Beat Goes On But Ecuadorian Economy Reeling

DSCN1351Quito    I had not visited Ecuador for three years. I sat for hours in the sparkling new airport that opened after my last visit or more specifically in the Airport Center across the street from the actual ticket counters, security, gates and airplanes. If modern airports have become shopping malls serviced by airplanes and runways, Quito has essentially built a mall across the walkway from their airport. There’s a patio. There are plenty of chairs and free Wi-Fi. There are many worse places in the wide world to spent hours waiting for a plane.

Walking through the main streets of the city near our hotel not far from the major park and Botanical Garden, everything seemed clean and well-ordered. The coffee shops were active and on the streets people bustled along in well-turned sport coats or high heels and big leather purses. Talking to friends, colleagues, and organizers we had worked with us on campaigns either in the United States or Ecuador or both, a more unsettling picture emerges.

This is not Venezuela where food riots have become almost daily occurrences and political and social unrest is intense, but nonetheless Ecuador at all levels is feeling the pain. One former political activist we knew well from our work on field operations in the last presidential campaign in Ecuador in describing the impact of the falling price of oil, remarked that 60% of the national budget was derived from oil revenues and even as the price moves towards the $50 per barrel that is essentially breakeven in the United States, Ecuador needs the price to hit $60 to $70 because of the extra cost of bringing their crude to the market. An organizer I had worked with at Casa de Maryland, back home now and working at a governmental ministry, told us that this year the budget of her department had been cut from $20 million to $6 million. Needless to say, the impact was devastating and the layoffs severe. She was surprised to still have a job!

Many don’t! An activist we knew, was now living at home. Her brother had lost his job with the state, and her sister in another job had her hours cut in half. An old friend, comrade and former organizer who had worked with us in Florida on our Walmart campaigns a decade ago, told me when he responded to my email and arranged to meet us for breakfast at the hotel that he would do his best to make it because “he was so busy.” When we met, I asked him what kind of jobs he was handling now that were keeping him so busy. “None,” came the surprising answer from my well-connected friend. He was hustling just to keep above water. A job in another country had mysteriously fallen through a week before. When I asked after his father, an elegant and sophisticated gentlemen, whom I admired and knew well and would have thought traveled smoothly in the upper class of the country, I learned he was also now unemployed and in danger of losing his home.

I worried that our members, many of whom depended on the “bono” or basic, cash welfare assistance that President Correa had raised unilaterally in the previous political campaign, might have seen that cutback. The answer from everyone we talked to was, “Not yet,” which was hardly reassuring. Higher oil prices had led to more robust economic projects, expanded public programs and public employment, and increased debt for Ecuador, both externally and internally. Like any bubble of sorts, the country, like Venezuela and smaller states like Louisiana, was caught still standing when the music stopped and everyone raised for a chair.

After the encouraging gains in many Andean countries where recent economic growth in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia had lifted education, citizen wealth, health, and living standards, one gets the sense that this is unraveling in a case study of what globalization gives, it then takes away. We met with two young doctors. They were originally from Honduras, but had trained for seven years in the vaunted Cuban healthcare system. They wanted to practice in rural areas where the need was greatest, but Honduras had no government program to support their work, so then ended up in Ecuador about 4 hours by bus from Quito. I asked them to rank the healthcare systems they knew and how the economic situation was impacting healthcare. Not surprisingly, they said of the three, Cuba was first, Honduras last, and Ecuador in-between. As for the economy, they were still getting paid, so at least that was something they said, but they could already see shortages starting to show up in medicine supplies.

Being forced to root for the price of a barrel of oil to go up just about says it all about the unsustainable economy we have built in the world.

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Alternative Universes Collide between North and South on Hugo Chavez Re-election

Quito  Landing in Ecuador after 11 pm and clearing customs, Hugo Chavez’s press conference was on all of the television sets as we exited the airport.  The first question I was asked as I headed for the hotel was whether or not I had heard that Chavez was re-elected.  This was big news in Ecuador, and I would dare say throughout Latin America where Chavez has been a defining figure for the last decade, who has walked with big steps throughout the region.  You would not have known that from reading the United States papers though.  The Times using a covey of reporters focused mainly on the opposition and its prospects despite what many, including even CNN, reported a surprisingly strong victory of nearly 10% over his opponent in a race that some pollsters had been calling even.  After a front page story on Sunday recognizing that Chavez’s strength might be the huge support for his social programs, almost seemed disappointed over his victory in their own brand of foreign policy.

No doubt there are serious issues in Venezuela that need to be addressed and Chavez’s health and prospects are absolutely a cause for concern, but it is interesting how different the perspectives on him and his election are between north and south.  In Bolivia recently with the Organizers’ Forum, we heard his name repeatedly.  People talked about “Chavez checks,” as they called them, of $10,000 USD each that Venezuela had given to rural communities to use at their discretion for economic development in their areas.  Both Ecuador and Bolivia have left-leaning governments which have been strong allies of Venezuela and beneficiaries of the better times when oil prices were soaring for Chavez so their interest was intense.  With elections coming next year for Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, it would not be surprising for people here to be looking for signs of which way the regional winds are blowing politically.

Without knowing all of the ends and outs of Venezuelan politics,  I would venture that there are still some things worth noting, whether or not the global south and the global north can agree.

  • Interestingly, there has not been one allegation about the election having been anything other than fair and above board, as opposed to the past where this was a constant refrain.  All reports is that voting stayed open as long as people were there and that the electronic system, though new, worked well, and gave no cause for any allegations of irregularities.  That must stick in some craws, I’ll bet.
  • There’s a global lesson in the chagrin of the Times’ story yesterday that people might in fact vote for Chavez in Venezuela because they wanted to see their social programs continue.  There are senior citizens voting in the United States who want to protect Social Security and medical programs.  Hello?  Why is it strange that beneficiaries of public services might make electoral decisions based on whether or not they believed government served them?
  • Voting participation rates of 80 to 90% in Venezuela which everyone concedes showed huge interest in this election make a difference!  This is part of the reason why Republican voter suppression efforts in the United States are so important to them.  If you keep the beneficiaries of public services away from the polls, then your opposition to public services has a better chance of winning, but if, as in Venezuela’s election, you turnout as much of the vote as possible, then the 99% of that country will raise their voices, leaving the critics to be satisfied with 45% rather than 55% when majorities are what matter in democracies.

Seems to me politicians and their parties could learn something important here about the connections between services, benefits, voting participation, and elections, but maybe that’s just me?

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Water, Water, Nowhere, and How to Get Enough to Drink in the Andes

water system in a yard

Cochabamba   We met Marcela Olivera of Food and Water Watch  and squeezed into a taxi to go to the south of the city, where living is hardscrabble.  There are over a 100 different water “communities” that have formed in the south to collectively finance, supervise, and deliver, as best they can within their own resources and hydrology, potable water to their communities.

The community we visited at length has about 1200 families in the sector and 600 users, who pay for water and the services.  We met with the administrator of the system.  There are five total employees and two wells that they own and have dug.  The problem is that their existing wells are “over the hills” so to speak and run about 7 kilometers from their area.  They lose more than half of the water they pump out of the wells over that distance to theft, leaks, and low pressure.  Another problem they shared is that the demand for water has tripled over the last 20 years or so.  They are well organized and provide water so cheaply relatively that others were getting their water and selling it, so now they have limited it to domestic use only.

They are just barely able to keep up with their system largely because the road paving in this new area keeps forcing them to re-dig the pipes over and over at $40000 grand a shot.  They are also starting to lay some sewer pipes, but in asking questions, this was secondary, if on the list at all, according to Marcela, for many communities that are so focused on getting water to live that sewage has become an afterthought and a huge, looming problem.

The administrator reported good news was coming.  Some Korean hydrologists had found that they had water on their own property which would solve many problems.  It would cost some $25000 and take 3 months.  Then they said they were going to Potosi to see a similar well that the Koreans had dug, and it became clear that the Koreans were selling wells, rather than being dispassionate or objective advisers to the community.  Gulp!

One of the Organizers’ Forum delegation mentioned as we left how depressing this meeting had been.  These were great people doing a vital and important job, but they didn’t have the resources or the help to adequately deal with all of the challenges they were confronting.

We had debriefed from our week in Bolivia the night before.  We were exhilarated at the power of social movements and humble to their tasks.

the hydrological problem faced by the community

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Not by Bread Alone: Art and Water in Bolivia

Ivan Nogales, director of Teatro Trono telling us about the cultural truck they drove to Rio

Cochabamba  Our days in La Paz were never complete without a trip to or from El Alto, the city of a million on the top of the mountain, which made us acutely aware of the importance of this strategic location in the future of social movements and the very country.  Meeting with Ivan Nogales, the director and 23-year veteran of Teatro Trono, he made the same point by beginning our visit with a sweeping historical look at the rebellion in 1789 where the poor at the top of the hill were able to encircle for a while the rich at the bottom of the mountain, and nearly starve them out.  By analogy he felt that El Alto and his mutli-cultural centers headquartered in here with branches in a half-dozen other cities in Bolivia and one in Germany had created an artistic culture that was unique and powerful.

Ivan in many ways was arguing for a role for the artist in creating change by laying a foundation away from the rational mind, as he phrased it that could unite people and offer support to struggle in Bolivia, but also around South America.  He was encouraged by meetings of cultural workers in several countries that were coming together to collaborate.

He told a story of several years ago taking a bunch of his team in an art truck of sorts and he showed us the model.  They were headed for Rio on a trip of over 4000 kilometers with a truck that could not go over 70 kph or 50 mph or so.  At the same time he tried to share the powerful welcomes they received from the mayor of Rio who met them when they arrived and gave them a key to the city.  Clearly it had given Ivan hope for his operation.  At the same time when asked about sources of support, he indicated that most of it came from Denmark and Finland, aid money on 2-year grants, and that he was going to have to lay off 80% of his staff next year.  He said that was why he was down-scaling by trying to build a small compound in the countryside and hour and a half away.  The operation was unique in its own way, and Ivan was inspired, but there were hurdles in the way of his vision.

Arriving in Cochabamba, we realized how sui generis La Paz and El Alto were in some ways.  Cochabamba seemed more like other large Latin American cities.  Indigenous people were less ubiquitous.  There were trees.  We could breathe the air.

hot water solar shower on top of the Teatro building

Marcela Olivera, the Latin American coordinator of Red Vida (the Water Network) and a staff member for Food and Water Watch in Washington, DC, a long time ally of ACORN’s, gave us a briefing on the growth of the city, essentially having doubled to a million people over the last 25 years due to in-migration of miners and others from the countryside.  At the core of the city’s challenges has been the inability of the infrastructure to keep up with that growth, leaving one set of services in the northern, richer part of the city, and a very rough world lacking even basic services like water in the southern part of Cochabamba.   Marcela was candid about tensions in the city around some of the new governmental requirements, which might seem well meaning, but were alienating both traditional peoples and practices and middle class citizens with other concerns.  At the same time Evo Morales, the Bolivian President, had been one of those migrants into Cochabamba, leaving many with a feeling of pride at a native son, even as they were skeptical about some of the current directions of the government.

Marcela Olivera, Latin American coordinator of Red Vita for Food & Water Watch, flanked on one side by Alex MacDonald (ACORN Ottawa) and Dine' Butler (ULU Local 100) and on the other by Davin Cardenas (Gameliel, North Bay, Santa Rosa)

Inevitably the conversation drifted to the unique vibrancy that social movements have had in Bolivia at different times.  Marcela compared it to a year or two she lived in Washington, D.C., and her surprise that when an increase in the subway fares was announced she had gone underground gingerly, sure that there was bound to be a massive protest, “just like in her country,” and was still incredulous that there had been nothing of note.  She worried that social movements were atrophying now under the Morales administration, either co-opted or confused that their friend could have changed so much.

Those of us living in the United States understood exactly what she was talking about!

a mural in El Alto nearby the Teatro

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The Strongest Community Organization, Bartolina Sisas, and the Union of Lowlands Indigenous People

Organizers' Forum Delegation with members of the strongest civic organization in Bolivia

La Paz   We were off to El Alto again for a meeting in the morning with the general secretary of FEJUVE, which is essentially is the largest civic association of united neighbors of El Alto.   Arguably FEJUVE was not only the strongest community organization anywhere in the province of La Paz, but also the country.  Frequently, the secretary would speak of the “glorious FEJUVE” and the fact that they “did not know the meaning of the word defeat, because they had never experienced it.”  This very charismatic leader was a force of nature, but also an unpaid volunteer leader only reimbursed for experiences whose whole life was building the organization.

The affiliates, the juntas had a dues (cuotas) system of 2 Bolivianas per month, but none of that supported the central apparatus.  FEJUVE was clear it was “apolitical” or nonpartisan, but was also clear that it would not hesitate to take money from the parties, but justified this on the grounds that they would promise nothing in return.  When I asked directly if they felt Evo Morales, the indigenous, forceful president, had delivered more to the rural areas than urban areas like their own, still fighting for water, lights, gas, road, and housing, he quickly agreed.  There were obviously plans afoot to up the pressure on the President.   More than any other group, FEJUVE was simply powerful and knew it because in a battle of social movements against the government, in El Alton, they literally controlled the high ground and the transportation choke-points.  In a country like Bolivia where  blocados are a very popular and powerful tactic, they were masters of its utilization and could ground airplanes, bus routes, and hold La Paz under siege when blockading transportation routes.  Right now there were 60 blockades ongoing around different issues in Bolivia.  Our fight tomorrow to Cochabamba was now packed because it was the only way out.  FEJUVE was teaching all of us the basics of the importance of tactical strength!

Next we met the most well known women’s organization in La Paz, which is popularly known as Bartolina Sisas, named after the martyred widow of  Tupac in a long ago revolution in her early 30’s.  The “technico” or staff member and the political leader we met with were very well spoken and forthright.  This is a national organization, CNMCIOB or the Conferacion Nacional de Mujeres Campesinas Inigenas Originarias de Bolivia.  They were overtly the political arm of the women’s movement and more.  They directly thanked Evo Morales for the building where they were housed not far from San Francisco Plaza.  The political leader had run a project for Morales’ party, MAS, to get more women involved.  Most of their support came from international state financed NGO’s especially in Norway.   This was an interesting organization but seemed to be the closes to an classic NGO type, international/state funded group that we had encountered on our visit.

leaders and staff of Bartolina Sisa

We had a very engaging final visit with CPILAP, Central de Pueblas Indigenous de la Paz, which was seen as the 80,000 member organization of the indigenous people of the low lands.  It had been their affiliate, the Tippi, that was currently the center of so many stories we heard repeatedly in La Paz.  The much vaunted new constitution required consultation with indigenous peoples before development projects.  For some reason Morales had simply blown them off (another source had said he just didn’t think the tribe was significant enough to bother with), so instead of consulting where he most probably would have found support, he had bulled forward, and now this was a national issue, because the Tippi did not want the road through the park or their territory.  A road around according to Juan Miguel Suarez, the coordinator with whom we were meeting, would only add a couple of hours though might cost more around the mountains, while others had told us it would add 10 to 12 hours of driving.  Everyone conceded a north-south road was needed, but now it was “all bets off” and felt to be only benefiting oil development for multi-nationals and cocoleros growing coca for export for illegal purposes.  Morales had at first promised he would pull the road off the drawing board, and then once again reversed field and in January 2012 said he would simply consult.  The sides were now at logger heads and the Tippis were gathering arrowheads and stringing their bows.  It looked less than promising.

office of CNMCIOB "Bartolina Sisa" women's organizer

We are learning more than we could imagine from some meetings, and learning some things we did not want to hear from other sessions, but nonetheless we are learning invaluable lessons from everyone with whom we have met in this amazing country, where social movements are very powerful, one way or another.

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Community Development, Afro-Bolivians, Unions of Campesino Workers, Federations of Highlands Indigenous, and the Union of Young Workers

Afro-Bolivian Organizers

La Paz  Organizers’ Forum international dialogues are always full of surprises.  We could tell Bolivia was going to be no different especially when miner’s strikes and mobilizations of various social movements were everywhere in the streets and in the news of La Paz.  Many of these were the same groups we had sought to meet with on our visit, so it made the schedule and contacts difficult to say the least, but once on the ground we have moved the kind of roll-with-the-punches dexterity that is the calling card of organizers around the world.

We were fortunate on Sunday night to get off to a great start with a frank and insightful briefing by Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, a fascinating young woman from Philadelphia who has made La Paz home and carved out a important niche as a journalist to the outside.  Thanks to Jean, we were unlikely to embarrass ourselves.

Alberto Mollinedo Zeballos, the director of the Desarrollo Economico Comunitario of Bolivia, an economic development training and support operation partnered with Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and a local university here, told us about initiatives they were supporting largely in the rural areas.  This was an embryonic effort, but at the least confirmed what we had been hearing everywhere that the most significant impact of Evo Morales presidency has been increasing support and the presence of the state in the rural areas.  Alberto told a story of being shouted down for not speaking the local language after inviting him there hours from home on a Sunday:  a humbling and telling experience he chalked up to strong social capital.

Alberto Mollinedo Zeballos

We learned about the Afro-Bolivian invisibility in Bolivia.  Starting as slaves 500 years ago, they didn’t work out in the mines because too many died, but ended up being moved to the coca plantations because the miners chewed so much of the stuff.  Now with a population of only 20 to 40,000, they were finding their way largely because of a provision in the newly enacted constitution that gave the more than 37 different indigenous groups rights that they had never had, including the ability to devise a special curriculum in their local schools which honored their traditions, culture, and history.  Racism was obviously deeply grained from hearing our new friends talk, but since they were not ignored or ostracized more than most other indigenous groups, they were cautious in pointing fingers.

We cooled our heels for quite a time as we waited to meet with the #2 person at the National Union of Campesino Workers, but once we met we felt lucky for the time we got.  This is the largest organization in Bolivia with 5 million members in all districts of the country.  Evo Morales’s cocoleros had been an affiliate and he had been a member.  His pictures were on all of the walls.  They saw their job as defending his policies in many areas, though were adamant that they received no government money in their organization.  They were being called to meetings about a mobilization of social movements around the complicated miners’ strike, so had little time for us, but as we departed we also left a line of people outside and in waiting rooms who had come from all over the country to sit for even less time for an audience and some help from the organization.  Worth us understanding more!

Campesino Union Leader

Similarly, we met with the organization of indigenous peoples from the highlands another long cab ride away.  There was disappointment in some of Evo’s recent actions in these offices particularly the way he had handled plans for a highway through national parkland that affected one group.  There were 2 million in this organization, which was also primarily rural.  They were hardly conservatives.  We had much to learn.

CONAMAQ (highlands) Leader

Our agenda of meetings ended back up the mountain in El Alto once again meeting at a chicken place with the organizer and one of the leaders of an interesting union of workers 17 years of age and younger.  The organization was new and small, but had cleverly taken advantage of the movement around a new constitution to insert its issue not banning child labor but making sure it was not exploited, which was a fine policy and political line.  Their small membership worked in market fares, shoe shining, domestic work, bus hawking, and other informal occupations.  Very interesting!  Reminded me of ACORN’s work in India organizing waste pickers about the same age.

Exhausted?  Yeah, me, too, but exhilarated at processing so much new information in this thin air.  I wondered if my legs were tingling from the altitude or all of exciting work we were hearing about in this unique country?

Youth Workers Leaders

 

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