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Lessons on Ecuador’s progressive alternatives to neo-liberal crisis

London’s Bolivar Hall was packed out on Tuesday night to learn about the progressive developments underway in Ecuador and offer solidarity against attempts to reverse this. Supported by Unite the Union, Tribune magazine and the organising committee of the annual Latin America Conference amongst others, the meeting was one of the first in the Britain dedicated to exploring the ideas of the Citizens Revolution, as Ecuador’s radical polices of social, environmental and economic justice are known.

The meeting was held ahead of Ecuadorians electing their President this weekend. Setting out what is at stake in the elections Latin America expert, Stephanie Pearce of QMW University, explained that “This election will decide whether or not social progress continues to advance in Ecuador or if Ecuador returns to the free-market fundamentalism that caused such damage” in the recent past. She pointed out that Rafael Correa, who as current President has overseen dramatic and progressive changes in the country, “is the clear favorite to win. Polls placed him on around 65% with his nearest rival, a former chief banker, languishing on just 15%.

The keynote speaker was José María Guijarro, an adviser to the Ecuadorian Foreign Minister. Guijarro emphasised that the developments underway across Latin America are reversing 500 years of colonial domination and allowing the region to finally achieve genuine independence.

He explained that in recent decades, the era of neo-liberalism had especially failed the continent with 20 years of economic stagnation that through millions into poverty. The specific and devastating impact in Ecuador of these policies was addressed. He explained that in 1998/9 “Ecuador’s financial system collapsed and over half of all people’s life savings evaporated” and “GDP per capita shrank by over one-third”.  Offering hope for those seeking political change in Europe, he explained that “this created very strong social resistance, initially this was in the streets but then it became translated into a new political reality

In reversing these policies, Guijarro explained how the key tenets of neo-liberal had had to be eschewed. At the core of the Citizens Revolution are “economic planning and social investment” which are needed to “create decent living standards for everybody” and move the economy away from a model that “translated into huge percentages living in poverty and extreme poverty”.

Under a new state-led development model the adviser explained that “certain companies have been nationalized, so that today the main sources of Ecuador’s wealth go to the people”. He added that to stimulate growth “we now have economic planning, and a greater role for the state, though the private sector still has a role too, but it does not dominate our economy and people’s lives in the same way”. Ecuador has South America’s highest levels of state led investment and this is has driven economic growth of 5% over the past 5 years.

As with other progressive governments in Latin America, Guijarro explained that this progressive program “has created internal and external enemies” and especially from bankers, oligarchs and media outlets owned by businesses with powerful economic interests in other sectors. He said “of course, they are not very happy with our new direction…but we are here to govern in the interest of the majority” and “it can feel like a badge of honor if these people don’t like what we are doing”.

He also addressed the concept of sustainable development which is central to Ecuador’s new model. Ecuador is today playing a world leading role in attempts to prevent catastrophic climate change and he pointed out the first country in the world to “guarantee rights to nature in its Constitution” a measure adopted in 2008. Though he acknowledged the difficulties in defining this concretely in policies, he spoke of the countries groundbreaking Yasuni Initiative, the world’s first proposal to leave a nation’s vast oil reserves underground to help prevent climate change as an example of how Ecuador is seeking turning this right into reality.

Chris Williamson MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Local government, contrasted the situation in Europe with Latin America. Describing the European panorama he said “investment is falling, growth is down, unemployment up”. He said much could be learnt from Ecuador where “President Correa has championed state-led economic growth” and “increased social spending”. That he explained is “why they have not had a recession, why poverty has fallen one-third in just five years”. He noted how in Britain “working class kids in are turning their back on university”  whilst in Ecuador the disadvantaged are increasingly attending university “thanks to free education introduced by the Correa government”. He said that encouragement should be taken form proof “that there is an alternative way” where the “state can act for the majority and not just for a tiny minority who have done very well already”.

Author Robin Blackburn, who recently interviewed President Correa for New Left Review, pointed out the similarities between Europe of today and Ecuador in its recent past. He explained “15 years ago Ecuador was going through a social explosion like Greece today. What is known as “socialism of the 21st century” which is sweeping Latin America is carrying out polices demanded by social movements in the Britain. As an example he drew on the Correa government’s success in increasing state funds for social spending by “the government now collecting the taxes owed by companies” which he joked was “a radical innovation in the capitalist world ” given the tax avoidance of companies such as Starbucks.

He also pointed out that Ecuador has demonstrated that “government has the power to cancel debt” with clear lessons for Greece, Spain and Ireland. He explained how Ecuador, under Correa, had repudiated the punishing debt owed to international financial institutions that meant three times as much was previously being spent on debt repayment than on social services.

Central to this new path of progress, Robin Blackburn added, was that “Ecuador is today able to act independently of the domination of the United States, and had overturned the idea that the continent is the US back yard”.

Lindsey German of Stop the War Coalition continued this theme, addressing the progressive policies against war and aggression undertaken by the Correa government. This included the decision to shut down a major US military base in 2010, in order to be better able to resist the constant pressure placed on governments of the past. She explained that closing down such a base is very difficult and is seen as “an act of war”  that “are taken very seriously” by the US. She reminded the audience that outside interferences have taken the form of coup in Paraguay and Honduras in recent years. But she pointed out that this is just the tip of the iceberg with “US intervention most of the time being hidden”.

This constant aggression against countries was obviously about controlling their natural resources but, she explained, was also about enforcing on countries an economic agenda that benefits more powerful nations. This, she explained, shows how “war and neoliberal agenda go hand in hand” and that Ecuador was “challenging both”. She also added that it was a “complete affront” to those carrying out austerity that there are other places in the world “where poverty falling and where education and health are free as a right”.

Dr Francisco Dominguez, author of the book Right-Wing Politics in the New Latin America, emphasized how as well as learning from the progressive changes in Latin America, solidarity is constantly needed. He explained that “the right in Latin America is not democratic and never was”. The proof, he said, lies in the death squads and governments that “killed over 100,000 people” in the dictatorships of past decades. Today the right wing continues to seek to undermine social progress aided by “the US’ National Endowment for Democracy which channels millions of dollars of government funds to all sorts of bodies in the region.” He added that one of the main recipients of US State Department funding in this way was the International Republican Institute, headed up by hawkish US Senator John McCain.

Dr Dominguez explained that “the right cannot produce coalition majorities because what has been done by the left has benefitted so any people. Therefore the non-democratic route is often taken”. In Ecuador’s case a coup d’état was attempted to oust President Correa in Ecuador in 2010, failing only after many were killed including a presidential bodyguard.

He said the importance of ensuring that intervention by the US and other governments is opposed is best illustrated by the “gigantic transformations under way” across Latin America. He explained that “in 1990 poverty in the region was 48%. At end 2011, poverty was at 30% meaning that more than 100 million taken out of poverty through the policies of democracy and social inclusion”.

Juan Carlos Piedra from the Ecuadorian Movement in the UK, an Ecuadorian community group which organized the meeting, described the importance of Correa’s progressive migration and citizenship polices. One in ten Ecuadorians fled the Ecuador following the financial collapse at the run of the century. Today the Correa government is “providing resources to the millions of Ecuadorians abroad to be organized and supported on employment, immigration, English language” and to help them integrate into British society or to return home if that is their wish. Juan Carlos pointed out that the equalities agenda is very strong in Ecuador today and that sexual discrimination is now unlawful and gender equality a priority.

He concluded the meeting saying the Citizen’s Revolution “gives us dignity and it makes us proud again to be Ecuadorian”. He encouraged people in Europe to learn from Ecuador’s alternative it as it shows that real change can be achieved everywhere.

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