Dissatisfaction and unrest have continued to grow since dollarization was imposed in September 2000, as real wages for most workers have fallen drastically and crime and unemployment have markedly increased.

Dollarization was intended to yank Ecuador out of a downward spiral of inflation and devaluation—in 1999, the Ecuadorian sucre had lost 67 percent of its value, and its inflation rate had risen as high as 104 percent a year, the highest in Latin America. The government defaulted on much of its foreign debt in 1999, and for some time the country has been adhering to International Monetary Fund austerity measures, in return for a $300 million loan approved in the spring of 2000 as part of a U.S.-backed plan for international aid.

David Turner, a Quito resident and former member of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or CONAIE, an indigenous group involved in the coup, says incomes have plummeted since dollarization.

“Dollarization is a trick,” he says. “The bankers and other speculators, in cahoots with the government, managed to bring the sucre down from 5,000 to the dollar to 25,000 [to the dollar] in the last four months of 1999. Someone making a monthly salary worth $200 ended up being paid $40.”

While dollarization’s effects on the economy as a whole have been mixed, indigenous, labor and environmental groups in the country see it as part of the overall trends of globalization and militarization having devastating effects on the country. Dollarization continues “the process of foreign indebtedness and colonial dependency, with the long-known outcomes of poverty, social inequality and the concentration and exportation of wealth,” says a communiqué issued by the organizing committee of the Permanent Camp.

The establishment of the Permanent Camp—so termed because organizers hope the camp will remain there for a long time—was preceded on March 12 by a protest rally of about 300 banana workers in the city of Guayaquil. The workers were demanding the reinstatement of 120 workers fired after a massive work stoppage on February 25, as well as the recognition of a union at Noboa Corp., a banana company owned by a relative of the current president. The Ecuadorian banana industry is 99 percent non-union, according to Joan Axthelm of the U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project. Ecuador’s low wages and poor conditions depress standards for banana workers throughout Latin America, Axthelm says.

U.S. military involvement in the region has been particularly controversial. There has been significant opposition to the establishment of the U.S. base in the coastal city of Manta, and many blame the United States for fueling the civil war in Colombia and the spillover of violence and refugees into Ecuador. Lago Agrio, an idyllic town on the border with Colombia once home to both tourism and thriving indigenous culture, is now awash in violence and fear, according to indigenous activist Monica Chuy, who grew up in the area. “People are afraid to even go out after dark there now,” she says. “It’s so sad.”

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