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Latin American Studies Program

A blog managed by the current LASP Graduate Student Fellows

Ecuador’s Left in a time of uncertainty

by Karla Peña


In March of this year, I and other graduate fellows at Cornell’s Latin American Studies Program hosted a roundtable discussion on “The Receding ‘Pink Tide’ in Latin America.” We highlighted recent elections in Argentina and Peru, indigenous mobilizations against neo-extractivist governments of Ecuador and Bolivia, and the corruption scandals and impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil.  Indeed, we ended the discussion with uncertainty around what constituted “the Left” in Latin America and what to expect in the coming year.  As  others have recently noted, this Left is living a crisis, at an impasse,  and/or even leading to it’s own death! But I am not fully convinced of this – well, at least not for the case of Ecuador.  Nor am I convinced that the category of “the pink tide” is useful for understanding the Left in Latin America at this very moment.  I’d like to use this particular space to share a bit of history and a few reflections on Ecuador’s Left based on my personal and research fieldwork experiences with food sovereignty and social movements in Ecuador, and conversations with colleagues and activists that live and work both here and there.

For historian Marc Becker, Rafael Correa’s Left (2005 – present) is an izquierda permitida – a regime that implements social welfare programs while pursuing capitalist resource extraction. The radical left, he says, is within the militant indigenous movements and their visions for challenging empire and neoliberalism [1]. But where did this radical left come from?  The Left in Ecuador has roots in anarchism and Marxism ideologies that in the early twentieth century played a critical role in the formation of the first revolutionary groups including, feminist collectives and anarcho-syndicalist unions [2]. The major strike held by these leftist organizations was in the city of Guayaquil in 1922, in which cacao plantation workers, electricians, and railroad workers, among others, took to the streets to demand better working conditions and higher wages.  The strike ended in the massacre of hundreds of workers and protesters – known as La Masacre del 15 de Noviembre –  which sparked anarchist and Marxist to form the Socialist and Communist  political parties in 1925.

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Figure 1. El socialista: semanario órgano de la Comisión Ejecutiva del Núcleo de Pichincha del Partido Socialista Ecuatoriano. The Socialist was printed by the Socialist Party of Ecuador in 1933. Source: Latin American Anarchist and Labour Periodicals Online 1880-1940 ; LAL-1:Ec-5

The Communist Party helped organize the first indigenous-based social organization in 1944 that continues to mobilize today- the Federación Ecuatoriana de Indios (FEI) [3]. Other national confederations of indigenous or peasant-based social organizations emerged during the dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s.  CONAIE, for instance, the leading indigenous movement, emerged in response and resistance to the rapid expansion of oil and mineral extraction in the region.  To this day, the indigenous-peasant movements of Ecuador continue to struggle for land and territorial autonomy.

Figure 2. FEI president Jose Agualsaca in front of the National Assembly rallying for the approval of Ecuador’s new Land Law, January, 2016. Source: Karla Pena

My research in the past years has focused on the way in which indigenous-peasant based movements and the state negotiate food sovereignty legislation and land reform in Ecuador. Food sovereignty is an increasingly popular concept that goes beyond food security or the right to food – its about land redistribution and territorial rights, agroecological practices, the conservation of mangrove fisheries and of artisanal fishing practices, the respect and recognition of  indigenous and traditional knowledge, and gender equity.  Recently, these negotiations culminated with the approval of a new Land Law – a policy reform that is highly contested among a range of stakeholders as the law aims to radically transform land tenure and property rights in Ecuador.   Such contestation raises the question of the sovereign in “food sovereignty.”  In other words, food sovereignty for whom?  Who gets what rights to what land?  While grassroots organizations advocate for local food systems and to some extent – local autonomy – such decentralization of power and control relies on the state, particularly  in a country with unequal access to land and other productive resources like irrigation, credits, and subsidies.  The extent to which the Land Law upholds these grassroots conceptualizations of food sovereignty seems to be at the heart of the debate and conflict between social movements and the state.

Surely, the focus on today’s Left is on the charismatic leaders (Rafael Correa, Evo Morales, Hugo Chavez, among others) and their macro-economic reforms, expansion of executive decision-making power and oppression, and the co-optation of labor unions and grassroots movements….. However, such perspectives – “the pink tide” framework – often obscure the praxis that is taking place on the ground.  The Left is more than political parties, leaders, or the state!  It’s also about the “quiet revolutions” [4] – the bottom-up, consensus based-decisions, horizontal organizations, economia solidarias  – like the Zapatistas in Mexico [5], the Rural Landless Workers in Brazil [6], or the communes of Venezuela [7].  Even in Ecuador, food sovereignty is more than what the state can give or promise – its about the on-going processes of sovereignty and autonomy that communities are already exerting on their land with or without formal recognition of rights.

Perhaps there isn’t a coherent counter-hegemonic bloc in Gramscian terms to address Webber’s critique of Ecuador’s impasse. Or perhaps we are looking in the wrong places or scales! Notwithstanding, there is hope in this time of uncertainty.  The 7.8 earthquake that struck the coast this past April was devastating but spurred waves of solidarity within the country and with the international Ecuadorian community. Moreover, Correa’s proposed progressive tax reforms for the reconstruction of the country (an estimated cost of $3 billion) has already instigated opposition.  And with the presidential elections approaching and Correa not running next year….has us all thinking ……What’s next for the Left in Ecuador and Latin America!?

More reading:

[1] Becker, Marc. (2013) “Ecuador: indigenous struggles and the ambiguities of electoral power” in Webber, Jeffery R, and Barry Carr. (eds) The New Latin American Left: Cracks In the Empire. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

[2] Paez, Alexei. (1986) El Anarquismo en el Ecuador. Quito: Corporación Editora Nacional.

[3] Picq, Manuela. (2016) The Indigenous Movements and the Left in Ecuador.  Public talk at Cornell University, March 21, 2016.

[4] Ward, Colin. (2004) Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[5] Klein, Hilary. (2015) Compañeras, Zapatista women’s stories. New York: Seven Stories Press.

[6] Wolford, Wendy. (2010) This Land is Ours Now: Social Mobilization and the Meanings of Land in Brazil. Durham: Duke University Press.

[7] Ciccariello-Maher, George. (2016) Building the Commune: Venezuela’s Radical Democracy. Public talk at Cornell University, April 11, 2016.


Karla Peña is a doctoral student in Development Sociology at Cornell University.  Broadly, she is interested in food sovereignty, agrarian change and state-society relations in Latin America. Email: kap267@cornell.edu


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