Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador's Modern Indigenous Movements

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In June 1990, Indigenous peoples shocked Ecuadorian elites with a powerful uprising that paralyzed the country for a week. Militants insisted that the government address Indigenous demands for land ownership, education, and economic development. This uprising was a milestone in the history of Ecuador’s social justice movements, and it inspired popular organizing efforts across Latin America. While the insurrection seemed to come out of nowhere, Marc Becker demonstrates that it emerged out of years of organizing and developing strategies to advance Indigenous rights. In this richly documented account, he chronicles a long history of Indigenous political activism in Ecuador, from the creation of the first local agricultural syndicates in the 1920s through the galvanizing protests of 1990. In so doing, he reveals the central role of women in Indigenous movements and the history of productive collaborations between rural Indigenous activists and urban leftist intellectuals.

Becker explains how rural laborers and urban activists worked together in Ecuador, merging ethnic and class-based struggles for social justice. Socialists were often the first to defend Indigenous languages, cultures, and social organizations. They introduced rural activists to new tactics, including demonstrations and strikes. Drawing on leftist influences, Indigenous peoples became adept at reacting to immediate, local forms of exploitation while at the same time addressing broader underlying structural inequities. Through an examination of strike activity in the 1930s, the establishment of a national-level Ecuadorian Federation of Indians in 1944, and agitation for agrarian reform in the 1960s, Becker shows that the history of Indigenous mobilizations in Ecuador is longer and deeper than many contemporary observers have recognized.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“In this timely contribution to Latin American history and the study of Indigenous South Americans, Marc Becker documents the long history of Indigenous political activism in Ecuador, reminding us that current events never spring into existence without historical precedent. The impressive amount of new documentary evidence he provides makes this a book that will be immediately read and discussed, and then debated for years to come.”—Mary Weismantel, author of Cholas and Pishtacos: Stories of Race and Sex in the Andes
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822342793
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 8/1/2008
  • Series: Latin America Otherwise Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Marc Becker is Associate Professor of History at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. He is the author of Mariátegui and Latin American Marxist Theory and a co-editor of Highland Indians and the State in Modern Ecuador.

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Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador's Modern Indigenous Movements


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4279-3

Chapter One

What Is an Indian?

In June 1990, Indigenous peoples shocked the dominant blanco-mestizo (white) population of Ecuador with a powerful uprising that paralyzed the country for a week. Thousands of protestors blocked highways with boulders, rocks, and trees and then converged on the streets of the capital city of Quito. Militants presented President Rodrigo Borja with a list of sixteen demands for cultural, economic, and political rights, insisting that the government address long-standing and unresolved issues of land ownership, education, economic development, and the Indigenous relationship with state structures. This Indigenous levantamiento (uprising) became one of the most significant events in the history of Ecuador's popular movements. The Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE, Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador), a pan-Indigenous organization formed only four years earlier, used the uprising to force an ideological realignment within Ecuador's social movements. The Indigenous occupation of the public stage represented a tectonic shift with important consequences for the nature of popular organizing efforts across Latin America.

In a manner rarely seen in Latin America, Indigenous activism in Ecuador spawned an academic "Generation of 1990" with numerous articles, books, and doctoral dissertations on the subject of Indigenous politics. Anthropologists, political scientists, and sociologists analyzed the uprising and the ideological shifts engendered within the Indigenous world. Academics came to see the uprising, the organizational process leading to it, and the political negotiations following it as representing the birth of a new Indigenous ideology and organizational structure.

In contrast, as CONAIE's history of Indigenous movements in Ecuador observed, "Popular, community, syndicate, associate organizations, peasant and Indigenous movements do not appear overnight, nor are they the fruit of one or two people who meet and decide to create them. A movement does not appear because a group of leaders decides to call it by this or that name. A movement, a mass organization is the fruit of a long process of organization, of consciousness-raising, of decision making, of uniting many ideas. More than anything, it is the fruit of problems and contradictions that are produced between oppressors and the oppressed at a specific time and place." The 1990 uprising was not the birth but the culmination of years of organizing efforts that introduced innovative strategies and discourses to advance Indigenous rights and preserve ethnic identities. A longer perspective reveals continual cross-fertilization between urban left-wing intelligentsia and rural Indigenous activists, and a fluidity in activist thinking that has consistently foregrounded economic needs as well as identity issues. This book examines how over the course of the twentieth century these factors influenced Indians and leftists who worked together to build the strongest Indigenous movements in the Americas.

Long Histories

Although Ecuador has been studied less by historians than the rest of the Andes, it has a long history of Indigenous revolts. The Inkas incorporated Ecuador into Tawantinsuyu (their "Land of Four Quarters") only a few years before the arrival of the Spanish in 1534. For local inhabitants, both the Inkas and Spanish were outside invaders. As a result, the northern Andes endured from 1450 to 1550 a one-hundred-year Age of Conquests. This period of conquest was not a peaceful one: historians have documented seventy uprisings against Spanish colonial control of this region. Most sixteenth-century revolts sought to expel the European invaders. In the seventeenth century, colonial abuses triggered complaints against the confiscation of lands as well as against tribute payments, labor drafts, and censuses. Diezmos (a compulsory tithe on agricultural products that functioned as an ecclesiastical tax) and primicias (the Catholic Church's claims to the first fruits of harvest) were particularly burdensome. Protests commonly targeted abusive individuals rather than the structures of Spanish domination, and often involved tactics such as working slowly, breaking tools, or even committing suicide.

In contrast to the largely individual acts of resistance in the seventeenth century, more than one hundred open revolts rocked the Andes during the eighteenth. This Age of Andean Insurrection culminated in the powerful 1780 Túpac Amaru II uprising. In a second, more radical phase, Túpac Katari articulated a vision of emancipation and self-determination. His last words, "I will return and I will be millions," were a prophetic statement that activists interpret as being fulfilled in subsequent Indigenous mobilizations. These calls to recover Tawantinsuyu did not resonate in Ecuador, and this fact has contributed to a myth of the passive Indian. Nevertheless, unrest also increased dramatically in the northern Andes. A 1777 census triggered one of most significant revolts, with Indians attacking estates and killing several whites. Rather than accepting Spanish rule, active Indigenous resistance forced the elimination of abusive labor systems. Even after independence in 1822, Indians remained subjugated to an exclusionary regime. Protest continued; Hérnan Ibarra records forty-six "rural collective actions" against taxes, labor drafts, land, and water rights in the province of Tungurahua between 1815 and 1933.

In the 1920s, Indigenous peoples began to form rural syndicates that fostered a mature political consciousness. In the 1930s and 1940s, activists made two failed and then a successful attempt to form a national-level organization to present their unified concerns to the government. Observers commonly characterize CONAIE as "Ecuador's first truly national indigenous organization." Although CONAIE was a significant milestone in the development of Ecuador's Indigenous movements, this depiction is problematic. In the absence of a longer history, Indigenous peoples appear to move quickly from being subjects of governmental administration to actors who shaped those policies. This simplistic interpretation of complex relationships reflects Keith Jenkins's distinction between "past" and "history," with the past being what happened and history being how humans construct and remember those events. Indians, as subalterns everywhere, have long been present in distinct ways in political debates. They did not exist passively outside broader processes of national development, but rather fundamentally altered the nature of state formation. Recognizing this history, heedful scholars now note that "the Indigenous movement has its own deep roots." Throughout the twentieth century, activists drew on this history as they searched for new ways to make their presence felt on the public stage.

Gendered Histories

Manuela León played a leading role in a December 18, 1871, revolt in her community of Yaruquíes, Chimborazo. Protestors captured and killed two government officials in charge of a road minga (labor draft) and another official who collected primicias and diezmos. This uprising, the most significant in the nineteenth century, is best known for the leadership of León's husband Fernando Daquilema, whom community members proclaimed to be king of Cacha. As with Túpac Amaru a century earlier, the revolt spread quickly before the government cracked down on and executed the leaders. The traditional telling of these stories focuses on male leadership to the exclusion of key contributions by women. In Peru, Túpac Amaru's wife Micaela Bastidas was a shrewd commander and the revolt's chief propagandist. Like Bastidas, León chastised her male followers for their timidity. Both women were executed with their husbands as leaders of the revolts.

Luis Miguel Glave depicts female leadership as not unusual, and he claims that "women frequently egged men on to increasingly daring violence." Rosalind Gow notes that "women often appeared to understand what was going on better than their husbands and also to be more radical." In the 1777 protests, women prevented priests from announcing the census, threatened to burn a tax collector alive, and were executed together with men for their leadership. In 1803, Lorenza Avemañay mobilized women at Guamote, Chimborazo, in a revolt against diezmos, and was similarly executed along with three other leaders. In 1899 at Pesillo in northern Ecuador, Juana Calcán led an uprising with her infant daughter Lucía Lechón on her back. Government soldiers shot her, and blood commingled with milk as young Lucía remained suckling at her breast. As William Taylor notes for Mexico, "the entire community turned out for local rebellions." Women often led attacks and frequently were more aggressive than men.

When activist women emerge in historical accounts, they are often cast in a more negative light than are their male counterparts. Mestizos have remembered both Avemañay and León as "a devil of an Indian." Alfredo Costales described León as a crazy, dirty woman with a macabre presence who was "stupidly cruel" and burned villages with a "savage joyfulness." He contrasted her militancy with "Pacífico Daquilema" who was more reserved and rational. Erin O'Connor notes that Costales wished to depict the uprising as just, and therefore he assigned any abuses to the irrational behavior of women. O'Connor argues that depictions of Indigenous women as alternatively submissive and savage are erroneous, and that their roles in rebellions grew out of their normal community functions. Willing to suffer and die for their beliefs, women directly confronted patriarchy.

The gendered nature of Indigenous movements contrasts significantly with what typified relations in the dominant culture. Elite white women could exploit gendered stereotypes to their advantage. For example, perceptions of "women as innocents, incapable of deception and inappropriate behavior" allowed women during the wars of independence to work as spies and couriers. Indigenous women, however, were not permitted the same privileges. Given that Indigenous women faced repression, imprisonment, and even executions, it is hard to envision strategic advantages in placing themselves in positions of leadership. Louisa Stark argues that rebellions are less frequent when strong relations exist between subalterns and the dominant class. Most of elite society's interactions were with Indigenous men, which resulted in a weaker and less stable domination of women. While the government could regulate female activities in other realms, their active presence in "illegal" protests could not so easily be repressed. Furthermore, the fact that women enjoyed relative autonomy and equality within their communities led to recognition and respect for their leadership. Nevertheless, as Muriel Crespi notes, "it was convenience and not a desire for equality that permitted women to occupy leadership positions." Women's leadership thus often became a pragmatic issue rather than an ideological one.

Gender complementarity had long been part of Andean societies, with both male and female labor critical to survival strategies. Although Andean cosmology assigned gender-specific duties, it did not privilege one gender over the other in the manner of Spanish-imposed patriarchy. Further, dominant society saw Indigenous men as children undeserving of the rights and responsibilities accorded to white men. As a result, O'Connor notes, "Indian peasants (unlike the state) more readily recognized these women's productive and public ... capacities and importance." This "sometimes gave Indian women greater powers within their communities than state laws condoned." Building on these social dynamics, Indigenous women placed themselves at the center of conflicts between Indigenous communities, landed estates, and the government.

As Lilya Rodríguez observes, history does not have a gender. Men and women participate equally in historical actions, but it is in the writing of history that women disappear into the shadows of male heroes. The result is an ideologically oriented history that serves the interests of the dominant culture. Elizabeth Dore contends that incorporating gender into historical analysis "does not simply add missing pieces to the historical puzzle; it fundamentally changes our understanding of the past." Recognizing the central role of women as not exceptional but rather characteristic of Indigenous movements is key to understanding the development of popular movements in Ecuador.

Class Struggles

In the nineteenth century, much of the subordination of Indigenous peoples took place in the economic realm on large landed estates (called haciendas or latifundios), with estate owners (the hacendado or latifundista) using legal maneuvers, natural disasters, and other tactics to take their land. Emilio Bonifaz noted that "the epidemics, mitas, plagues, and hunger helped the owners of Guachalá extend the size of pastures toward zones that Indigenous peoples occupied; every time a piece of land was unoccupied because the family was extinguished, the hacienda would take it for itself." Without land, Indigenous peoples worked on haciendas in exchange for a salary and access to its resources to feed their families. This contracted labor system known as concertaje led to workers (called conciertos) falling deeply into debt. Landowners expected conciertos to mobilize their entire family's resources to complete assigned tasks on the estates. When a landowner sold a hacienda, the indebted Indians were included as part of the value of the property. Landowners worked hand in hand with civil authorities and parish priests to control Indigenous labor. According to Friedrich Hassaurek, Abraham Lincoln's minister to Ecuador, the priests "are said to be the worst of all." Priests charged for baptisms, marriages, and burials, and threatened with eternal damnation those unable to pay. They collected diezmos and primicias and taught Indians the doctrina (religious instruction) that often provided a pretext to extract free labor from the Indians.

Eloy Alfaro, leader of the 1895 Liberal Revolution, regulated but did not abolish concertaje. He required work contracts to be signed in the presence of a civil-military authority (the jefe político or "political boss"), established a minimum wage, outlawed unpaid labor requirements for a concierto's family, and eliminated the doctrina. Rather than benefiting Indigenous workers, these reforms subjugated them to an emerging central state power under elite control. The jefe político in a canton and the teniente político (political lieutenant) in a parroquia (civil parish) were often local hacendados who extended the government's judicial and administrative reach to a local level. Local elites commonly ignored inconvenient reforms. For example, the doctrina remained a common mechanism of coercive control well into the twentieth century.

Many liberal reforms had a strong anti-clerical bend, such as the 1904 Ley de Cultos (Law of Worship) that provided for freedom of religion and also confiscated Church lands. The 1908 Ley de Beneficencia (Law of Charity) created Juntas de Beneficencia (Welfare Boards) in Quito, Cuenca, and Guayaquil to administer the state-owned haciendas. Known as the law of manos muertas, this legislation took control over properties expropriated from the Church's "dead hands" for the benefit of the public through the funding of hospitals, clinics, orphanages, and asylums. The government later consolidated the regional Juntas into one Junta Central de Asistencia Pública (JCAP, Central Committee for Public Welfare, later known as Asistencia Social or Social Welfare). Rather than terminating historically abusive land tenure patterns, the government rented the haciendas to individuals who came from the same agrarian bourgeois class (and often were the very same people) who owned neighboring private haciendas. State power increasingly was a daily presence in Indigenous lives, but it did not act in their interests. In 1922, Alfredo Pérez Guerrero reflected that "in one hundred years of republican life we have made little to no progress in solving" Indigenous problems of poverty and abuse.


Excerpted from Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador's Modern Indigenous Movements by MARC BECKER Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Chronology xiii

Acronyms xxiii

1. What Is an Indian? 1

2. Socialism 17

3. Strike! 50

4. Federacion Ecuatoriana de Indios 77

5. Guachala 105

6. Agrarian ReforM? 123

7. Return of the Indian 144

8. Pachakutik 166

Notes 195

Glossary 251

Biographies 255

Bibliography 261

Index 293

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