Indigenous Liberation and Class Struggle in Ecuador: A Conversation with Luis Macas
Posted by Enaemaehkiw Túpac Keshena
By Jeffery R. Webber
I met up with Luis Macas in his office at the Instituto Científico de Culturas Indígenas (Scientific Institute of Indigenous Cultures, ICCI) in Quito, on July 14, 2010. Macas, arguably the most renowned indigenous leader in Ecuador, was born in 1951 in Saraguro, in the Province of Loja. A lawyer by training, he is currently executive director of ICCI. Macas is an ex-President of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), and former congressional deputy (in the late 1990s) and presidential candidate (in 2006) for the Movimiento Pachakutik (Pachakutik Movement, MP) party.
In a few words, can you describe your political formation?
It’s difficult (laughing), but I’ll try. I learned most of what’s guided me for the better part of my life in the community where I was born and raised, Saraguro, in the Province of Loja. My father was a leader in the community at various points. He participated a great deal in the collective leadership of the community. There was no single leadership in the community, no type of caudillismo (big man leadership), but rather collective leadership. There are various people, men and women, who lead a process of organization, of unity in the community.
This is what I learned about simply by watching. I was raised with all of these lessons. I really began to be integrated into this collective life when I was about 8 years old. My father brought me along for the communitarian work of our people, what we call the minga. So I worked collectively in the community, together with the other children. This is not a case of discriminatory, exploitative work as some like to think in the cities. It’s a responsibility that the community asks of everyone – the children, teenagers, even the elderly, that they do their work in the community. This is how to ensure that none of the social sectors of the community are excluded.
So I learned a lot from these experiences. I’ll give you an example. My job when I was 8 was to bring food to the workplace. Families in the community would prepare food for those who were working, and I would transport it to the workplace. So I would bring food, and drinks, for example chicha, from my house to the work site. This was the work we did, myself along with my eight other siblings. So you have that water (pointing to my water bottle on the table) my job would be to bring it, filled with chicha, around to all those who were working. This was the kind of work children did, not physically demanding, not the kind of hard labour that the adults were engaged in. But, in any case, we had this responsibility to the community.
This tradition of communitarian obligation has diminished since that time in many communities, even disappearing in some. Because obviously the system in which we are living is so powerful that it is destroying this fabric, this conduct, this way of thinking in the community.
But in my childhood, it was like that. So my first steps in learning how to conduct myself were these experiences – in my own community, with the elders. No one was excluded. For example, in the general assemblies, children would be present too. I would say that this is a communitarian form, practice, and way of thinking that I’ve kept with me.
What was your experience in school like?
I initially went to a little school in the same community where I was born. But after three years in school there, my father preferred that I go away to an urban school. He told me it was because I needed to learn how to speak Spanish, because I spoke and continue to speak my own language. This was very important for my father, that I be able to speak and to understand the other language.
In this new urban school I encountered things that were very strange, very distinct from our practices, beginning with the language itself. I had a very generous, very good teacher. She spoke Spanish very slowly. But nonetheless, I couldn’t understand. It was quite a dehumanizing experience, as the educational experience has been for indigenous peoples.
This was my experience, even with this teacher who was so good natured. In terms of didactics, in terms of pedagogy, she was an excellent teacher as well. She put tremendous effort to helping us to understand. There were only two of us, two indigenous students, in this urban school.
After this, I was supposed to attend secondary school for three years. But my father said that he preferred me to be back there in the community, working alongside them. And I was happy at the prospect of returning. But my mother said, no, you have to continue to study. And they fought a little bit about this. My mother wanted me to get my high school diploma.
So I ended up going to high school in Cuenca, more or less a big city, close to my community of Saraguro. In this secondary school I came into contact with a few interesting teachers. They talked about the community, the system, poverty, how poverty comes about, and so on. And I became friends with some of my teachers.
What were your teachers like there?
I was surprised to find out that my teachers had ties to the communities, for example in Cañar, a community close to Cuenca. And they said, come along with us, we’ll go to Cañar. And these teachers were very involved in the struggle for land, for the recuperation of community lands.
It was here that I began to be more motivated to learn, to know about these things. They talked to me about socialism, they talked to me about communism, they talked to me about everything. And I was a little afraid (laughing), because back in my community my parents had been very conservative insofar as their political, ideological orientation. My father always voted for the Conservative Party. But he didn’t do it with bad faith. He did it with good faith, saying “it seems to us that this man is correct.” The motivation had more to do with the person than conservative ideology.
And so I was a little afraid. “What’s going to happen, I’m learning about these types of things,” I asked myself. I’d been told that these things were bad, that socialist and communists go to hell (laughing). God was going to punish me.
So this was a particularly important formative period for you?
I started some pretty serious reflection in this period. And I started getting used to going to the libraries. Because the teachers had talked to me about socialism, communism, and Marxism, I went to the libraries and started making my way through the range of literature associated with these ideas. I read away like that, but didn’t understand anything. I read for hours and hours but didn’t understand what they were trying to say.
Later I would come to understand just what the class struggle is, thanks to the Universidad Central (Central University) in Quito where I later studied. There I read historical materialism, dialectical materialism, and so on, and by that point, yeah, I understood.
But in that earlier high school period, absolutely nothing. But I had tons of enthusiasm to know, to study. And, at the same time, I was always tightly linked to my community. Every weekend I would return to my community, participate in the collective work, in the meetings, in community decision making, and so on.
What did you do after high school?
When I finished high school I returned to my community once again. The community saw me as a bit of a rare bird. A high school diploma didn’t mean much back in the community. What was it good for? Clearly, I had learned things. But my father said, “good then, did you learn how to improve the cultivation of the earth, or what?” I said no, that I had learned other things. “What did you learn,” he asked slightly indignantly. “Did you learn how to take care of the animals that we have here in the countryside?” I said no. “Why did you go, then,” he said. There was a bit of recrimination on the part of my father, like what was the point of me having gone.
But it was my good fortune that the community said to me, “did you know that we need a teacher? You could be the teacher.” I said, teacher?! I was unsure, you know, because I didn’t have the training to be a teacher. But I said, good then, it’s something that I can do. But I was afraid at the prospect of assuming this responsibility, this difficult work, which when it comes down to it, is preparing human beings – teaching children who need to learn how to become young adults.
In the end, I did it for a little more than one year. What I accomplished I don’t know (laughing). But I learned a lot from the kids. The simplicity and innocence of children is a beautiful world.
During this period there was a big gathering in Quito, called the First Educational Gathering of Mother Languages and Bilingual Education. Interesting, I thought. An invitation came to our community, and they said to me do you want to go, and I said yes, and went.
What was that experience like?
So I came here to Quito. I met people from Salasaca, Cañar, Imbabura, from the Amazon, and other areas. For me it was a discovery. Naturally, we were usually closed up in our communities and that’s it. Or if you knew about things, you knew about them theoretically, because you’d read about them. But in practice we hadn’t lived through these types of experiences. So it was new for me to meet with indigenous comrades from all over.
The seminar was organized by the Catholic University, and maybe UNESCO, I don’t remember. The rector of the university at the time was a very progressive priest, Hernán Malo. He approached me and asked me if I was studying. I said no, “I finished high school, and now I’m back in my community,” I said. “And would you like to study,” he asked me. I said, “sure, I would like to study but I don’t have the means.” He said, “well, what would you like to study?” I said, “I don’t know. I really can’t answer here on the spot.”
He got my address form me. Two or three months later, my mother called me over, “come here. Do you know you have a scholarship to go and study?” The priest had arranged a full scholarship for me to go and study at the Catholic University. I had a scholarship to study in a bit of a strange field, the applied anthropology of indigenous languages. So I went to the Catholic University and learned a lot about the different indigenous peoples of the country and finished the degree.
What did you do after having finished the degree?
The same priest, Hernán Malo, who was no longer the rector of the university but who was the head of an important department of languages, asked me if I wanted to be a professor of Quichua. I said that sounded good, and stayed at the university teaching Quichua. But soon I felt the need to continue learning, to continue studying. I was restless.
So, I started to study Law. I started my law degree at the Catholic University, but the Faculty of Law at the Catholic University is very elite. The children of ambassadors and government officials go there. I felt horrible in this environment. So I left, and took up a law degree at the Central University where I felt more comfortable. There were comrades there who spoke my language, who came from the same province, other people from the countryside, and so on. So the Central University was something else from the Catholic University.
I began to learn a lot about historical materialism and dialectical materialism from the professors at Central University. I have to learn this material I said to myself. And up to the present I carry with me the idea that Marxism is helpful as a way of systematizing, interpreting reality. Not to simply apply Marxism as such. But to apply Marxist methodology to understand reality and to apply some of the theory’s content.
Were you involved in political struggles?
Over this whole period I never lost contact with the communities. I was very involved, for example, with ECUARUNARI, which was and is an important regional indigenous organization of the Andean Sierra. I remember at the time Blanca Chancosa was the leader of ECUARUNARI. The struggle then was the struggle for land, the defence of indigenous territories in the Andean Sierra – the struggle for identity and education of indigenous peoples, an education that would correspond to the identity and culture of the indigenous peoples.
I was very fortunate to have had this experience. On the one hand I was learning theoretically, and on the other, I was always involved in the communities. And I think this is so important in the life of anyone, to really be able to assume a position. And the indigenous people have been able to assume their historical position through this kind of struggle. This is not merely a reformist struggle. The revindication of our identities is important for the reproduction of our historical cultures as peoples – for example the struggle for land is a vital element, because without land there can be neither our culture nor identity, absolutely nothing – but the constant of the indigenous movement has been what I call the global struggle, a proposal of an alternative to the entire system.
None of us doubt that there were these two joined lines of struggle, the struggle for revindication, and the strategic struggle for change. The indigenous movement has always balanced these two lines.
So it doesn’t bother me exactly, but it makes me pause, when I hear today that the indigenous movement is simply about the revindication of identity, that the indigenous movement is thinking only of its own community. No, no, no. The indigenous movement has always thought of the country, of the general society. And, above all, it has struggled for profound changes, structural changes.
Can you elaborate on the ways in which your theoretical and practical political learning shaped your ideological vision and orientation?
The whole process I’ve described of learning has been important for me – my experience in university, my experience in academia. But my formation was in the community.
The central point for me is how to combine two central struggles: the indigenous struggle – the struggle for identity, the historical struggle of the indigenous peoples – and the class struggle.
This is what needs to be understood, this is what we need to do so that neither struggle is isolated. Because here it’s not the case that we declare ourselves socialists and that’s it – there’s a diversity of social processes, of historical political processes.
The production of these political processes has to be the basis of a new society, a plural society – what we call here plurinationality. This is a project that did not simply emerge from the indigenous movement, but from the peasants, from intellectuals, from ecologists, workers, and so on. For me, plurinationality as such is a proposal for struggle. It’s a proposal for radical change.
There are two conditions of struggle in my way of thinking.
One is to make visible and to transcend coloniality. Coloniality is still very much alive in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, and in all parts of Latin America – the coloniality of power; the coloniality of knowledge; the coloniality of being. This is one major component of what has to be overcome through political struggle.
But, there’s another arm of struggle, which has to do with the condition of this economic model, the capitalist model. If we don’t destroy both, one is going to remain.
Therefore, the elimination of both these conditions of oppression and exploitation is what has to be done when we’re thinking of the transformation of society, of social and political transformation.
In the current conjuncture, after three years of Rafael Correa in office, what are the principal axes of struggle in the indigenous and popular movements?
I think that the political scenarios are basically the same as they have been for the last 10 or 20 years. Things haven’t changed here. The people are living through a difficult time, where the different social and popular sectors of our country are dispersed and fragmented. Why? Because the government has facilitated this process.
The people are still here of course, the indigenous and the workers. But the government started out their process of disarticulation with the workers, with the elimination of collective contracts.
What is the message of this move at the most basic level? The objective is to dismantle the unions. It is not, as Correa’s discourse suggests, an effort to get rid of undue privileges of bureaucratic unions. From my point of view, it is necessary to change the bureaucratic structures and privileges of the labour movement, the perks that the unions have given themselves at the expense of the rest of the workers. That would be good.
But the way in which Correa is trying to dismantle popular workers’ organizations is diabolical.
Today, with the indigenous movement. I don’t know if you’ve heard the series of insults and epithets Correa has launched at the indigenous movement?
Yes, of course.
Correa has not overcome his colonial frame of mind as of yet. And it’s not surprising that this man talks this way, after having spent his time in the best high schools of the elites in the country, and then having travelled abroad, to Illinois, to study economics at the graduate university level. It’s not surprising that he’s forgotten the profound reality of Ecuador, the indigenous people that are here. But we are here.
Why the focus on the indigenous movement?
There’s a political motivation for the government’s assault on the indigenous movement in the current moment. It’s not that the government wants simply to get rid of the Indians, or that it’s racism for racism’s sake. No. The objective is to liquidate the indigenous movement in this country, to dismantle and destroy this movement.
Why? Because the indigenous movement is the principal social and political actor in the country that has struggled against the economic model, against neoliberalism. Correa wants to have a green light to do as he pleases. And his project of development is rooted in the exploitation of natural resources. We in the indigenous movement, which has an emphatically different conceptualization of Mother Nature, are saying no.
So, clearly, he’s got to liquidate our movement, he’s got to sweep aside all the social movements that stand in the way of this development model, starting above all with the indigenous movement, so that he can execute his project. This is the political objective. It’s not merely an insult against the indigenous movement, the reasons for the campaign run much more deeply.
The idea is to create a collective imaginary in Ecuadorean society that says, “the Indians are like that.” That we want to go backwards, that we’re against development, that we’re primitive, as Correa has said on various occasions. He says we’re incapable. This sort of discourse is part of a strategy.
What’s the significance of the current moment politically?
I think we are navigating through the most crucial period in recent history. It’s a very, very difficult moment. Because if this government is able to carry out its project in its totality, it will be on the backs of the indigenous, the workers, and the peasants… even the middle class. This is the scenario the people are facing.
I would also like to characterize the Correa government. From my point of view, this is neither a socialist nor even a left-wing government. This is a populist government, whose objective is to challenge the neoliberal model on a few points, through a series of modest reforms, so that the model as a whole can continue advancing. Fundamental changes, radical changes in this country, are not going to come about with this government.
It’s a government of the right. At the same time, it is true that this is a government which is not aligned with the traditional oligarchic sectors. These old oligarchic sectors have been politically displaced in this process. But a new bourgeoisie is clearly emerging, which is allied with the government, and which is subtly changing the neoliberal model with a new developmentalism – and nothing more.
Can you explain the contrast between the radical discourse employed by the Correa government and the reality of sharp conflicts with social movements on the ground?
We have to differentiate between the platform of the social movements, and the indigenous movement, and the platform of this government. What we have to be clear about is that the government did indeed usurp the language of the movements for its political project. This is evident in the government’s discourse, but is not present in the substance of its practice.
The government talks about the “citizens’ revolution,” now the “country is for everyone.” But the country apparently does not include the indigenous communities. As it never has, for centuries.
This is the characteristic, the type of government we have in this country, despite the fact that outside the country Correa is seen as absolutely progressive, and it is believed even that this is a government of the Left. But there’s nothing to substantiate this.
What kind of struggles have emerged in response to the gap between image and reality?
The weakness of the Left in this country is that in these crucial and difficult times we have not been able to respond. The priority, from my point of view, is to reclaim our agenda, and rearticulate the social and popular movement in this country. Because the objective of this government is precisely to disarticulate this entire process of struggle.
For example, the criminalization of social struggle in this country is completely perverse. This is not a government of the left, but a government of the right. Because these are popular social struggles that are being criminalized.
Let’s take a look at the proposed Water Law, especially as it has to do with the development of hydroelectrical projects. This is being challenged by the indigenous movement because it does not challenge the pre-existing privatization of the access to water flows in this country. One percent of the population captures 80 percent of the water. What kind of revolutionary government, what kind of government of change, proposes a Water Law that doesn’t challenge this scenario? Everything would remain intact with the new Water Law.
A revolution has to start with the people. The protagonist of change, in whatever part of the world, is the people. It’s the people who make it, led by a government perhaps. But this is not what is happening here. The government is trying to get rid of the struggles of the people.
These are just a few examples to illustrate that the fundamental characteristic of the government is as I’ve described it.
What’s happened to the oligarchy under the Correa government? They certainly haven’t been liquidated. The dispute for power at the moment is between the old oligarchy and the new one that is presently occupying the state. The government of course says that it has liquidated the old oligarchy.
But in my way of understanding, this isn’t the case. The power of the banks remains intact. Agro-industry remains in the hands of the traditional oligarchy. This power is there, nothing has happened, it remains intact. This power is quiet at the moment, it’s sleeping, but it hasn’t been destroyed.
If this were a government of the left, a government of and for the people, this oligarchy would be liquidated. But this has not been the case.
These are some of the political scenarios that define the current conjuncture.
Can you elaborate further the contradictions of the current moment? You’ve described the domestic dynamic of clashes between popular movements and the Correa government very clearly and concisely, but there is another level of conflict. At the level of states in the region, for example, the Correa government has aligned itself with the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA), with the promotion of the Bank of the South, and so on. And these processes of regional integration clearly are clashing with imperialism, in the sense that they have run up against the imperial projects of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), bilateral free trade agreements, and geopolitical expressions of US power in the region. So, it seems to me, there is something of a paradox between Correa’s domestic confrontations with popular movements and his government’s involvement with these other, at least potentially, anti-imperial institutions.
I might be wrong, but if we look around the region, at all of the ideological and political processes, I don’t see profound transformations, nor serious intentions or projects of a regional scale.
There have emerged these new styles of governments in the region, of course. But why did these emerge? It is obviously because the peoples of the Americas woke up, rose up, and made their presence felt. And what the people want are changes. At a minimum, a turn away from the existing order, this is what the people want – the peoples of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, and so on.
But I believe that the political and economic project of the region has not changed much. Because the conception of development, based in the exploitation of natural resources, has not changed. The leaderships of these new political developments continue to have as their objective the “improvement” of economic development along these lines.
The new projects call for the end to imperialism, as we have called for. They have taken control of the natural resources away from the hands of imperialism in some cases, with a discourse of creating a new redistributive economy. But there hasn’t been much redistribution.
The regional projects of economic integration have no clear vision of change. I, for one, doubt that the new models emerging respond authentically to the interests of the peoples of these countries, who want profound changes.
The indigenous movement doesn’t want the kind of development the new governments are promoting. It means not only environmental destruction, but social and cultural destruction, genocide and ethnocide. This is at the root of development models based on the exploitation of natural resources.
I want to be absolutely frank and say that this vision of development is backwards. The project of Integración de la Infraestructura Regional Suramericana (Integration of South American Regional Infrastructure, IIRSA), for example, is not some little or simple thing. Its purpose is to take advantage of all the natural resources of our country. The construction of this famous inter-Amazonian superhighway starting in Manta-Manaus Brazil will have as a consequence the expulsion of our natural resources to these other markets. The governments behind it can call themselves socialists of the twenty-first century, of the twenty-second century if they want, but they are not responding to the interests of our peoples.
Where in this project is the profound social, cultural, and political integration of our peoples, the fabric of integration that we’ve been building? It’s not a part of this project of integration. What is more, the fabric connecting our peoples is going to be destroyed by IIRSA.
This is the same sort of project that imperialism has in mind. Those managing the geopolitics will have changed, from the North, to the South, but the project will remain the same.
If the panorama is as you say it is, what is the alternative? What does South America require to change the dynamics at play? You’ve talked about the emergence of social movements and demands of the peoples of South America, but their inability to make these demands a reality. You’ve talked about the weaknesses of the alternatives at the level of states. So what alternative strategic orientation do you see as necessary to bring about an authentic path of emancipation?
This is the difficult question! This is the crucial one! (laughing).
There are these two conditions that we have to analyze with absolute responsibility inside the popular movements, and inside academia too.
The first is the condition of coloniality, as I said earlier, that I believe we are still living through. This entire schema of thought, the idea that we have to continue following the same path of development, at the same rate, and so on – the kind of “development” that was invented in the 1950s. There is still this idea that we have to continue with this kind of development! It doesn’t matter who dies, how many human beings it pushes under, we have to develop ourselves!
This conception of development, this conception of welfare, this conception of economic growth that continues to drive everything, is a Eurocentric one. It’s also an anthropocentric vision. We’re stuck in this thinking that enriches a few, and so we can’t break out of this development model.
The other condition that we have to struggle against and to overcome, as I have said, is this capitalist economic model.
The two conditions together – coloniality and capitalism – have to be fought simultaneously.
There are two civilizational models that are confronting one another in the current moment – two distinct paradigms, a western paradigm, and a paradigm from here. But the paradigm from here has everything to lose because no one values it whatsoever. It’s those Indians again, trying to recover their notion of “buen vivir,” living well. But this doesn’t exist anymore, they say, because we’re living in a period of “bienestar” or a western conception of welfare. The paradigms of the original peoples, which are not the same paradigm as capitalist development, are being trodden upon. These paradigms of “living well,” of harmony between humankind and nature. It’s from these indigenous paradigms that, in part, an alternative must emerge.
I’m not saying that everything in the Western paradigm is crap. Humanity has evolved and grown. And there are many things worth saving from the Western paradigm.
Are there divisions in the indigenous movement with respect to this idea of civilizational models?
There are two positions on this in the indigenous movement here, for example, and in Bolivia, Peru, and Guatemala. We have indigenismo, indigenism, for example, which is all about the recuperation of the originality of the indigenous peoples and their identity. And this is all to the good. But they want to do it alone, and this is what is not attractive.
There’s another position which is much more global and inclusive, starting from the basis of the schemas of thinking of the indigenous peoples. This position starts with the problem of how are we to combine this sociological question, this question of the class struggle, and this cultural dimension, this historical question of identity, or “ethnicity” as the anthropologists say. This dynamic is in discussion within the indigenous movement.
I sincerely believe that if we don’t build a consensus between those of us who have a distinct vision for this world, and excuse me for saying this, we’re all fucked. It might appear that the indigenous peoples here are operating with a utopian vision, the idea that we can live in harmony with nature, but I believe these paradigms are valid.
And I don’t think they have to be exclusive to indigenous peoples. This can be the basis for the strategy of change, a change in our way of living, for all of humanity.
And this platform has been raised here in a practical way. This is what the struggle for a plurinational state in Ecuador has been about, for example. It’s been about communities taking care of nature, of life. Because your life does not depend only on you. It depends on this totality.
Lot of people say that we need to change things in this world, but we continue our assault on nature. We’re killing ourselves in the process. The death of nature is the death of humanity.
This is what we have to think about and reflect on. I believe that the indigenous movements in this region of the world have had some success as globalizing some of these themes.
Here in Ecuador, we managed to secure in the new constitution rights for nature, we implanted in the constitution the notion that nature is a subject with rights.
But this idea hasn’t sunk into society at large. I was at a gathering a few days ago, and I was saying how the inclusion of the rights of nature in the constitution was a consequence of a struggle of indigenous peoples, ecologists, and peasants. A lawyer turned to me and said, “you’re crazy. Who is the subject of rights in nature? The birds? The butterflies?” He couldn’t understand, because this man was educated in the colonial manner, with its adherence to Roman law, and its particular vision of the state, and so on. And this is the daily way in which these concepts are used here.
And so, I would say, we have to change what’s going on in these heads (laughing) – the totality of their framework of thinking. If we orient ourselves in this direction there might be an alternative that grows out of it.
We can look around at all of these regional integration projects, like the Bank of the South, and so on. And I’m not opposed to putting an end to imperialism. Imperialism has to die. But we musn’t replace it with another empire. Imperialism will only be put to death by the popular struggles in this region.
Projects like IIRSA, however, will destroy the indigenous communities at the heart of these popular anti-imperialist struggles; it will destroy them physically and spiritually, by destroying their territories. The green zones that we find still existing in South America are those zones where we find indigenous peoples.
In the Cordillera de Condor, the Condor mountain range in the South of Ecuador, for example, they say they’ve found uranium and it has to be developed. I’m not sure why it has to be developed. What good is uranium for humanity? Isn’t it for building bombs to get rid of humanity? It is truly unbelievable. Our crisis of civilization has brought us to the brink of insanity.
We’re not simply living through an economic crisis – of the United States, Europe, and so on. We’re living through a civilizational crisis of the model. If we don’t confront this, I don’t know what luck we’ll have.
 Luis Macas attended the same high school that produced the renowned Marxist sociologist Agustín Cueva. Thanks to Forrest Hylton for pointing this out.
Comments are closed.