Who will put more people in the street on May 1? This is Rafael Correa’s latest challenge to his critics and opponents, but by no means the first of its kind. During his eight-year Presidential term, Correa has turned the public domain into an arena, where he aims to show that he and his supporters (to coin his Government’s most popular slogan) “are more, many more.”
Any minority, social or political group that protests in the streets or via social networks is faced with countermeasures. Government supporters and officials, obliged to participate, stage replica demonstrations and the media runs propaganda campaigns. They are so prolific that it is virtually impossible to counter them.
The Government has generally avoided confrontations between supporters and opponents in the streets. Its actions have been mainly ideological and political. Rafael Correa is trying to prove that his Government has closed a historical cycle that will not be reopened. In its discourse, his Government represents the most genuine and heartfelt expectations of the population. In this context, any protest can only be an attempt by illegitimate interests to impose what Correa calls a “conservative restoration”.
Correa does not conceive of exercising power without the permanent construction of an enemy. The political framework he offers his opponents is war. A war without mercy, fought daily and on any terrain. On one side, Correa and his Government. On the other, his critics and opponents who, according to official language, are agents of ignoble causes, apostles of the past, oligarchs, lackeys and exploiters; or (when it comes to indigenous organizations and workers) traitors, unworthy leaders and manipulated people. In the official version, these leaders do not represent the working class bases that remain faithful to Correa.
In fact, a smooth relationship between the Correa Government and any social or political group is achieved only under two conditions: dependence and submission. In all other cases, groups are subjected to attacks, administrative and legal harassment, disqualification and media lynching.
This state of permanent war generated in Ecuador is a political and social sclerosis of disturbing proportions. The Government lives in a closed system of self-references, slogans and speeches of self-praise, measured by its own statistics. Opposing views, even when expressed in good faith, are reviled. The autarkic logic is completed with polls which, until a couple of weeks ago, showed totally favorable results. Now, the number of people who does not believe Correa is higher than you might think.
Normally in a democracy, critical society faces a government as its interlocutor. In Ecuador, the Government is an adversary. The President is not interested in his opponents’ reasons. For him, they are not dissatisfied citizens, they are “sufferers”; a name that combines doses of scorn and derision.
An additional paradox: faced with complaints or criticism, the Government finds reasons to justify its policies and even radicalize them. This is proof, in the ruling party’s eyes, that they are on the right track. To negotiate would mean giving up their revolutionary precepts.
The Correa administration does not discourse. Instead, it sends teams who specialize in demonstrations to gather supporters from the streets all over Ecuador and transport them to Quito. According to local press, pressganged protesters are transported in contracted buses, given food and paid for their time.
Other teams of trolls and propagandists seek to generate support in public opinion and on social networks. Their response strategy always has the same goal: to win. At whatever cost. And to proclaim, on all channels, that they are more, many more. No matter if, in order to be declared winner, it’s necessary to twist the facts. At the demonstration on March 19, convened by social groups, some 60,000 people gathered in Quito’s Plaza San Francisco. This figure is the average estimate made by observers who watched the Square fill with people three times that day. The President only counted 5,000 people.
The presidential reflex not only corresponds to the way he chooses to exercise his political legitimacy. His response to dissidence relates in large part with Ecuador’s recent history, including the fall of three presidents. Unrest on the streets has not only functioned as an opposing force, but incited two separate coups between February 1997 and April 2005. Two Vice Presidents, Jamil Mahuad and Lucio Gutiérrez, and the President of Congress, Abdala Bucaram, finished their terms seeking refuge in Carondelet Palace. Rafael Correa himself participated in the street demonstration that ended the Government of Lucio Gutiérrez.
Of course, these three presidents knew a political instability (and, with Mahuad’s Government, also a financial instability) that is alien to today’s Government.
To the prevailing atmosphere of apprehension, Correa’s Government adds its total aversion to the basic mechanisms of democracy. No dialogue, no open channels of negotiation; it does not listen, does not allow any kind of countervailing power. It puts before society a choice, always political (for or against) and always martial (to be the winner or the loser). And with the Correa Government, as in all casinos, the house always wins …
Ecuador is now a blockaded country. Society has its back to the the wall, intended as a mere spectator to a Government that, having obtained a relative majority, believes it now holds a blank check to do whatever the Executive and Legislature want. And to convert into enemies all those who believe (thinking of Alexis de Tocqueville) that this majority cannot tyrannically impose the rest.