Marxist-Leninists versus Rafael Correa in a political showdown
A campaign launched by Education International (EI), the global union for the teaching profession, urges its affiliates and others to voice their support for the main Ecuadorian teachers’ union, Unión Nacional de Educadores (UNE). The UNE is in dispute with the Ministry of Education in the government of President Rafeal Correa’s Alianza País political grouping which, on 21 July, 2016, wrote to the union saying that it would be dissolved for failing to comply with the provisions of the Constitution, the law and a regulation known as Article 24 of Decree 739, or (in an impressive catchall clause) “for undertaking actions which are prohibited”. The threat to dissolve a perfectly legal union in a country whose government boasts of its commitment to free speech, freedom of association and support for civil society organisations—to be fair, with some justification—should not be dismissed as brinkmanship or an error of judgement. Correa’s administration has a record for this kind of thing.
For example, “On September 7, 2015,” according to the respected international organization, Human Rights Watch, “the Ecuadorian Communications Ministry opened an administrative process to ‘dissolve’ Fundamedios, an Ecuadorian group that monitors freedom of expression in the country. The government contends that Fundamedios engaged in political activities by publishing tweets with links to blogs or news articles criticizing the government. The arbitrary closure of the group would violate the government’s obligations to respect and protect the fundamental rights of free speech and freedom of association.”
The Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio responded to the threat to close down Fundamedios by commenting that “The government of Alianza País has completely blurred the concept of freedom of association in the country and, in practice, has limited citizen action. The latest example of this is the announcement of the closure of Fundamedios, the only nonprofit organization dedicated to defending journalism and freedom of expression.”
“The Correa administration wants to punish an organization for tweeting articles with news and opinions it doesn’t like,” said Daniel Wilkinson, Americas managing director at Human Rights Watch. “This is an egregious abuse of power and a clear example of this government’s authoritarian practices.” According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Ecuador has one of the worst press freedom records in the region, with journalists routinely subject to legal measures, defamation suits, and public insults from officials.
But tweeting news and opinions a government doesn’t like is one thing. What is a teachers’ union accused of that might warrant its dissolution?
Perhaps we should start with “Decree 739”.
According to Catherine Conaghan of Queen’s University, Canada, “Executive Decree 739 was framed as a simplification of the rules governing CSOs (Civil Society Organizations – GH)” in advance of mass protests planned by Ecuadorian CSOs against 739’s predecessor, Executive Decree 16. Decree 16 was enacted by the Correa government in June 2013, and was widely condemned by CSOs throughout the next two years. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had also expressed concerns about Decree 16 and its likely restrictive effect on civil liberties. Many Ecuadorian CSOs did not see Decree 739 as much of a change from Decree 16. Both limit “speech and association by restricting an organization’s right to be involved in politics,” says Conaghan, and both allow the State to shut-down organizations. Both also remain on the statute book.
In recent years, different administrations in Ecuador, whether of the left or right, have waged a low-level war on CSOs. Following Correa’s historic re-election in 2013, when he became the first Ecuadorian president to be re-elected in thirty years, he clearly felt confident enough to intensify his plans to regulate CSOs. Decree 16 was part of those plans and, along with onerous rules on the registration and administration of CSOs, it introduced government authority to dissolve existing organizations and block the registration of new ones.
Decree 16 and Decree 739 have, to date, only been used to target two organizations: Fundamedios and Fundación Pachamama, an environmental advocacy group that had become involved in a campaign against oil drilling on land occupied by indigenous groups. Nevertheless, the Decrees are clearly intended to suppress political engagement.
And that is critical. According to EI, the ILO’s technical mission to Ecuador in January 2015 “received explicit assurances from the Ministry of Labour that Decree 16 did not apply to trade unions”. But trade unions have been targets of Correa’s government along with other types of CSO, and now one of them has been threatened with dissolution.
The check-off system, enabling union members to pay their dues from their pay-packets, was stopped in 2009; trade union leaders have been falsely accused of criminal offences, transferred to remote areas, and given unfair and discriminatory professional appraisals; and time for trade union activities at work has been denied.
“In addition,” according to an article on the EI website, “the government has sought to blame the trade union for inadequacies in public education provisions and has set up a parallel trade union. It has confiscated the UNE-managed pension funds. Furthermore, the government never registered the 2013 Executive Committee, duly elected following all the statutory proceeding (sic), and the new leadership, elected again in 2016, without providing any reasons. Without official registration of the leadership, the UNE bank accounts were suspended. Amongst other obstacles, this has meant that the UNE has been unable to receive solidarity donations following the 2016 earthquake.”
None of these measures are direct attacks. Rather, like many other measures taken by Correa, they are intended to shackle with legalistic instruments—procedural delays, allegations of defamation, the withdrawal of resources, regulatory adjustments. In 2010, for example, government action to extend the usual period between police promotions and to end the practice of giving medals and bonuses to police with each promotion caused a rebellion which almost led to a revolution.
The key to Correa’s approach is the strategy of so-called “plebiscitary presidency” which he has shared with his closest allies in Latin America, other so-called “Bolivarian revolutionaries”, the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia. Instead of disruptively seizing power, Correa works through a permanent campaign designed to maintain his own popularity with the electorate while delivering critical constitutional reforms aimed at least in part at undermining traditional political parties and supporting what he describes as a “Citizens’ Revolution”.
Correa describes himself as a socialist. Following his second election win in 2009 he said: “Socialism will continue. The Ecuadorian people voted for that.” He has sought to dismantle neoliberalism and restore the central administrative and regulatory functions of the state. But, while he has achieved some notable and popular reforms, and pays lip service to the role of reformist institutions like trade unions and social campaigners, he does not appear to accept that they can have any legitimate political role.
In setting out his programme following three successive electoral victories, according to Catherine Conaghan and Carlos de la Torre, “Correa insisted that the constituent assembly had to operate with ‘full powers’—that is, as a body vested with the authority to overrule or dissolve and replace all other existing institutions. With full powers, the constituent assembly could do anything from disbanding the incumbent congress to handing powers to the president to govern by decree.”
The Ecuadorian Ministry of Labour may have assured the ILO that Decree 16 does not apply to trade unions, but there is always Decree 739, the one that was actually cited in connection with the possible dissolution of UNE. And if Decree 739 doesn’t apply, there will always be the crime of “undertaking actions which are prohibited”.
And yet there is a real problem here, because UNE is definitely—one might say “defiantly”—a union with a political agenda. In the early 1990s, it was active in major strikes led by the national indigenous federation (CONAIE) which involved the mobilisation of students and parents alongside its members. According to Pablo Miranda, a Marxist-Leninist analyst, “These new struggles of the teachers contributed significantly to the revival and recovery of the popular and revolutionary movement.” Embedded deep within local communities across Ecuador, UNE has become a focus for anti-government activity over the last three decades, and Correa has developed the tools to suppress it.
“The Ecuadorian government is seeking to dissolve our trade union,” says Rosana Palacios, the union’s general secretary, “because of public statements we have made at the ILO Conference and the UN Human Rights Committee this year (2016 – GH) explaining, in detail and with evidence, how the government is systematically violating freedom of association.” It is certainly true that UNE’s activities have challenged the Correa regime, which is currently manoeuvring in advance of the 2017 presidential elections.
According to the ILO’s own draft report, at the 2016 Conference in Geneva, during a discussion on collective bargaining (ILO Convention 98), which examined the case of Ecuador, Palacios—acting as an observer for EI—had argued that “The government had not implemented the recommendations of the supervisory bodies or of the ILO technical mission (January 2015 – GH), primarily relating to … the National Union of Teachers, with the exception of creating a national consultative labour council”. Despite the assurances to the contrary of the government representative from Ecuador at the ILO Conference, Minister of Defense Maria Fernanda Espinosa, things have deteriorated, especially for unions representing public sector workers who, since constitutional reform in January 2016, are no longer defined as workers (they are “public servants”) and no longer enjoy the right to freedom of association or the right to collective bargaining. An estimated 150,000 of these people are teachers.
An observer from the global union Public Services International (PSI), to which UNE is affiliated, also condemned the Ecuadorian government at the ILO meeting, particularly noting that the government had been unable to arrange for a delegation of workers’ representatives to attend the conference, blaming the April 2016 earthquake. The PSI observer argued that, since 2007, Ecuador has been backtracking on labour matters. As an employer, said the observer, the state was abandoning the principles of international labour standards, especially freedom of association, tripartism and social dialogue.
At the UN Human Rights Committee, which met in Geneva from 20 June to 15 July, 2016, the formal report drawn from Ecuadorian government sources was challenged by a number of “alternative reports”, including one collated by seven organizations representing womens’ groups, indigenous people, the International Network of Human Rights (RIDH) and, most significant of all, the Popular Front (Frente Popular) a grouping comprising the UNE, the General Union of Ecuadorian Workers (UGTE) and various bodies representing social security claimants, local neighbourhood residents, small merchants and self-employed workers, university students, school students and peasants—in other words, the spectrum of “people’s organizations” typically targetted by Marxist-Leninist political parties.
This alternative report makes the point that “the concept of legal warfare (or ‘lawfare’) is particularly important to understand how civil and political rights are progressively undermined in Ecuador.” It specifically mentions two cases involving officials from UNE: former union president Mery Zamora, who, in 2010, was charged with terrorism and sabotage for allegedly inciting students to participate in a peaceful protest and sentenced to eight years imprisonment, and Rosa Bastidas, the president of a provincial teachers’ union who was beaten, detained, and charged with sabotage for protesting against government policy. (NOTE: An ITUC survey of violations of trade union rights, published in 2015, notes that “On 27 May 2014, the National Court of Justice found Mery Zamora, former president of the Unión Nacional de Educadores, innocent, overturning the eight-year prison sentence she had been given for sabotage and terrorism. President Correa immediately announced that the government would examine the sentence, challenging the authority of the judiciary.”)
It seems an unavoidable conclusion that the statements made before two UN authorities, the ILO and the Human Rights Committee, triggered the government’s threat to dissolve UNE. The threat can only really be understood in the light of the political nature of the UNE. The union one of Ecuador’s largest with an estimated 100,000 members and is the single most important member of the UGTE. The UGTE was formed in 1982 by UNE members within the Hoxhaist Communist Party of Ecuador Marxist-Leninist (PCMLE) following a split from Ecuador’s main union confederation, the Confederation of Ecuadorian Workers (CTE), which was formed in 1944. By the early seventies, there were more than 3,000 separate unions in Ecuador, most of them very small, localised and non-industrial. The UGTE’s challenge to the CTE has not been successful in persuading unions other than UNE to affiliate. Accurate figures are hard to come by, but the UGTE claimed that it had 76 union affilates in 2006, out of an estimated 5,400. Nevertheless, it has been has been actively opposed to Correa’s reforms of the labour laws and forms the core of the Popular Front which testified before the UN Human Rights Committee.
The day after it received the Ministry of Education’s threatening letter, UNE asked the ILO to intervene and urge the Ecuadorian government to respect its international commitments as a signatory to ILO Conventions on free association and collective bargaining, and to halt legal proceedings against the teachers’ union. As far as we know, the ILO has not yet responded.
The next day, 23 July, 2016, the national convention of Ecuador’s Popular Unity movement voted overwhelmingly to support UNE in its fight with Correa. Popular Unity, which includes the UGTE and the electoral wing of the PCMLE, the MPD, is itself part of National Agreement for Change (ANC). This alliance has been established to fight the forthcoming presidential election, and is in the process of selecting its candidate. Popular Unity has nominated Lenin Hurtado, who would be a popular choice. Hurtado’s father, Jaime Hurtado, was a member of Ecuador’s National Assembly in the 1990s and co-founded the MPD before his assassination 17 years ago. He may be more than a match for Rafael Correa.
United Nations Human Rights Committee, CCPR – International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 117 Session (20 Jun 2016 – 15 Jul 2016) (All documents from UNHR (CCPR) including issues prior to reporting)
The Permanent Campaign of Rafael Correa: Making Ecuador’s Plebiscitary Presidency, Catherine Conaghan and Carlos de la Torre, Press/Politics 13(3), pp267-284, Sage Publications, London 2008
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.