Essay

Lifting the curtains of mist

History is a nightmare through which we are all trying to get a good night's sleep.

– Saul Bellow

 

On a Sunday afternoon, the Parque La Carolina is abuzz with activity. Bordered by some of Quito's busiest streets, the park is slap bang in the centre of this bustling city of close to two million inhabitants, the capital of Ecuador. No matter where you look, you'll see a spectacular peak rearing up over the skyline. They have wonderful indigenous names like Pichincha and Cotopaxi. There is history in these hills: Simon Bolívar fought a key battle here against the Spaniards. The park is also directly under the flight path of the international airport, so that every few minutes the hum of kids' voices is drowned out by a plane jetting overhead. Still, the noise and petrol fumes don't seem to bother anyone.

Near the road, a man nearly gives himself heart failure trying to teach his daughter to ride a bike. She's a little wobbly on her wheels, but full of confidence. The only problem is that every time she goes to take off, her old plod-along pa grabs hold of the handlebars. He's got to give her just a little more advice before she can fly under her own steam. Of course, when he finally lets her go she veers off towards the road. He's a chubby guy, grey tracksuit already stained with sweat, and you wouldn't think he could move too fast, but there he goes, lunging after her like a bird keeping its egg from dropping out of the nest.

The traffic flashes past in a blur as he picks her up by the shoulders, plonks her down on the grass and gives her a talking-to. There's something in the body language that says this is more than just a little paternal advice on the particulars of bicycling. This is about what is safe and what is not. This is "do not stray from my side, little daughter, the world is big and you are small. The city is dangerous."

And he's right, the man in the grey tracksuit. Quito isn't a safe place. The middle classes live in fortresses behind high walls, with broken glass cemented into place on top to prevent intruders from climbing over. Dobermans and Wolfhounds patrol the interior. Nightclubs are guarded by armed security. Locals are forever telling visitors which neighbourhoods are dangerous, but never which ones are safe. If you need to travel even the shortest distance after dark, a taxi is mandatory. For years there has been a flow of poor migrants across the border from Columbia. Little employment is available to these people. Crime has increased, and guns and knives have become more common.

The economy is in a terrible state. In 2000 the local currency was scrapped and replaced by the US dollar to combat rampant inflation. The move was met with considerable opposition – and not simply for symbolic reasons. Dollarisation temporarily sharpened inequality, as the poor had their money in Ecuadorian sucres while the wealthy generally already used US currency. Indigenous groups protested that, in a nation where a substantial proportion of the population is illiterate – including a large number for whom Spanish is a second language – the use of a foreign currency, marked in a foreign language, would create difficulties of a very practical kind.

In the political sphere, no president has served a full term for over a decade. The country has had negative GDP growth per capita for a quarter of a century. Recently elected leftist president Raphael Correa has pledged to institute a new constitution and restructure crippling foreign debt repayments to facilitate social spending. This won't be easy, however, because he has to contend with both a hostile Congress and the disapproval of the US administration. On Capitol Hill he is seen as part of a pink tide sweeping South America, led by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. The United States is interested in Ecuador because it is the region's second largest producer of crude oil. In a 2006 report to Congress, a spokesperson for the Department of Energy stated the US position: "We are concerned that some of the countries in our hemisphere are making choices that will not optimise the development of energy resources." The powerbrokers in Washington will not be pleased that Correa has rejected a free trade deal with the United States. Ecuador, a small nation in dire economic straits, may have just made an enemy of the most powerful country on earth.

But on a bright afternoon in the park, none of these problems is particularly evident. The centre-piece of the playground is a repainted passenger jet, complete with a giant slippery slide built into the side. Kids clamber all over it. There are kids on the merry-go-round, kids on ponies, kids climbing on tractors, trucks and trains. The little ones have taken over every available piece of play equipment, bar one. Buzzing around in circles in the merry-goround is a little plastic helicopter as lonely as you ever saw one. And in the midst of all the frolic, it is to this single empty vehicle that one's eyes are inevitably drawn. Barred from bicycling, the girl runs over and tries to claim it, but her father calls her away. I find it impossible to tear my eyes away from the helicopter, knowing what I know, so I go on watching it whirl around, unwanted and abandoned.

 

A WEEK EARLIER, ON JANUARY 24, 2007 AT AROUND eight in the evening, two French-made Gazelle choppers took off from the Manta airbase, 275 kilometres southeast of Quito on the Pacific coast. The night-time flight test was supposed to mark the fifty-third anniversary of Ecuadorian military aviation, but proved to be an inauspicious celebration. Air travel in Ecuador has a chequered past. Former President Jaime Roldos Aguilera died in a suspicious 1981 plane crash that was never adequately explained. Sadly, another chapter must now be added to the record. During the flight, the blades of the two helicopters collided and both vehicles crashed, killing all seven passengers. The Manta incident has now become the subject of a major international investigation.

On board were fifty-year-old Ecuadorian Defence Minister, Guadalupe Larriva, and her teenage daughter. The former geography and history lecturer had been in the job barely a week. Personally appointed by the incoming President, Larriva was the country's first female Defence Minister and the first never to have served in the armed forces. She was also the leader of the Ecuadorian Socialist party. Imitating the strategy of Chilean leader Michelle Barret, President Correa appointed this female, civilian Defence Minister as a counterweight to the power of the military. The armed forces have played a significant role in Ecuador's recent history, including in the overthrow of former President Gutierrez in 2005. This was not exactly a coup by the standard definition; the police and military simply "withdrew support" for the President, allowing protest groups to run riot in the Quito. Given this context, Correa knew that he needed a staunch ally from his side of politics in the defence portfolio. Larriva, who called herself "a revolutionary, a woman of the true left", was a popular choice with the people, but not with the machos of the military establishment. Conspiracy theorists in search of a culprit with a motive need look no further.

During the funeral service, Correa was seen shedding tears by the grave. It was a dramatic scene: the first days of a young, dynamic new president marred by what appeared to be, in his own words, "a tragic accident". To allay public suspicion, Correa ordered an international inquiry into the affair. A team of experts, including Chilean Defence Minister Viviane Blanlot, psychologists, doctors and aviation technicians, are continuing the investigation as I write. Meanwhile, Correa has appointed Lorena Escudero, another female, left-wing Defence Minister.

All of this would be of primarily domestic interest were it not for an element of international intrigue that places the events at Manta right in the centre of the often-fraught relations between the two Americas. At the centre of the Ecuadorian facility is one of the largest US military bases in South America. After its installation in Panama was forced to close in the late 1990s, the US administration began searching for a new locus for its anti-drug operations. In 1999, the Ecuadorians signed a ten-year lease and the United States spent more than $62 million upgrading facilities on site, eventually placing some four hundred servicemen at Manta. Thus the base forms a key part of "Plan Columbia", the multibillion dollar US strategy to combat the narcotics trade in Ecuador's eastern neighbour.

 

No evidence of US involvement in the crash has been found, but this has not prevented speculation in Ecuador. Larriva, that "woman of the true left", openly opposed the presence of the US base. "The agreement expires in 2009," she said, just over a week before her death, "and there is no intention of renewing it. With respect to the possibility of reprisals by the United States, well, I hope they don't occur." Correa himself pledged not to renew the lease before he was even elected. His government has made it abundantly clear that it is no friend of Washington. Invited guests at the recent presidential inauguration included US archenemies Hugo Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an unlikely alliance of Latin-American socialism and hardline Islam. What unites Chavez, Ahmadinejad and Correa is that they are all stridently anti-imperialist, and all come from oil-producing nations. After the Cold War, post September 11, the United States has diverted its attention to fighting Islamic extremism, but its old enemy may be undergoing a rebirth.

 

NEARLY TWENTY YEARS AFTER THE COLLAPSE of the Soviet Union, with the "old man of Havana" breathing his last, one could be forgiven for thinking that communism was finally dead. It would seem, however, that those who crowed about "the end of history" and the triumph of market capitalism may have spoken prematurely. Commentators of the left from all over the world are pinning their hopes on South America, seeing the region as a potential counterbalance to the global dominance of neo-liberalism. Ecuador's new government is a part of this movement. Conservative commentators, on the other hand, have interpreted Latin-America's shift to the left as a great leap backwards – a move away from development towards instability and economic disaster. Inevitably, the truth is more nuanced than the polemics of either side will allow.

It is impossible to understand the context in which Ecuador's new government is operating without paying some attention to Venezuela. The governments of Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia are all led by nominally leftist governments (with Eva Morales' administration in Bolivia the most radical), but it is Hugo Chavez in Venezuela who is the undisputed leader of the movement. With the paternal support of Castro, Chavez has pledged to create socialism for the twenty-first century. Following his recent re-election, he installed a fresh cabinet and declared that Venezuela was "entering a new era". He also set a fourteen-year timeframe for his ambitious package of reforms. The climax in 2021 will coincide with the two-hundredth anniversary of Venezuelan independence. New legislation passed through the national assembly in Caracas in the first week of February granted Chavez additional powers, and will allow him to accelerate programs already in place.

Rhetorically, Chavez is at his most compelling when he's on the attack. Whether you agree with him or not, his September 2006 speech to the United Nations – in which he labelled George Bush "the devil" – will surely go down as a modern classic. In the same address, he declared that the objectives of the American administration were nothing more than "to preserve the current pattern of domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world". It's stirring stuff – but doesn't, of course, feed any hungry mouths or create any new jobs. When describing his own policies, Chavez is full of revolutionary huff and puff, but the underlying substance is often opaque. He isn't an orthodox Marxist and his plans don't involve the abolition of private property, as in the Soviet Union or in Cuba. What, then, defines "socialism for the twenty-first century", and how does it differ from the ideology that collapsed so spectacularly last century?

Chavez identifies five "motors" for the revolution in Venezuela. The first is "the mother law", a bill to be presented in the first half of 2007 that will allow the President to pass legislation on certain issues by decree. Most significant of these will be the nationalisation of key industries. Chavez also intends to alter the constitution, although it remains unclear precisely how. There have been suggestions that he will remove the two-term presidential limit – a move that has sparked fears of an autocratic regime in Venezuela. The other lynchpins of his package are educational reforms, increased representation and political powers for poor regions of the country in the parliament, and moves to further strengthen the system of "Bolívarian circles", ad hoc committees and local councils that his government have already established.

The President's supporters point to this final reform as evidence that – far from becoming a dictatorship – Venezuela under Chavez is becoming a new kind of participatory democracy. They draw attention to his anti-poverty initiatives, his use of oil money to fund the development of infrastructure, and large-scale inoculation projects. Critics question the independence of Chavez's local government groups, and highlight alleged human rights violations and irregularities with electoral voting machines. They suggest that he has deliberately manipulated oil prices and note his suppression of press freedom. The most prominent recent example of political interference with the media in Venezuela occurred when Chavez vowed not to renew the licence of oppositional television network RCTV. He claimed that the organisation acted irresponsibly by supporting the coup that temporarily deposed him in 2002. His opponents claim that this was simply a move to stifle legitimate dissent. Propaganda both for and against Chavez is so blatant and so prevalent that it tends to drown out sensible analysis. Whatever you think of him, it is clear that he's at the forefront of the changes currently sweeping Latin America.

The reason that all this is relevant to Ecuador is that Chavez's vision is a regional one. His Bolívarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean (ALBA) was set up in direct opposition to the United States-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The ALBA aims to foster greater bilateral cooperation and economic integration in Latin America. As opposed to the US proposal – a familiar model which positions trade liberalization as the key to development – ALBA argues for solidarity with poor nations, suggesting that it is unrealistic and unfair to expect small, impoverished states to compete with larger economies. A key part of the program is the transferral of resources to poorer countries to help them fund vital infrastructure and services. Poverty reduction is prioritised over profit, with particular emphasise placed on food self-sufficiency. And the engine for all these high-minded proposals is oil. "Venezuela has a strong oil card to play," Chavez has said. "It's a card that we are going to play with toughness against the toughest country in the world, the United States."

In the first eight years of his presidency, Chavez's "oil diplomacy" yielded a range of unique bilateral aid arrangements. For example, Venezuela exchanged petrol for Cuban doctors and Argentinian beef. In some quarters, his growing influence in the region is seen as a danger. Chavez has been accused of all manner of cross-border skull-duggery, including supporting FARC guerrillas in Columbia and paying protestors to undermine governments of which he does not approve. One article in the Financial Times, analysing the relationship between Venezuela and Ecuador, accused Chavez of "leading this country off a cliff". Nevertheless, with his abundant supply of oil, other Latin-America American leaders continue to willingly follow the Venezuelan strongman's lead.

 

UPN HIS ELECTION, CORREA WAS ACCUSED OF being nothing more than a Chavez puppet. In response, he argued that his inspiration for reform in Ecuador was not Chavez, but Simon Bolívar, the hero of South America's long struggle for independence. Since Bolívar is also the chief talisman for Cornea's comrade in Caracas, it is worth briefly examining the legacy of the man known as "El Libertador".

Bolívar is sometimes also referred to as "The George Washington of South America" because he envisaged the continent as a federation of states like that created in the US. The notion that the Latin American republics need to operate as a trading bloc, possibly united under a single currency, can be traced back to Bolívar. Indeed, Bolívar briefly succeeded in achieving this aim: in 1821, after a series of military victories, he became the first president of Gran Columbia, a state comprised of the modern nations of Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador and Peru. He eventually also became the leader of Bolivia, the nation that bears his name.

Like so many great military leaders before him, Bolívar found the task of actually governing his conquered territory an arduous one. In 1828, with the federation threatening to fracture in the face of divergent interests, he called a constitutional convention. This effort to prevent Gran Columbia's division met with considerable opposition, in part because the other parties objected to the proposed extent of Bolívar's powers. Like Chavez today, he wanted longer terms for the president, a strong centralised government and a new constitution. After the failure of the convention, Bolívar wrote "The Organic Decree of Dictatorship" and seized power. The dilemma of how to balance the power of the president, the executive and the legislature antedates the foundation of the modern South American states. The solution in Bolívar's time – as now – was to extend the powers of the president by altering the constitution. This is precisely what Chavez has done in Venezuela.

Bolívar's dictatorship did not end happily. In the face of increasing unpopularity, he eventually resigned from office. Dying of tuberculosis in Columbia, the despondent Bolívar ordered an aide to burn all his writing. He was disobeyed and now, for better or worse, Bolívar's influence is very much alive in South America. But Bolívarianism in its contemporary form involves a significant reinterpretation of what the man himself stood for. South America's current crop of leaders laud Bolívar for his anti-imperialism, but ignore other aspects of his philosophy. In some ways, he is an unlikely patron for a socialist revolution. An aristocrat who financed his wars using the proceeds of ancestral gold mines, he was also a keen advocate of free trade. One of the books that he carried with him during his campaigns was Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. Clearly this is not a prescribed text on the 2007 Bolívararian revolution reading list.

If the modern fixation with Bolívar ignores these incongruities, it is hardly surprising. Like Che Guevara, that other South America revolutionary icon, he has moved from the mortal to the mythic realm. In Venezuela, the use of Bolívar's name adjectivally has fast become a cliché – something akin to "Mao Zedong thought" in China. References to "Bolívarian education" and "Bolívarian Socialism" are made constantly, with little real connection between the words. Such phrases have the ring of company sponsorship: "The FIFA World Cup", "the Bolivarian Revolution". But while brand Bolívar is, on one level, clearly being used by the current crop of political leaders to harness nationalism, the aims of the ALBA genuinely do have something in common with Bolívar's vision of a powerful, unified South America.

 

However, Ecuador is not Venezuela, and Raphael Correa is not Hugo Chavez. While oil accounts for around 60 per cent of the Andean nation's export revenue, the country lacks the money and technology to refine it. Ecuadorian oil is "sour, heavy crude", and as a result the country remains a net importer of refined oil products. The large state-owned oil company PetroEcuador is in massive debt, and has been plagued by corruption and mismanagement. With its only other major industries being bananas and tourism, Ecuador is not in a position where it can afford to alienate the United States, its best customer. However, it is also a perfect example of a country that might benefit from the kind of regional cooperation and aid programs proposed by ALBA, and for this they need Chavez. Correa has elected emphatically to side with the latter.

The new President has cast his presidency as a change of era for Ecuador. "The night of neo-liberalism is approaching its end. Latin America has woken up," he told journalists after taking office with some 65 per cent of the vote. The choice at the ballot box for Ecuadorians last November could not have been more stark. Cornea's opponent, Avaro Noboa – a tycoon who owns the world's fourth largest banana company – wanted a free trade deal with the United States. Correa, on the other hand, pledged to tear up the deal. After taking the election, he declared: "We are just instruments of the people. This is a clear message that the people want change." Unlike the recent constitutional reforms in Venezuela, which increased the president's power, Correa proposes to create a people's assembly for popular consultation. Ecuador's three largest cities, Quito, Guayacil and Cuenca, were rocked by violent demonstrations throughout January and February, in which thousands of people demanded that the congress pass Correa's changes to the constitution. During one rally in Quito, protestors forced their way into the congress and taunted the President's opponents, who earn forty to fifty times the base salary, with shouts of "No mas queso, a las ratas del congreso" ("No more cheese for the rats of the congress"). A referendum will take place on April 15. If Ecuadorians vote in favour the formation of a constituent assembly, then it will come into being later in 2007 and immediately begin drafting a new constitution.

From the start, Correa has shown that he is well aware of the importance of symbolism in politics. His name in Spanish means "belt", and he has used this image to represent his anti-corruption measures. One of his first moves in office was to slash his own salary and double the value of the disability pension. On his first day in office, he arrived dressed in a traditional indigenous shirt without a tie. But there is substance behind these gestures. After finishing his education, Correa spent a year doing voluntary work in a remote indigenous community. During this time, he learnt to speak Quechua – the most widely spoken native tongue in Ecuador. He credits this experience with radicalising him politically.

 

WHILE TANKS AND SOLDIERS LINE THE STREETS of central Quito and protestors demand constitutional reform, the investigation at Manta goes on. There is every chance that the current investigation will yield the same inconclusive result as the one into the 1981 plane crash that killed former President Roldos. In a sense, the outcome will only be significant if there are findings of outside interference. Most of the Ecuadorians to whom I have spoken have already made up their minds.

It would be easy to dismiss such suspicions as knee-jerk anti-Americanism, but it should be remembered that the mistrust felt by many Latin-Americans for the northern super power is not without foundation. After all, the United States has a long history of interference in the region: it backed the overthrow of the Guatemalan government in the '50s, supported the murderous Pinochet regime in Chile and has made myriad mad and comical attempts to assassinate Castro over the years. The very presence of American troops in Ecuadorian territory fosters ill-will. Local press have accused the Americans of using the base as a training ground for mercenaries, and as a way of extending their interests across the continent. One US activist group reported that some two thousand local peasant families were displaced when the base at Manta was expanded to accommodate its new occupants. Regardless of whether any of this is true, the presence of American troops has the appearance of imperialism. For most people, this is enough. Ultimately, the base has no place on Ecuadorian soil, and this is why the Ecuadorians have a right to be suspicious of helicopters right now.

Usually at the end of the day here in Quito, I sit down with my Ecuadorian hosts Carolina and Elena to watch the news. They are sisters, both educated, middle-aged teachers, with a brother studying architecture in Europe. Their house is a rambling three-storey building, decorated with gifts from other foreign visitors: postcards, jewellery, stuffed animals and calendars. They eat well – chicken, rice and vegetables are the staples, but there's plenty of variety. They have a domestic helper who sometimes works in the kitchen when they have home-stay visitors. On a clear day, you can see the snow-capped summit of Cotopaxi from the rooftop terrace. You can also see the high steel fence that separates the house from the street. They have three doors and two dogs.

We sit and drink tea, or the rich, brilliantly coloured juice of jungle fruit, and watch the news. The sisters are very open about the problems that face their country. They're cautiously pro-Correa, in favour of the new constitution, and also well-informed about world affairs. But sometimes the nightly litany of disasters becomes too much. One evening there was footage of Ecuadorian peasant children on the border with Columbia. Their skin had been blasted off by aerial coca fumigation, part of the US "Plan Columbia". The images were reminiscent of the burns inflicted by napalm during the Vietnam War. Correa has threatened to take Columbia to the International Criminal Court due to its use of the herbicide Glyphosate close to the border. A frontier skirmish would be devastating for both countries. Since the US-backed regime of Alvaro Uribe in Columbia is one of few conservative governments on the continent, such a conflict could even potentially become a proxy war between the US and an alliance of leftist Latin-American states.

Distressed by the grisly footage, Carolina changed the channel to one of her favourite tele-novellas. These are a kind of soap opera, mostly made in Brazil and dubbed into Spanish, that is wildly popular in Latin-America. In these programs glamorous characters live in massive, lavishly furnished homes. There's no crime or poverty, and since nobody ever seems to work, the days are spent fretting endlessly about relationships. I asked Carolina why tele-novellas are so popular when they so clearly don't reflect the reality for most people in South America. At first I wasn't able to understand her reply: "Son una cortina de neblina," she said, taking a swig of tea.

Later that night, sitting on the terrace, looking out at the lights of Quito and leafing through my dictionary, I found the word that I was looking for: "They are a curtain of mist," she had said. It's a wonderful phrase that perfectly captures the psychological evasions of a people weary of instability.

It also conjures up the nighttime fog of the Pacific coast where something happened and a chopper went down. If Correa is right and the "night of neo-liberalism" is coming to an end, someone needs to open the curtains. ♦

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