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The Indians Strike Back

Long quiescent, Ecuador's Indians--like native groups in much of Latin America--are finding their political voice and making their presence felt. In November, Indians' votes were the key factor behind the election of a populist political outsider, ex-army colonel Lucio Gutierrez, as president of this small Andean nation.

The victory of Gutierrez, who participated in the failed coup against President Jamil Mahuad in 2000, is a serious blow to speedy approval of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA)--the Bush administration's effort to create a hemispheric trade bloc rivaling the European Union. Ecuador's election demonstrates the growing strength of Indians and other groups estranged from governments that adhere too closely to policies dictated from Washington.

Gutierrez is the first president to have the support of Ecuador's powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE). Historically marginalized and impoverished indigenous peoples make up between 25% and 40% of Ecuador's population. CONAIE, founded in 1986, originally focused on cultural rights and land redistribution. After winning a bilingual education system in the late 1980's and securing land titles for many peasants in 1992, CONAIE expanded its agenda. Today, it is the leading critic of Ecuador's "neo-liberal" policies related to globalization.

In the last ten years, CONAIE has spearheaded protests to stop privatization, the extraction of natural resources, and export-oriented agricultural policies. After leading massive street protests to unseat the corrupt president, Abdalá Bucarám, in 1997, indigenous leaders from CONAIE helped to forge a new constitution that guarantees collective rights for indigenous peoples, participatory environmental reviews of resource extraction projects, and fixed increases in budgetary spending on health and education.