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"Free Trade" and Government Repression in Ecuador: an eyewitness account

by Justin Ruben 10:34pm Thu Aug 1 '02

Globalization is supposed to make communication easier. But when the leaders of Ecuador's social movements tried to deliver a letter critiquing neoliberal globalization to Summit of the Presidents of S. America, they were arrested, roughed up, and their giant letter was destroyed. This highlights the need for international support for the massive protest planned at the 7th summit of the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Ecuador in October. (article 1)

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RETURN TO SENDER: Free Trade and Government Repression in Ecuador
(an eyewitness account)

Wednesday, August 1
Quito, Ecuador

Globalization's defenders are apt to describe a future where economic and political integration allow information to flow effortlessly across national borders, and where proliferating modes of communication render once-remote villages in China as close as the click of a mouse or the chime of a cell phone. But, as the leaders of Ecuador's powerful social movements learned last week, those same forces can turn something as simple as delivering a handwritten letter into a dangerous task.

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All day Thursday, July 26, the streets of Ecuador's largest city, Guayaquil, played host to a symphony of sirens. As pedestrians dodged to get out of the way, motorcade after motorcade screeched from the airport to the heavily guarded Hotel Hilton Colón. By nightfall, the 12 presidents of South America had arrived for their second-ever continental summit. When the inaugural session began the next morning, the main theme discussed was the need to push forward with economic integration and liberalization, including the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the extension of NAFTA to the rest of the hemisphere (minus Cuba). Not surprisingly, this message resounded with the 1500 influential businessmen and politicians who filled the audience. But where was the voice of the campesinos (peasant farmers), maquiladora workers, students, and artesans? The public sector employees, taxi drivers, and fishers, day laborers, and indígenas (native Americans)?

The vast majority of South Americans would likely have had a very different reaction to the Presidents' call for integration and free trade. As Guayaquil's daily El Universo pointed out, the leaders who gathered here last week are almost universally unpopular, thanks to an inciendiary mix of economic crisis, rising poverty, corruption, crime and militarization that is reproduced with astounding fidelity from Colombia to Argentina. For most of South America's residents, 20 years of globalization and “neoliberal ” policies pushed by the global financial elites–including the elimination of protective tariffs and subsides, cuts in government spending on social services, privatization and deregulation — have brought destitution and insecurity, and an increasingly difficult struggle for day-to-day survival. When faced with the prospect of the FTAA, a new free trade agreement with the U.S. that promises more of the same, South America's powerful social movements are responding with a resounding, “¡No!” even as most of their presidents are lining up to sign.

Nowhere is this other “anti-globalization ” movement--perhaps better thought of as the original “antiglobalization ” movement-- more obvious than in Ecuador, where indigenous people, youth and women's groups, campesinos, ecologistas and trade unions have ousted two presidents in the last 7 years over attempts at neoliberal reform.

When the leaders of these groups learned that the 12 South American heads of state would be meeting in their backyard, they were determined to ensure that their voice be heard amidst the calls for economic integration, the platitudes about eliminating poverty through rapid globalization, and the solemn promises of reform. So, working together in coalition as the National Campaign against the FTAA, they wrote a letter, addressed “To the Presidents, From the People of Latin America.”

“We demand,” they wrote, “that this important meeting move us toward a true integration, one which respects the cultural diversity of our peoples, the diversity of our forms of production, of our comercial relations and, above all and principally, we demand a commitment to defend the sovereignty and dignity of our countries. ” They called for a suspension of the FTAA process, peaceful solution to the conflict in Colombia, and a coordinated approach to dealing with foreign debt. They urged true democracy and respect for human rights, not mere lip service. Above all, they unequivocally rejected U.S.-backed “free trade ” and demanded that will of the People be the basis for all decisions taken to promote peace, justice, and security (see below for the original letter and an English translation).

Reasoning that a standard missive would be easy to ignore, representatives of the National Campaign taped together hundreds of sheets of paper to create a carta gigante, or gigantic letter. It was, indeed, gigantic. By the time they finished painstakingly hand-lettering what amounted to a peoples' agenda for the summit, the carta gigante measured 20ft. by 85ft, and had taken more than 24 hours of frantic work to complete. Bleary-eyed, and splattered with with paint and magic marker, the group lowered the carta gigante to the street through the window of the community center where they put it and carried it to Guayaquil's Parque de la Victoria. There, they met up with 120 delegates representing, among others, CONAIE (the formidable national indigenous federation), CONFEUNASSC (speaking for over a million campesinos), COESL (The Ecuadorian Federation of Free Trade Unions), Acción Ecológica, la Asosiación de Migrantes Rumiñahui (a migrant's right's organization), and youth representatives from the city's poor barrios. Those present, ranging in age from 5 to 84 years, were planning to march with the letter directly the site of the summit. There, they would ask Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to emerge, meet with the group, receive the letter, and bring a copy inside to read to the other presidents.

The formidable security apparatus that is now de rigeur at international summits had other ideas, however, and, as usual, human rights and the rule of law did not figure prominently in their plans. The police arrived soon after the giant letter did, and announced that the group was not to move one step until approval came from above. As the members of the National Campaign planned only a non-violent march that would culminate in the symbolic presentation of the letter, they sought a compromise rather than defy the police. Negotiations ensued while traffic wove around the marchers and the number of police present steadily rose. After about 15 minutes, the group received the happy news that the march could proceed, and all that was required was to await a police escort. But when two police buses arrived on scene, their occupants, who were even wearing traffic vests as if they had arrived to escort the protesters, instead charged the group without warning.

Having watched police disperse or disrupt numerous marches in various countries, I can say with confidence that the vehemence of the police response was truly impressive. 20 or 30 officers sprinted to the carta gigante and destroyed it. They literally looked like a pack of jackals ripping apart a carcas as they tore the letter from the grasp of elderly women and adolescents, and crumpled it into a giant ball.

A second group of police charged the main crowd of marchers. They grabbed the man with the megaphone, an artist with leukemia who had been up all night before working on the letter, and roughly dragged him to waiting buses. Almost immediately they went after those who had been negotiating with the police, and, secondarily, anyone else nearby. The protesters report being kicked and punched, and many of the women were dragged by their hair to the buses. The police hauled off Jorge Loor, member of Congress and president of the CONFEUNASSC. They pepper-sprayed Roberto Ortega, a prominent local campesino leader, in the face, at short range. I had one of the only cameras present, and began taking pictures from the sidewalk, but I was immediately told by a police officer to stop, or face consequences. Within perhaps a minute, the giant letter had been destroyed, 22 people were in the police buses, and everyone else had scattered.

The treatment the marchers received will sound familiar to anyone who has witnessed police detentions at any of the recent counter-summit mobilizations in the global North or South. In the bus, when the marchers attempted to ascertain if everyone was alright, the police threatened anyone who spoke with a beating. The police merely laughed when Jorge Loor, who looks more like a typical campesino than a congressman, said that he was a member of the Congreso Nacional. They refused entry to reporters, and then allowed one to approach the bus window but instructed the marchers not to speak. They called the indigenous protesters various derogatory Ecuadorian terms, and told several of the women that they belonged in the kitchen cooking, and not in the street protesting. Soon the protesters were joined by members of another march that the police had similarly disrupted. Eventually, both groups were set free the next afternoon, after the intercession of members of congress, national leaders, and the Venezuelan President.

Perhaps this story hardly seems like news: a relatively small demonstration destroyed, in an attempt to muffle popular dissent that would have undermined the attempt by yet another group of beleaguered world leaders to look presidential and effective. But I think this event is worth considering for at least two reasons. First, it is a reminder that free trade and the particular “neoliberal ” version of globalization to which we have been subject for the past few decades are not and have never been about expanding freedom. By almost any index of social progress, 20 years of neoliberalism have ravaged South America. As a result, popular opposition to more privatizations, government belt-tightening, austerity measures, and “free ” trade is formidable and mounting, especially when “free trade ” means that vital U.S. industries like steel remain protected and U.S. farmers keep their massive subsidies. At this point, the only way for U.S. corporations and investors, and their allies among the Latin American commercial elite, to push forward with neoliberalism is to crack down brutally on this opposition. Free trade may mean more freedom for investors and importers, but for human beings, it means not only widening inequality and insecurity, but government repression when those human beings try to fight back.

This trend has only intensified since September 11, after which the U.S: State Department briefly classified both the CONFEUNASSC and the CONAIE as terrorist groups. In the last year, the drive for corporate transformation of the global economy has been folded neatly into the rhetoric of anti-terrorism. George Bush demands not only democratization but also free market reforms from the Palestinian Authority as a condition for peace. Anti-terrorist operations dovetail nicely with the needs of the oil industry in Afghanistan, Colombia, and the middle east. Meanwhile, the “war on terrorism ” has been used by both North and South American governments to justify crackdowns on civil liberties and resistance to neoliberal initiatives like the FTAA.

In Ecuador, the war on drugs, and, more recently, the fight against “terrorism ” in neighboring Colombia have served as pretexts for a drastic increase in the U.S. military presence here, as well as for limitations on the activities of social movement organizations. For example, in March, the presence of Colombian campesinos at an international encampment against the FTAA and Plan Colombia was used to justify a violent police crackdown on the activists. Similarly, the military has moved to limit the activities of human rights organizations in the northern part of the country, and those same organizations have been condemned by European human rights officials for their ties to “terrorist ” groups like the indigenous movement. Similar rhetoric has, of course, been deployed in the U.S. to justify new restrictions on civil liberties and crackdowns on mass protests in Washington, D.C., and New York, among other places. For Ecuadorian activists, the fight against the FTAA is intimately linked to resistance to Plan Colombia, police crackdowns, Militarization and the rise of right-wing paramilitaries (who have now made several appearances here).

The second important point is that the abortive march in Guayaquil was but a dress rehearsal for the 7th ministerial meeting of the Free Trade Area of the Americas in Ecuador on October 31st. As North America's youth don witch, cowboy, and NY Fire Dept. costumes for Halloween, a far scarier bunch of middle-aged men dressed up like corporate executives–34 foreign ministers and secretaries of state from across the Americas--will be converging on the capital city of Quito. Their fervent hope is finalize the process through which the FTAA will be negotiated over the next two years. At the same time Ecuador's social movements are planning to mobilize tens of thousands of campesinos, indìgenas, trade unionists, students, and many other social sectors to non-violently surround the summit and reject the FTAA. Meanwhile, the networks that make up the World Social Forum are planning a counter-summit to discuss alternatives to the death march that is neoliberal globalization. And groups across the continent, from San Francisco to La Paz, are beginning to organize coordinated actions.

Was the official government response to the delegates in Guayaquil a taste of things to come? When the eyes of the hemisphere are focused on Quito in October, will the police and the army take drastic action to forestall the possibility of public dissent? It will depend, of course, on the strength of the mobilization here. But it will also depend on the ability of global justice activists, trade unionists, students, campesinos , organic farmers, and the like outside of Ecuador to mount an effective solidarity effort, to support and draw attention to the mobilization in Quito, and to press Ecuador's government to respect the rights of protesters.

t is more clear than ever that the only way to stop neoliberal globalization and to safeguard the alternatives that are being painstakingly constructed by local communities is through concerted, articulated international action. There is no doubt that resistance exists in literally every corner of the world. But the effective coordination of that resistance remains a long way off.

Organizations here view the summit in October as an opportunity to take a step in that direction. They hope to create new mechanisms of solidarity and cooperation that will safeguard the mobilization here, strengthen the networks of resistance across the continent, and ensure that the world sees that the people of the Americas have unequivocally rejected the FTAA. To this end, they are actively seeking international collaborators. Anyone interested in helping to support the mobilization in October or participate in solidarity efforts should contact the CONFEUNASSC at

If the architects of the FTAA are able to realize their neoliberal dreams, it will represent a giant step backwards for democracy, sustainability, and the struggle for justice in the Americas. At the same time, however, the presence of a document that threatens so many diverse groups across the continent, in the poor countries of Latin America AND in the U.S. and Canada, offers an unprecedented opportunity. If the people of this continent act wisely, we can use this threat to help launch the ultimate counter-FTAA-- our own project of integration, a continent-wide web of communities struggling together to realize a totally different vision of America, one based on principles of solidarity, reciprocity, justice, and respect for natural and human diversity.

Justin Ruben

© 2002 Justin Ruben: please feel free to use this article for non-profit, non-commercial, non-repressive purposes, as long as you let me know if you are publishing it in some fashion at the address above.


From the People to the Presidents of South America:

It is an honor for our peoples that Guayaquil was the site where the meeting between Bolívar and San Martín took place, and, more importantly, that this historic event lives on as a seed of respect, bortherhood, and integration among the peoples, young and ancient, of our Abya Yala, our America. Even more so when the effort to construct a true integration is essential to the survival of our nations after 500 years of devestating foriegn colonialism.

However, we are concerned that “free trade,” as proposed by the government of the United States, is designed to overcome their trade deficit at the expense of the depredation of Latin America, and will not fulfill our peoples' desire for integration on our own terms. The project of the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) excludes the impoverished peoples of our continent and is only intended to benefit the same people who have, for centuries, appropriated our labor, our natural resources, and our ancestral knowledge. At the same time, we are subject to military strategies that, on the pretext of combatting drugs or terrorism, impose, by means of blood and guns, these same policies that benefit the few and bring misery, hunger and death to the great majority. This process has a corrosive effect on human rights, leading to forced disappearances, torture, and the death penalty. Human rights violations remain unpunished, while discrimination against women, the elderly, children, indigenous people and Afro-Americans persists. And the rights of thousands of workers are flagrantly violated on a daily basis.

As we address the meeting of the Presidents of the countries of South America in the city of Guayaquil, we demand that this important meeting move us toward a true integration, one which respects the cultural diversity of our peoples, the diversity of our forms of production, of our comercial relations and, above all and principally, we demand a commitment to defend the sovereignty and dignity of our countries against the conspiracies of foreign powers such as the one which only recently tried to destroy the rights of self-determination and democracy of the Venezuelan people by overthrowing the legitimate government of President Chavez. In this vein we insist on the necessity of constructing true democracies, wihch respect and guarantee the genuine participation of the people. And we insist on the establishment of a clear commitment to confront together the enormous problems that obstruct our present and frustrate the future expectations of our people, such as usurious debt service, and the structural adjustment policies imposed by international institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. We demand that you definitively define a common policy for foreign debt, to keep each country from being individually strangled by creditors, thieves and extortionists.

We ask that this summit commit to suspending negotiation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), as it is a project that will demolish our weak economies, undermine our productivity, and, above all, will become a new form of political, military, economic, and commercial colonialism that may well have consequences more dire than those of Spanish colonialism. At the same time, we demand and end to the internationalization of the war in Colombia by way of Plan Colombia, which represents a departure from the peace-seeking traditions of our peoples and threatens to transform our continent into a new Yugoslavia, bled dry by the merchants of death. Rather, we demand a recognition of the principles of respect for diversity, the unqualified defense of the right of our peoples to national self-determination, and a true integration based on the principles of solidarity and diversity. This is the only way to be true to the legacy of Bolívar and San Martín, and to construct a single great homeland for the revival and glory of our nations.

For these reasons, Honorable Presidents, we propose the following points:

  1. We demand that you strengthen the interamerican system of protection of human rights, including ratification of all international treaties and instruments to this effect, and recognize the jurisdiction of the Interamerican Court of Human Rights and provide support for the defenders of human rights.
  2. Decisions made by governments must be be based on the decisions of the people and society in general, in order to strengthen participation and help construct a true democracy.
  3. We demand a firm commitment from all governments to contribute to ending the grave humanitarian and human rights crisis in Colombia, including seeking a political solution through peace negotiations, respecting the sovereignty and self-determination of Colombia's people.
  4. We insist on respect for the sovereignty of our countries and peoples. It must be the people of each country who resolve that country's political, economic, and social problems, using their constitutional rights.
  5. We demand a firm decision to incorporate the demands of indigenous and Afro-American people in the design and implementation of the public policy throughout the region. The various states must respect and recognize Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), in order to avoid outrages such as those developing with the Mapuche people in Chile, and others in the rest of our countries
  6. We urge you, first, to sign the International Convention on the Rights of Migrants, and, second, to initiate a campaign, based on the principle of reciprocity, to get the states that receive Latin American migrants to adhere to this international human rights instrument.
  7. We propose the creation of an economic reserve and a common currency which will facilitate economic and social development of our countries and strengthen South American unity.
  8. We demand true agrarian reform and a social security system which guarantees food sovereignty and social sovereignty of the peoples of our America.
  9. Finally, we propose that this Continental Summit be converted into a Summit of Peace, of respect for the dignity and sovereignty of our peoples and nations.


Leonidas Iza
Presidente, CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador)

Jorge Loor
Presidente, CONFEUNASSC (National Federation of Campesino Social Security affiliates)

Jaime Arciniega
Presidente, CEOSL (Ecuadorian Federation of Free Trade Unions)

Guillermo Robayo
Presidente, Rumiñahui Migrants' Association

Juan Carlos Manzanillas
Presidente, Coordinating Body of Social Movements


De los Pueblos de América a los Presidentes de América del Sur:

Es un honor para nuestros pueblos, que Guayaquil haya sido la ciudad donde se dio el encuentro entre Bolívar y San Martín, y sobre todo que este acontecimiento histórico, viva como la semilla del respeto, la hermandad y la integración de los pueblos milenarios y jóvenes de nuestra Abya Yala, de nuestra América. Más aún cuando los esfuerzos por conseguir una verdadera integración, son un desafío irrenunciable para la sobre vivencia de nuestras naciones después de 500 años de devastador colonialismo extranjero.

Sin embargo, nos preocupa que el “libre comercio ” que pretende impulsar el gobierno de Estados Unidos, está diseñada para superar su déficit comercial a expensas de la depredación de América Latina y no expresa los sentimientos de integración de nuestros pueblos. El proyecto del ALCA excluye a los pueblos empobrecidos de nuestro continente y solo busca beneficiar a los mismos que desde hace siglos se han aprovechado de nuestra fuerza de trabajo, de nuestros recursos naturales y de nuestros conocimientos ancestrales. Inclusive se diseñan estrategias militares para a pretexto de luchar contra las drogas y el terrorismo, imponer a sangre y fuego estas políticas que benefician a pocos y generan miseria, hambre y muerte para las grandes mayorías afectando enormemente a los derechos humanos y manteniendo las desapariciones forzadas, la tortura y la pena de muerte. Persiste la impunidad, discriminación contra las mujeres, personas de la tercera edad, los niños, pueblos indígenas y afro americanos. Los derechos laborales de miles de trabajadores son conculcados cotidianamente.

Al dirigirnos al encuentro de los Presidentes de los países de América del Sur en la ciudad de Guayaquil, demandamos de esta trascendental reunión, que impulse una integración real, respetuosa de la diversidad cultural de nuestros pueblos, de sus formas de producción, de sus prácticas seculares de uso de sus recursos naturales, de sus relaciones comerciales y sobre todo y principalmente, que se comprometan a defender la soberanía y dignidad de nuestros países, frente a conspiraciones de potencias foráneas, como la que hace poco pretendió destruir los derechos a la autodeterminación y a la democracia del pueblo venezolano, propiciando el derrocamiento del gobierno legítimo del Presidente Chávez. De la misma forma insistimos en la necesidad de construir una verdadera democracia, que respete y garantice la participación real de los pueblos. Y que se establezca un claro compromiso para enfrentar conjuntamente los grandes problemas que ahorcan el presente y las expectativas del futuro de nuestros pueblos, como el usurero servicio de la deuda externa y las políticas de ajuste estructural impuestas por organismos internacionales como el BM o el FMI.. Exigimos a ustedes que definitivamente, definan una política común sobre la deuda externa, para impedir que individualmente cada país sea ahogado por los acreedores, presiones, chantajes e intereses.

Pedimos que esta reunión adopte el compromiso de suspender las negociaciones del Area de Libre Comercio de las Américas (ALCA), por ser un proyecto que absorberá nuestras débiles economías y socavará la productividad y sobre todo, se convertirá en un nuevo colonialismo de carácter político, militar, económico y comercial; cuyas consecuencias amenazan ser peores a las del colonialismo Español. De la misma manera exigimos detener la internacionalización de la guerra alrededor del Plan Colombia, pues esta provoca una alteración a la tradicional forma de vida pacífica de nuestros pueblos y amenaza transformar al continente, en una nueva Yugoslavia desangrada por los mercaderes de la muerte. En su lugar, pedimos que se retomen los principios del respeto y el reconocimiento a la diversidad, que se defienda irrestrictamente el derecho de los pueblos a la autodeterminación nacional y que se impulse una integración verdadera entre nuestras naciones, en base a los principios de solidaridad y reciprocidad, pues es la única forma de ser consecuentes con la herencia de Bolívar y San Martín y de construir una sola patria grande para la reivindicación y gloria de nuestras naciones.

Por lo antes señalado, Señores Presidentes, planteamos los siguientes puntos:

  1. Fortalecimiento del sistema interamericano de protección a los Derechos Humanos, que incluya la ratificación de todos los instrumentos para el efecto y el reconocimiento de la Competencia Contenciosa de la Corte Interamericana y respaldo a los defensores de los Derechos Humanos.
  2. Las decisiones que se tomen por parte de los gobiernos, sean adoptadas recogiendo las decisiones de los pueblos y de la sociedad en general, a fin de fortalecer la participación e impulsar la construcción de una verdadera democracia.
  3. Demandamos un firme compromiso de todos los gobernantes para contribuir a poner fin a la grave crisis humanitaria y de Derechos Humanos en Colombia, que se dé una solución política a través de los procesos de negociaciones de paz, respetando la soberanía y autodeterminación de sus pueblos.
  4. Insistimos en el respeto a la soberanía de los países y sus pueblos para que sean ellos en uso de sus derechos constitucionales los que resuelvan sus problemas internos de carácter político, económico y sociales.
  5. La firme decisión de incorporar las demandas de los pueblos indígenas y afro americanos en el diseño e implementación de las políticas públicas de los países de la región, practicando el reconocimiento y respeto al Convenio 169 de la OIT, por parte de los estados, para evitar atropellos como los que se están desarrollando con el pueblo Mapuche en Chile y otros en el resto de nuestros países.
  6. Exhortamos a suscribir la Convención Internacional sobre la protección de los derechos de todos los trabajadores migratorios y de sus familiares y, segundo, amparados en el principio de reciprocidad, iniciar una campaña internacional para que los estado receptores de inmigrantes latino americanos procedan a adherirse a este instrumento internacional de derechos humanos.
  7. Creación de una reserva económica y moneda común que permita el desarrollo económico y social de nuestros países que fortalezca la unidad latinoamericana.
  8. Impulsar una verdadera Reforma agraria y seguridad Social que garantice la soberanía alimentaria y social de los pueblos de nuestra América
  9. Finalmente planteamos que esta Cumbre Continental se convierta en una Cumbre de la Paz, del respeto a la dignidad y soberanía de nuestros pueblos y naciones.

Leonidas Iza
Presidente, CONAIE (Confederación de Naciones Indígenas del Ecuador)

Jorge Loor
Presidente, CONFEUNASSC (Confederación Única Nacional de Afiliados al Seguro Social Campesino)

Jaime Arciniega
Presidente, CEOSL (Confederación Ecuatoriana de Organizaciones Sindicales Libres)

Guillermo Robayo
Presidente, Asociación de Migrantes Rumiñahui

Juan Carlos Manzanillas
Presidente, Coordinadora de Movimientos Sociales

Ecuador | ALCA/ FTAA | IMF Struggles | PGA