October 17, 2019 / 4:00 PM / a month ago

Ecuador's indigenous re-assert influence but face obstacles to power

CAYAMBE, Ecuador (Reuters) - Ecuador’s indigenous leaders, emboldened by their success in derailing IMF-backed fuel-subsidy cuts, have set their sights on high office, but experts say they face formidable obstacles - a small population, infighting and struggles with campaign finance.

FILE PHOTO: An indigenous man gestures at the entrance of the National Assembly building, during a protest against Ecuador's President Lenin Moreno's austerity measures in Quito, Ecuador October 8, 2019. Picture taken October 8, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

On Monday, after days of violent indigenous-led protests, President Lenin Moreno abandoned a measure to end decades-old fuel subsidies aimed at getting the country’s finances in check.

Moreno’s backtracking was a major victory for Ecuador’s indigenous peoples, who have led uprisings that helped topple at least three governments but have struggled to make a mark in day-to-day politics.

Jaime Vargas, one of the protest leaders from the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or CONAIE, said he was mobbed as he left a market this week.

“I couldn’t get out of there because everyone was coming up to me, saying ‘Jaime Vargas for president,’” he told Reuters in an interview.

“‘If you say so,’” he said he told them. “‘If you decide, I’m willing.’”

The indigenous officially represent 7% of Ecuador’s 17 million people, but activists say the true figure, obscured by how the census measures the long-marginalized population, could be as high as 40%.

However, as a national force, they wield little power. Pachakutik, the political wing of CONAIE, has just five federal lawmakers in the country’s 137-seat National Assembly, with five regionally elected prefects.

“The indigenous movement has demonstrated it has regained its ability ... to make governments blink,” said Nicholas Watson of Teneo. “However, knocking down is easier than building up, and it is not clear that the indigenous movement has embarked on a pathway that leads inexorably to more power.”

Claudia Navas, of Control Risks, said the protests had given the indigenous a more prominent role in decision-making but that infighting would limit their reach.

“For the 2021 elections, we think it’s unlikely an indigenous candidate gets a majority of votes,” she said.

INDIGENOUS TOWN

In the town of Cayambe, high in the Andes about an hour from Quito, the ashen remains of road blocks and anti-government graffiti could still be seen, but people’s lives were returning to normal, with shops bustling with midday commerce.

The town’s mayor, Guillermo Churuchumbi, said about half of Cayambe’s 120,000 residents were indigenous, with some 60%-70% surviving on the minimum wage of $394 per month.

Churuchumbi acknowledged the obstacles his people face to win power: Right-wing opponents would sow divisions, campaign financing was a challenge and racism endemic. The indigenous had also been weakened by former President Rafael Correa, a leftist who clamped down on them when in office from 2007-2017, accusing them of terrorism for a spate of mining protests.

Despite those challenges, Churuchumbi was optimistic.

“In the provinces, we have already demonstrated leadership,” he said. “We have the ability to take power at local and national level.”

Another local leader, Cesar Pilataxi, said, however, he had seen indigenous influence wax and wane over the years, and saw no reason for that to change now.

“There’s almost two years till the election. How will we sustain this momentum?,” he asked. “I’m not optimistic.”

FUEL PROTESTS

Uprisings led by the CONAIE were instrumental in ending the governments of Abdalá Bucaram in 1997, Jamil Mahuad in 2000 and Lucio Gutiérrez in 2005.

The government’s fuel-subsidy cuts came into effect on Oct. 3 and immediately sparked protests, which were led by CONAIE, and, according to Moreno, included Correa supporters.

Slideshow (10 Images)

It remains to be seen what role CONAIE will have in drafting new measures to tackle a yawning $3.6 billion fiscal deficit. Big questions remain about how to sort out public finances and comply with International Monetary Fund rules.

On Wednesday, IMF spokesman Gerry Rice voiced support for the government’s efforts to “seek an agreement that addresses the current economic challenges and protects the most vulnerable in society,” adding that the IMF will continue to find ways to “provide financial and technical support.”

Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Christian Plumb and Steve Orlofsky

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