Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 23 1996; Page A12
The Washington Post
QUITO, Ecuador -- After years of methodical organizing, an alliance of Ecuador's Indian groups has for the first time scored impressive victories at the ballot box, placing itself in the vanguard of Latin America's indigenous movement. The immediate result, in what amounts to a political revolution here, will be evident on Aug. 10, when more than 70 Indians are sworn in as congressmen, mayors and councilmen. The first to be elected independent of Ecuador's traditional parties, their ascent to political office is viewed here as historic.
The elections May 19 capped what Indian leaders and others here say has been a remarkable 10 years for Ecuador's indigenous movement, which mounted a massive campaign in 1994 for land rights and used that effort to turn itself into one of the most influential such groups in the hemisphere.
With a solid grass-roots organization and now the apparent ability to harness the Indian vote as a bloc, the indigenous movement here appears to provide an alternative to the sort of revolt staged in Mexico's Chiapas state, where the lives of Mexico's Indians have yet to improve despite the insurgents' public relations success. As a result, Ecuador's slow, painstaking and unpublicized community organizing has become what Eulogio Frites, a Coya Indian leader in Argentina, calls the "point of the lance" for Latin American Indians.
While the victory at the polls is small and falls short of national power, it has opened the political process to some of the hemisphere's most marginalized residents -- Indians in the mountains, the coast and the Amazon region. For years they declined to participate in politics on the grounds that the central governments were exclusionary and undemocratic.
In a country where as many as 45 percent of the residents are Indian -- there is an intense debate over the number -- large-scale political participation could have an enormous impact on future elections. A study being conducted by sociologist Natalia Wray shows that Indians overwhelmingly supported Indian candidates, upending a myth that held the contrary, and more than 80 percent of those questioned said the election was important because Indians were taking part.
"They have gotten a small quota of power, and that has great potential for the future in the sense that there is an official, recognized place for the Indians within the political structure of the country," said Jose Almeida, director of the anthropology department at the Catholic University here and one of the foremost authorities on Ecuador's Indians. "They are going to be taken into account, and that is irreversible for a simple reason: Demographically they are one of the more important groups in the country. From now on, we will have governments that will take the Indians into account."
The decision to seek political power has had its price. Racial tension has intensified, particularly in towns where Indians and those of mixed heritage contested for municipal office.
Evangelical Indians, who view the national movement as too far to the left, are wary of its new-found power. And there are some Indians who still vehemently oppose participation and argue that their culture will only be preserved if they remain separate.
For others, even victory proved emotionally draining. Auki Tituana, 31, a Quichua Indian who was elected mayor of the northern town of Cotocachi, said he was deeply disturbed by what he saw in the community. On more than one occasion, Indians told him to avoid being seen in their company, lest his chancess be ruined.
But Tituana, an economist educated in Cuba, said the elections showed a majority of Indians now want to participate, if only because their failure to do so has made them even more isolated. Like other leaders, Tituana now sees political power, particularly at the local level, as the best way to guarantee Indians a say.
"I am not one of those who think the Indians have conserved their system intact," he said. "The laws of capitalism, the democratic system, have reached the communities. . . . Our ability, and only our ability, will be able to destroy the walls that have been constructed to keep us out. This will not be accomplished by laws in Congress written by people who have always repressed us. It will be done through our efforts."
One of the more obvious signs of this electoral success is the excitement that surrounds the movement's president, Luis Macas, who was elected a national legislator and is now being courted by the traditional parties and mentioned as a possible candidate to lead the Congress. That would have been unthinkable a decade ago, when the 10 Indian nations set aside age-old differences and formed the National Indigenous Confederation of Ecuador, which has orchestrated the grass-roots effort and is known by the Spanish acronym CONAIE.
Although even the most optimistic assessment predicts that Indians still have years to go before they will begin to effect significant changes -- particularly in such sensitive areas as rights to land and mineral deposits -- the election results showed for the first time that the traditional Indian claims "ceased being phantasms, removed from reality," according to Nina Pakari, an attorney who heads the land office for the organization.
Electorally, the coalition of social groups led by CONAIE won seven of every 10 races it entered for a total of 76 elected officials, almost all Indians. If the movement had not been limited in the number of candidates it fielded -- leaders decided to enter the process late and were only able to enroll candidates in 13 of the 22 provinces -- many believe the outcome would have been even more impressive.
"This shows that the indigenous movement has taken a qualitative step in contemporary history, and I think that is extremely important. We are no longer Indians that you go to see in a museum," said Macas, 44, an attorney and linguist who is one of the most prominent and influential Indian leaders in Latin America. "We are not only present, we are also here with proposals for the future."
The triumph at the polls has its roots in the organizational efforts that swept Indian communities in Latin America in the 1980s and produced some significant changes, particularly in Colombia and, to a lesser extent, Brazil. The election here is similar to what occurred recently in Guatemala, for example, where a change in the law allowed Indians to run for office for the first time.
But what makes Ecuador unique, according to Indian leaders, sociologists and anthropologists, is that the effort here has harnessed the resources of 10 disparate Indian nations that are still known more for their differences than their similarities.
Divided by region and culture, the Indian movement was brought together to elect its own. The question now is whether the center will hold. There are signs that the unity which proved instrumental in the elections is yielding to political convenience, as some Indian leaders seek alliances in Congress.
Segundo Moreno, another anthropologist at Catholic University, said regional and historic differences between Indians are now augmented by what he calls "the emerging Indian bourgeoisie" -- political leaders who have risen to prominence and are now removed from their poor, and powerless, brethren.
Macas and other leaders say the indigenous movement must focus on continuing to organize communities, constructing a political machine from the bottom up -- as was done successfully in this election.
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