Social Mobilizations in Ecuador: From October 19 to Covid-19

From the Series: Global Protest Movements in 2019: What Do They Teach Us?

Photo by Jonathan van Smit, licensed under CC BY NC ND.

When initially invited to collaborate on this series on global protests around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic had not yet started. Very soon after Ecuador’s strict lockdown—in mid-March 2020—it became evident that, in the midst of a health emergency that brought the country to a stop, democracy was also halted. Official sources in Ecuador’s Ministry of Health show that the country has been particularly hard hit by the deadly disease with numbers of confirmed cases at 167,000 and confirmed deaths above 12,500 by the end of October 2020. Real numbers are said to be at least three times these figures. Gruesome images of dead bodies abandoned in the streets of Ecuador’s main port city of Guayaquil circulated around the world back in March 2020. Ecuador became the paradigmatic example of the wrong approach to Covid-19—the image of what a pandemic looks like in the face of poverty and precarious health systems, structural violence and government corruption. As Ecuadorians were wrestling with the effects of Covid-19 and lockdown—and its anticipated economic hardships—the government announced a massive austerity package that included budget cuts to public education and, astonishingly, public health, as well as further divestment in public services and an aggressive round of privatizations.

It is in this context that our reflection on the mass protests that emerged in Ecuador and other countries in Latin America in October 2019 takes place. In this short essay, we approach the October 2019 protests in light of what Covid-19 illuminates regarding renewed global activisms as well as citizen mobilizations in Ecuador. Here, these mobilizations are connected to three decades of Indigenous political struggle against inequality and discrimination, feminist and LGBTQ+ demands for diversity and democracy, and student and labor union responses to neoliberalism and authoritarianism. By approaching the October 2019 protests in this manner, we ask how Covid-19 may retroactively show the ways in which the October protests were embedded in a system of political and economic instability based on new forms of capital accumulation, the dismantling of public institutions, and a regression in civil rights. What does Covid-19 reveal about the October protests? And what might these protests teach us about the Ecuadorian government’s current approach to the pandemic?

We know at this point that the pandemic in Ecuador has served to further suppress collective decision-making processes, promote aggressive austerity packages, and likely trigger a new wave of impoverishment. But the story here is not unique, and we feel anthropology is particularly well suited to provide both a broader context and new perspectives. At various points during this essay we return to a public debate on resistance organized by Kaleidos - Center for Interdisciplinary Ethnography in Cuenca, Ecuador, right after the October 2019 protests started. This colloquium, which served as a catalyst for further debate, included the participation of three Indigenous and non-Indigenous women activists with long histories in resistance movements. In the first part of this essay we elaborate on the potentialities of ethnographic knowledge production in light of recent events in Ecuador and the country’s own political particularities. The second part of the essay offers avenues for reflecting on the central role that ethnography can play moving forward, as well as new alternatives for thinking through these times of unrest based on our discipline’s learned lessons and active search for collaborative spaces.

Kaleidos’s October 2019 seminar. Photo by Maka Suarez.

New Forms of Repression

“We are facing a completely different repressive time than we were facing years ago. There is a reinvention of the capitalist system; when it sees a crisis, it looks for a way to reinvent itself, and to continue with its accumulation model. As class contradictions become more acute, [capitalism] also needs to set up models of increased violent repression.” These were the words of Ayni Shunku during the October Kaleidos colloquium. Her statement pointed to new local and global political economic arrangements that Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups face, and to forms of activism that, given this conjuncture, need to be reinvented. As an Indigenous woman who has participated in Ecuador’s Indigenous movement since she was a child, Ayni Shunku has witnessed both a change in the form neoliberalism has taken in Ecuador, and a change within the Indigenous movement promoted through forms of “popular” education across cultural worlds that combine critical thinking with daily struggles of Indigenous movements in Ecuador (Muyolema 2012).

Here, we do not want to speak to anthropology’s long history documenting social movements (Edelman 2001; Juris 2008; Graeber 2009; Coleman 2014; Bonilla and Rosa 2015). Rather, we turn to the ways in which anthropology is able to provide us with different—and maybe unique—approaches for thinking about the current moment. Its vast experience chronicling life as a lived experience (Desjarlais 2003; Han 2012) affords a methodological praxis with revolutionary potential (Shah 2017). It is ethnography—and ethnographic writing’s collaborative capabilities (Astuti 2017)—as media for thinking through and with this moment of heightened uncertainty and instability that interests us.

The history of the Ecuadorian Indigenous movement is well beyond the scope of our piece, but it’s worth briefly mentioning that it has been a symbol of resistance and organization throughout the entire continent. From its origins in the 1980s and 1990s, the movement managed to become a cohesive, united front against the progression of structural adjustment programs and the demise of feeble public services implemented in the 1970s. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) was the only actor in Ecuadorian politics that could—and, to a large extent, still can—paralyze the entire country in a matter of days, limiting commerce between rural and urban areas and cutting transnational transport routes. The organization is also credited for its key role in overthrowing several presidents in the 1990s through its social mobilization. It is safe to say that the CONAIE holds critical importance in Ecuador’s recent political history. Among some of their historic achievements are its defiance to fuel price increases—as well as other key subsidies to basic products—and their fight for land reform (Novo 2014). Historically, every time central governments attempted to cut subsidies to petrol prices, the Indigenous movement claimed victory for its rollback. Thus, it is not surprising that in October 2019 the announced removal of fuel subsidies ignited a wave of mass protests that lasted twelve days, took eight lives, and resulted in over five hundred injured. Mobilized Indigenous groups paralyzed Ecuador and, eventually, managed to roll back the measure.

Fast forward to May 19, 2020, two months after confinement due to the Covid-19 pandemic started, and the Ecuadorian government announced an aggressive austerity package that included cuts to fuel subsidies, the dismantling of many public services (including Ecuador’s postal service), public servants’ salary reductions and layoffs, and a move toward privatization that is reminiscent of the golden days of neoliberal economics in the continent. Delivered at a time of high stress, strict lockdown, and a state of emergency, the pandemic has allowed the current government to manipulate Covid-19 statistics and abuse power by approving legislation that prioritizes extractive economies, criminalizes mass mobilization, and allows swift decisions on contested political issues—like fuel subsidies. Thus, Ayni Shunku’s reference to a “completely different repressive time,” cited above, rings true in many ways. Though Shunku was speaking about the brutal repression that Ecuadorians experienced in the streets in October 2019 during twelve days of mass mobilizations, the government has since then escalated repressive tactics by mobilizing medical and military resources in order to repress civic unrest. On the one hand, the response to Covid-19 continues to be erratic, highly politicized, and insufficient. On the other hand, new security protocols and legal frameworks have been enacted to “neutralize” citizen mobilizations. What is most disquieting is the active role given to military forces in responding to street protests, particularly given the long history of repressive military regimes in the region (see also Seward Delaporte, this series).

Ethnography as a Way of Moving Forward

Anthropology has long studied the deep-rooted inequalities that become highly visible during disasters and epidemics and their aftermath (K. Fortun 2001; Adams 2013; Leach 2015). In documenting these events, we have learned that governments often take advantage of catastrophic events to realign their economic and political priorities. Though our discipline has focused on imaginative responses at the local level for protesting against many of these inequalities in times of “crisis” (Alexandrakis 2016; Suarez 2017), it has also raised awareness of the discipline’s failures and shortcomings when talking about the role of anthropology in facing many of these challenges (Benton 2017). Anthropology can provide us with a theoretical and methodological toolkit for understanding the various histories behind the making of a pandemic that, as we have come to see, are deeply intertwined with the fine-tuning of economic systems that will benefit a minority. At the same time, anthropologists are now more critically aware of the need to include multiple voices in our efforts to respond to catastrophic events. In the context of Ecuador, this means making evident deep-seated connections between three decades of social uprising and a rather uninterrupted neoliberal agenda, while paying attention to the work and efforts raised by many Indigenous movements, and particularly women’s voices within them.

As mentioned above, the mass mobilizations that took place in Ecuador in October 2019 and that brought the country to a halt were not a new phenomenon in the country’s political history. Much of the leftist organizing that sustained the 2019 protests had been rather successfully dismantled during Rafael Correa’s government (Tuaza Castro 2011). This was due to the fact that his government betrayed its leftist agenda in favor of extractive economies and support for economic elites. However, this very state of affairs meant that over a decade of Correa in government also brought new forms of organization and resistance. During Lenín Moreno’s current government, we have seen a continued push for the dismantling of public services and cuts to social benefits along with tax deductions and tax haven protections for the super-rich. Still, many of these political and economic changes have faced strong criticism and public mobilization. Yet, the Covid-19 pandemic has become the perfect conduit for the suppression of democracy and the abuse of power in Ecuador and beyond. With the onset of the pandemic, instability has ensued. This instability has not been due to unknown health risks and perils—as one would imagine during a pandemic—but to the government’s attempt to seize greater control and use the pandemic as a shield for police brutality and increased corruption.

October 2019 protests in Cuenca, Ecuador. Photo by Maka Suarez.

From Guinea-Bissau (de Barros et al. 2020) to India (Abbas, this series) and Hong Kong (Huang, this series), we have seen abuse of power, the criminalization and militarization of protest, and a general erosion of democracy. In Ecuador, too, we have experienced a push for repressive actions. Some are less overt—like the passing of a “humanitarian law” designed to address Covid-19-related issues, but which also criminalized certain forms of social protest. Other measures are undisguised in their attempts at suppressing public services—like the layoff of health workers directly involved in the epidemic’s response. It is in these troubling times that we want to highlight ethnography’s potentialities as we begin to imagine ways for moving forward. Why? Because ethnography can illuminate what often become blind spots. Because ethnography—and the specific relationships developed with/in our fieldwork—allow for unique forms of collaboration (Ingold 2014; Marcus 2016). Because fieldwork—and participant observation—are “a form of production of knowledge through being and action” (Shah 2017, 48). An anthropological approach would mean an engaged and sustained “praxis,” as Alpa Shah calls it; a call for close ethnographic collaborations that remain attuned to local particularities, finding mutual interests and building long-term commitments with the people and places where we work.

Communal Knowledge: Mutual Support Practices

When speaking about the participation of children in the Indigenous movement’s mobilizations, Ayni Shunku told us: “What do our children learn when we bring them to our protests? They learn the history of their elders. They learn that our people have fought for each one of our rights and positions in [Ecuadorian] society. They learn that nothing is ever won by sitting down, by waiting, or by holding nice talks.” She was speaking about the need for mass mobilization during the October 2019 protests and beyond. She was thinking about possible future repression and roll backs on social rights by the current government. She was right.

From March through June 2020, Ecuador held a strict lockdown. During this time, the intentions behind the government’s management of Covid-19 became increasingly clear. Well beyond the inadequate management of Covid-19 in the country, this has been a time for setting a new political agenda that would have been impossible without the lockdown, curfew, and surveillance. During Kaleidos’s public colloquium back in October, Bélgica Jiménez, a representative of a local network of women agro-producers, spoke about the need to think in connection to the “tierra”—a term that means soil, land, and earth in Spanish. In speaking about ways of cultivating and relating rural and urban worlds, Bélgica also argued for different frameworks for living (and dying). In her view, collaborative processes that put life (of people but also of nature) at the center can serve as examples for how to organize life despite the state. Bélgica was referring to forms of mutual support that defy measurements of individual efficiency and call for social understandings of life through care practices, solidarity, and reciprocity (Daiber and Houtart 2012; Bear 2015; Lyons 2020). This resonates with Armando Muyolema’s (2015) call for building other ways of living that recognize our differences and our colonial past, and for imagining alternative democratic realities through new and dissident ethics, languages, and politics.

We feel that this series on global protests brings to light the many possibilities that arise from our ethnographic—and thus, intimate, careful, and engaged, but also critical, reflexive, and committed—approach to understanding the potentialities and limitations of our epistemological frameworks. What the people with whom we collaborate highlight is the need to continue reflecting but also acting on pressing issues. They emphasize forms of collective learnings and appreciation for our elders’ knowledge, and celebrate the reach of our regional subversive histories. Though there are real risks in resistance, the greatest violence hides behind concrete economic and political actors. As all three participants in our Kaleidos colloquium, Ayni, Belgica and Eli, called for, there is a need for feminizing politics which goes well beyond the number of women in government institutions. Beyond romantic ideas of social movements or women’s care roles, our piece resonates with Hi‘ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart and Tamara Kneese’s (2020) call for forms of “radical care,” as well as others who suggest we turn to more collaborative forms of knowledge-making (M. Fortun et al. 2021). Radical care, defined as “a set of vital but underappreciated strategies for enduring precarious worlds” (Hobart and Kneese 2020, 2), means, in our context, concrete material practices, including everyday human and non-human relationships and labor in caring for children, animals, land, plants, and communities. At the same time, radical care for us means resisting extractive forces like open-pit or mega mining and oil enterprises, large scale infrastructure projects, and the effects of climate change. Lastly, it means safeguarding water sources, wildlife, and fragile ecosystems. Kaleidos - Center for Interdisciplinary Ethnography has a commitment to building academic infrastructures that collectively approach many of these issues. We have created podcasts, workshops, webinars, texts, and public gatherings (like the October colloquium with Belgica, Ayni, and Eli)—many of these collectively—to think critically about novel ways of approaching issues that concern us locally, but that also have a global reach. In this sense, we see ethnography as a fertile ground for negotiating mutual interests, common questions, and shared futures that may not have been previously possible.


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