The Fourth Congress of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) was held from December 15- 18, 1993. On that occasion, ALAI held a dialogue with Luis Macas, the reelected president of CONAIE, on a broad range of issues. This section touches upon themes such as neoliberalism, modernization and autonomy.

By Oswaldo Leon

ALAI: The popular rejection of neoliberalism is generally centered on its economic aspect, particularly as it relates to the resulting increase in poverty, neglecting the equally perverse results that its logic, based on individualism, provokes in the realm of social organization. From the moment you put forward solidarity, communitarian work, and a recuperation of [indigenous] knowledge as basic components of social action, do you assume that you are raising a proposal that is radically critical toward neoliberalism and capitalism in general?

LM: Yes, as you say, it is a product of a critique of the system. During the actions we had here for the sesquicentennial [of the Spanish conquest], while we were discussing how to try to raise our proposal from the indigenous movement, the world was living through the fall of the socialist bloc, which in some way was a reference for peoples who wanted change.

We said then: well, now this is what we have to do; either we definitively abandon this system, so stifling, so aggressive and violent for the indigenous peoples - but not only in economic terms, but also in its definitive ravaging of our knowledge, our cultural values - either it absorbs us or we liberate ourselves.

The application of neoliberalism is quite well designed to finish with everything - the disappearance of centuries-old cultures, the disappearance of peoples, of life itself. So now we have to consider something...Many said that the indigenous proposal is nothing more than a reaccomodation to the existing system, that we were asking that the state recognize us and insert us in its process, and I think not, definitely not. We think that it is rather a form of finishing with this system and thinking of a new form of life.

I don't think that socialism in disappearing from the world. I don't know much of Marxism, but I think that this isn't going to end. It is the same thing that happened with capitalism; capitalism suffered through various transitional stages, various epochs of crisis. I think that this could be a profound crisis in which things will be thought through, and that the system that is still alive, in Cuba for example, will again begin to appear and will obviously be strengthened.

ALAI: A current issue in debate in Ecuador, and in the continent and the world generally, is that related to modernization, in which for the currently dominant currents, the indigenous peoples and their centuries-old cultures are seen as mere remnants of the past. What can you tell us in this regard?

LM: Really, I don't know how to interpret this term "modernization." For us, modernization obviously is the changing of structures that don't currently serve to advance the economic, social and cultural development of peoples, to try to realize at least some of the fundamental elements that are components of the development of the humanity that we currently live.

Modernization has to be understood in its broad, global meaning; One shouldn't speak only of the modernization of the sectors of a country's economy. I think that what we fundamentally have to begin here is revising everything related to the political system, the decrepit structures, the incompetent institutions that exist and that don't really allow them to be much more agile and functional, for example, in the current state.

Nevertheless, I have only seen a single dimension here, which is the economic part. And we know clearly that this comes from the interests of the sectors that have always hegemonized economic power, and therefore political power. They try to monopolize in their hands all the resources that in one way or another are also the conquest of our peoples. For example, here in Ecuador what they want is to actually confuse the terms modernization and privatization, that is, to use label modernization to privatize the state's resources, which are resources that belong to all Ecuadorians.

So this is what is happening now and this is what they call modernization, and in these conditions, the indigenous peoples that live in these places don't even have the right to survive. For example, in the case of the indigenous peoples of Pastaza and the Huaoroni, their lands have apparently been legally been transferred for the use and dominion of our peoples, their centuries-long possessors, but what happens is we have no right to speak the moment a foreign company comes and negotiates directly with the government.

We have the case of Texaco, which operated in this country for more than twenty years in the northern Ecuadorian Amazon. Who has been affected? The indigenous peoples directly, and also the colonists. Now studies by Harvard University investigators clearly show that the people are now beginning to die because all the rivers where this company operated are contaminated, even the little estuaries are contaminated, and the children now are carriers of cancer. So what kind of development are we talking about? They tell us the country's riches are for the twelve million Ecuadorians. But did the peoples who are the owners of the territories where Texaco operated, and now other companies, receive anything?

ALAI: What meaning do you give to the demand for autonomy? Is it really a separatist position, which would be the prelude to an outbreak of ethnic conflicts like that currently happening in Yugoslavia, as different powerful groups maintain?

LM: The Yugoslav situation is happening precisely because there had been an extreme centralism, which did not allow the peoples to develop in an autonomous manner in the context of mutual respect. There was a hegemony that directed the peoples and said, here, everyone must obey. I believe that the present is the product of this, and this is also what is practiced here in this country, a centralism, a single form of seeing things. Here there are absolutely no particularities, no specificity of peoples. Within Ecuadorian law, for example, there are the rights of individuals, of citizens, of the family, and absolutely no mention of the rights of peoples - there is no legislation in Ecuador for the peoples.

Now, the insurrection of the peoples for autonomy is happening all over, because it allows the development of their political, economic and cultural components - that is, to maintain their specificity. The political class, at least in Latin America, and concretely in our country, never even thought about what we indigenous peoples were thinking...I remember what the economist Cesar Verduga told me when he was a minister in the last government: "Your objectives are good, but neither Ecuadorian or Latin American society are going to understand them. Would to god they understand them after fifty years."

Right now, in Mexico, not only is there the struggle for survival, to have something to feed oneself, since one of the government's ways of extermination is to kill the peoples through hunger, but also a struggle against the imported models with which they also kill the originality of the indigenous peoples, with which they keep us from thinking as indigenous people.

So, autonomy is based on the elements of territory, political administration, social organization, the development of the peoples. But here this is practically seen as something subversive. Or rather, the criterion is that the indigenous peoples ought to disappear. The Tsachilas, for example, who are based in Santo Domingo, are in the process of extinction because of the large colonization that is happening in the region, and no one says anything about them. This situation is being increasingly aggravated, and this is why there's an urgent necessity of establishing the autonomy of the indigenous peoples, the recognition of their territory, their land, their settlement where they have always developed.

But they also say that the indigenous peoples are going to unite and create their own territory and their own state. I think that this is the most ridiculous thing, something that comes out the heads of people who have no other arguments to try to discredit our proposal. How can we want our own state if we are ten peoples? Or is it that we are going to make ten states? Who could imagine that? We the Chachis, the Quechuas, the Huaoranis, the Tsachilas, cannot unite in a single group because this is not our reality. What we want is that our form of self-organization, our way of justice in our own communities, be respected, because there is indigenous legislation that has not been recognized by the state.

I really don't know why this is so problematic. Speaking of the Tsachilas, Dr. Velasco Ibarra, during one of his presidencies, recognized all the Tsachilas communities as a government, and there was no observable fear. He said: "Certainly, you are an autonomous people, so you have the right to administrative autonomy." Then the communities got together and elected their governor, made their laws, carried out the administration of justice, etc., and no one tells them anything

What is happening here is, disgracefully, on the one hand, they don't understand anything, they don't understand what we want with this autonomy, and on the other hand there is also bad faith, people that understand what we are saying - but this doesn't agree with their principles and their economic and political interests.

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Translated by Michael Pearlman