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date: 24 March 2017

Social Movements in Late 20th-Century Ecuador and Bolivia

Summary and Keywords

Both Ecuador and Bolivia have gained a reputation for powerful social movements that have repeatedly challenged entrenched political and economic interests that have controlled the countries since their independence from Spain almost two hundred years ago. A wealthy and powerful minority of European descendant landowners ruled the countries to the exclusion of the majority population of impoverished Indigenous farm workers. Repeated well-organized challenges to exclusionary rule in the late 20th century shifted policies and opened political spaces for previously marginalized people. Social movement organizations also altered their language to meet new realities, including incorporating identities as ethnic groups and Indigenous nationalities to advance their agenda. Their efforts contributed to a significant leftward shift in political discourse that led to the election of presidents Evo Morales and Rafael Correa.

Keywords: social movements, class, ethnicity, workers, peasants, agrarian reform, Indigenous peoples, plurinationalism, Ecuador, Bolivia

New and Old Movements

Historically, activists in Latin America have made political changes to exploitative systems by means of electoral challenges to established powers, armed struggle, or the organization of grassroots movements. Grassroots movements, often called popular or social movements, comprise part of a civil society that is organized as a nonstate actor. Unlike political parties or guerrilla groups that have an immediate goal of gaining direct control over governmental structures, social movements typically have more limited aspirations of influencing specific policies. They gain their strength through numbers, dedication, and cohesion, and typically are understood to embrace issues of identity politics, autonomy, and democracy, rather than engaging in a Marxist understanding of class struggle.

Academics have attempted to distinguish between “old” movements, which assumed the form of labor unions and political parties and were primarily concerned with economic issues, and “new” movements, which emphasized identity issues and often targeted narrow and specific demands. Examples of these new social movements (NSMs) included ones focused on gender issues, human rights, environmental concerns, and Indigenous rights. The trajectory of social protest in Bolivia and Ecuador, however, challenges this neat academic division between old and new movements, and between those that are organized on the basis of a class analysis and those that embrace ethnic identities. A careful study reveals a good deal of blurring between the tactics of social movements, political parties, and guerrilla groups in the South American Andes, and calls into question a neat separation of social movements into those organized as workers, peasants, or Indigenous peoples. Often these academic constructions conceal more than they reveal about lived realities.

Contemporary social movements did not emerge out of a political vacuum. They grew out of decades of organizing against centuries of oppression. These movements have always operated in a broader political context, and struggles to gain a voice in how society would be structured and who it would benefit emerged in collaboration with sympathetic supporters. Observers often interpret new social movements as a deliberate shift away from a class-based analysis of society. Nevertheless, ethnic identities have long played an important role in rural movements. Furthermore, “old” style movements did not entirely ignore identity politics, and “new” movements have not discarded a class consciousness. Contemporary social movements reveal a strong continuity in goals, strategies, and tactics from previous generations. Activists in movements that scholars championed as classic examples of new social movements found themselves engaging in street demonstrations, running for electoral office, and even overthrowing governments—all of which comprised the most traditional strategies of the old-style movements.

Origins of Social Movement Organizing

Marginalized populations in Bolivia and Ecuador have long challenged the dominant ruling class, a pattern that even predates the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 1530s. During a hundred-year period beginning in the early 1400s, Inca rulers spread their empire, called Tawantinsuyu, out of their base in Cuzco in contemporary Peru until it covered much of current-day Bolivia and Ecuador. During almost three hundred years of Spanish colonial rule, rural communities in the viceroyalty of Peru repeatedly petitioned their colonial overlords for their rights. These petitions typically concerned issues of taxation and land rights. On occasion, rural demands on the government led to open revolt, such as happened most famously with the 1780 pan-Andean Tupac Amaru uprising. After independence in the 1820s, the departure of the Spanish colonial administrators removed a significant check on the power of wealthy landowners to control rural communities, and as a result, protests continued and even grew in size. Sometimes these protests took a conservative or reactionary character, in which the protagonists sought to preserve the perceived privileges that they had enjoyed under colonial rule. With the growth of capitalism in rural areas in the 20th century, peasant-led protests began to assume a class character. Rather than attempting to preserve a quickly disappearing past, activists sought to shape and influence the future in a manner that would benefit them.

In order to defend their rights and petition for changes in government policy, grassroots activists in rural communities began to form peasant syndicates. In launching these organizations, leaders drew on strategies and models that urban labor unions had innovated, including the structure of the syndicates and new forms of struggle. While rural communities had previously relied on intermediaries to draft petitions to implore wealthy landowners and government officials to recognize their rights, activists now added new strategies to their repertoire of protests, such as the strike. These syndicates operated in a broader political environment, and, in particular, drew on support from leftist political parties. These external influences shaped how they presented their demands. Although rooted in class struggle, their demands often extended well beyond political and economic issues to address concerns of ethnic identity and racial discrimination.

After several failed attempts, rural activists in both Ecuador and Bolivia established national-level organizations in the 1940s. In August 1944, peasant militants with their urban communist allies formed the Federación Ecuatoriana de Indios (FEI, Ecuadorian Federation of Indians), followed in May 1945 by an Indigenous congress in Bolivia. Both of these Indigenous congresses took place in the context of broader political changes in their countries and enjoyed the support of their presidents. The Ecuadorian federation was to be the peasant wing of the communist-dominated Confederación de Trabajadores del Ecuador (CTE, Confederation of Ecuadorian Workers) that workers had founded a month earlier. In Bolivia, President Gualberto Villarroel, who sought to construct a peasant–military pact that in part was designed to transform backward rural societies, invited Indigenous leaders from across the highlands to the congress in the capital city of La Paz. Villarroel inaugurated the congress with a speech in Quechua, and closed with the reading of a decree that abolished servile labor and promised the creation of rural schools for hacienda workers.

Significantly, both the Ecuadorian and Bolivian initiatives were organized as Indigenous rather than peasant congresses. In addition to advocating for an end to economic exploitation, the congresses called attention to the unique situation of Indigenous peoples as internally colonized populations. In its founding statutes, the Ecuadorian federation explicitly defended native customs and advocated for the construction of a transnational pan-Indian solidarity network. The assimilationist rather than transformative tone of the Bolivian congress reflected the influence of the Instituto Indigenista Interamericano (III, Inter-American Indigenist Institute) that government officials, academics, and religious leaders founded in Pátzcuaro, Mexico, in April 1940.

Labor Unions

Historically, both Bolivia and Ecuador are dependent on agricultural economies and lack the large urban industries that traditionally have given rise to powerful trade unions. Nevertheless, both countries have been home to well-organized unions that engaged in actions that challenged exclusionary economic systems and created political spaces for broader demands. After several failed attempts, labor activists formed the Confederation of Ecuadorian Workers in 1944 in the aftermath of a popular uprising that initially appeared to open a path to a profound political and economic transformation of society. Under leftist leadership, the Confederation of Ecuadorian Workers became an affiliate of the Confederación de los Trabajadores de America Latina (CTAL, Confederation of Latin American Workers), led by the Mexican labor leader Vicente Lombardo Toledano.

The Ecuadorian confederation was a leftist counterpart to the Confederación Ecuatoriana de Obreros Católicos (CEDOC, Ecuadorian Confederation of Catholic Workers) that the Catholic Church, together with the Conservative Party, organized in 1938 to foster a conservative religious spirit in Ecuador’s workers. A third organization, the Confederación Ecuatoriana de Organizaciones Sindicales Libres (CEOSL, Ecuadorian Confederation of Free Trade Union Organizations) grew out of United States efforts in the early 1960s to counter both the leftist Confederation of Ecuadorian Workers and the growth of a Cuban-style revolution in Ecuador. In the 1970s, both labor confederations moved leftward and adopted socialist orientations. Fierce competition for worker loyalty raged among the three national labor organizations, but they also joined forces in the Frente Unitario de Trabajadores (FUT, Workers United Front). During the 1980s and 1990s, the Workers United Front took a leading role in organizing general strikes that repeatedly paralyzed the country.

Bolivia has a much more militant labor tradition than Ecuador, and is one of the few places in the world where Trotskyist political ideologies have taken hold. The most important labor leader in Bolivia was Juan Lechín, head of the Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (FSTMB, Union Federation of Bolivian Mine Workers), founded in 1944 a month before the Confederation of Ecuadorian Workers. In 1946, the Bolivian mine workers’ federation adopted the “Pulacayo Thesis,” which called for a workers’ revolution and became the bedrock statement of its organizing efforts.

In April 1952, the Bolivian mine workers’ federation formed militias that joined a popular revolt that placed the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR, National Revolutionary Movement) in power. The movement’s leader, Víctor Paz Estenssoro, had won presidential elections the previous year, but the military nullified the results. Once in power, the National Revolutionary Movement acknowledged labor’s role in leading the political transformation of society by nationalizing the tin mines, implementing an extensive agrarian reform program, and establishing universal suffrage that for the first time granted Indigenous peoples citizenship rights. The Bolivian mine workers’ federation administered the nationalized mines together with the government as part of the Corporación Minera de Bolivia (COMIBOL, the Bolivian Mining Corporation). Workers also took advantage of the political openings that the MNR created to form the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB, Bolivian Workers Confederation) that subsequently grew into one of the strongest and most combative labor unions in Latin America. Under Lechín’s leadership, workers gained higher wages, better working conditions, a social security system, access to subsidized products, and a return of jobs to workers fired during previous strikes.

Agrarian Reform

Bolivia was the first country in South America to promulgate an agrarian reform program. After the National Revolutionary Movement took power in 1952, growing pressure led to an Agrarian Reform Decree on April 2, 1953, that dismantled the country’s archaic landholding system. With this political opening, peasants established rural syndicates based on the model that militant miners’ unions had employed in the formation of the Bolivian Workers Confederation. Nevertheless, the movement soon managed to co-opt the rural syndicates through clientelistic practices, and agrarian reform programs slowed and moderated their policy objectives.

A decade later, a military government in Ecuador implemented an agrarian reform program under quite different circumstances. On July 11, 1963, a military coup overthrew the civilian government of Carlos Julio Arosemena Monroy that had been drifting in an increasingly leftist direction. One year later, the military government promulgated a broad-ranging agrarian reform program that sought to transform Ecuador’s antiquated agricultural economy. Unlike Bolivia’s agrarian reform law that emerged out of a popular insurrection, Ecuador’s legislation was drafted under the guidance of the United States–led Alliance for Progress that was designed to limit the influence of the 1959 Cuban Revolution on the rest of Latin America. A decade later, a nationalist military government under Guillermo Rodríguez Lara implemented a second agrarian reform law. Subsequently, academics debated to what extent agrarian reform had been a gift from above, from wealthy landowners and their government allies, and hence was ultimately designed to protect their class interests in a transition from feudalism—and to what extent it was a result of pressure from below, from a decades-long peasant struggle against agrarian capitalism.

Since the founding of the Ecuadorian Federation of Indians in 1944, an agrarian proletariat in Ecuador had been petitioning not only for higher wages and better working conditions but also for access to their own land. Land rights had both class aspects in terms of the survival of a subsistence peasant economy, as well as ethnic aspects of territoriality and a sense of place as part of an Indigenous cosmology. With the promulgation of an agrarian reform program, the military government effectively undercut what had long been the main and increasingly only demand of organized rural communities, and the realization of this goal led to a depoliticalization of peasant movements. Similarly, when guerrilla leader Ernesto Che Guevara arrived in Bolivia in 1967 to launch a hemispheric revolution, he found a peasantry that had become quite conservative after the National Revolutionary Movement’s agrarian reform program fifteen years earlier. Ironically, the realization of peasant demands led to a demobilization of rural-based social movements.

Ethnic Organizations: Ecuador

A common Indigenous movement slogan in the 1970s indicated that they had been colonized as Indians and they would liberate themselves as Indians. Academics celebrated the resurgence of ethnic discourse as “the return of the Indian.” Debates between favoring class- or ethnic-based forms of organization converged toward a common vision sometimes expressed as “seeing with two eyes,” interpreting reality as both peasants and Indigenous peoples. Eventually, organizations rejected Indigenous or ethnic labels in favor of claims that in reality they were nationalities, and as such embodied all of the characteristics that the term implied, including having their own language, history, and culture. In Bolivia, some activists preferred to be called pueblos originarios or “first peoples.”

Many scholars present the Federación de Centros Shuar (Shuar Federation) in Ecuador’s southeastern Amazon as the first ethnic organization in Latin America. The Shuar Federation emerged out of a dramatically different cultural and political context than the Ecuadorian Federation of Indians two decades earlier, but it similarly engaged both ethnic and economic concerns. Salesian missionaries, together with international development agencies, established the federation in the early 1960s to protect the Shuar from colonist encroachment on their territory. The federation advocated for self-determination for the Shuar, economic self-sufficiency, defense of lands, bilingual education, health care, and civil rights. The Shuar Federation subsequently became a model for how to organize a successful social movement, and provided a training ground for leadership for both national and international organizations.

Indigenous militants often assumed control over new social movements that had been formed under the control of outside interests and took them in a leftist direction, even as they retained a grounding in organizing around ethnic identities. This tendency emerges clearly in the history of the Federación Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas Indígenas y Negras (FENOCIN, National Federation of Indigenous, Peasant, and Black Organizations). In 1965, the Ecuadorian Confederation of Catholic Workers founded the Federación Ecuatoriana de Trabajadores Agropecuarios (FETEP, Ecuadorian Federation of Agricultural Workers) to guide agricultural workers through the process of changes in land tenure under the new agrarian reform legislation, as well as to counter communist influence in peasant syndicates. In 1968, the agricultural workers’ federation became the Federación Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas (FENOC, National Federation of Peasant Organizations) as it broadened its mission to address other issues facing rural communities. In 1972, the peasant federation began to present itself as a classist organization that called for a unity of worker and peasant struggles, respect for Indigenous cultural forms, and the formation of a revolutionary party to construct a socialist society. To achieve these goals, it adopted standard labor-organizing strategies that included strikes, lawsuits, and land occupations. Reflecting the growing importance of ethnicity to peasant movements, in 1988 the federation changed its name to the Federación Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas-Indígenas (FENOC-I, National Federation of Peasant-Indigenous Organizations). Finally, in 1999 it formally acknowledged the presence of African-descent communities with its current name of the National Federation of Indigenous, Peasant, and Black Organizations.

Typically, anticommunist initiatives that sought to displace previous leftist peasant syndicates with new organizations that emphasized an ethnic consciousness emerged out of the Catholic Church. Reforms stemming from the Second Vatican Council of 1962–1965 led to an increased awareness of the harmful aspects of poverty in Latin America. New progressive initiatives, such as liberation theology, used biblical reflections together with Marxian tools of class analysis to transform society.

In Ecuador, the primary representative of the progressive tendency in the Catholic Church that encouraged new ethnic-based social movements was Monsignor Leonidas Proaño, known as the Bishop of the Indians. Progressive religious activists grounded in Brazilian educator Paolo Freire’s participatory methodology of listening, seeing, and acting helped “awaken” subalterns in a struggle for social justice, while at the same time drawing Indigenous communities away from leftist influences. Proaño played a central role in the formation in 1972 of Ecuarunari, a federation of Kichwa peoples that took its name from the phrase “Ecuador Runacunapac Riccharimui,” which means to awaken the Ecuadorian Indians. Similar to the National Federation of Peasant Organization, even though Ecuarunari started as an ethnic federation, by the late 1970s it had undergone a definite ideological shift toward a class-based conception of a peasant-Indigenous movement that included demands for an increase in wages, the right to strike, agrarian reform, and the nationalization of primary industries.

Ecuarunari’s emphasis on demands for respect for Indigenous cultures, traditions, languages, and authorities lent it a reputation as more “ethnic” than the communist-allied Ecuadorian Federation of Indians and the peasant-oriented National Federation of Peasant Organizations, even as the three federations occasionally collaborated around common issues of concern for agrarian reform. In 1972, they unified forces in the Frente Unido de Reforma Agraria (FURA, United Front for Agrarian Reform) that demanded a return of lands to peasant communities, suppression of feudalistic labor demands, support for agricultural cooperatives, technical assistance, and higher salaries. The United Front organized a series of marches and peasant congresses in different parts of the country. With the passage of a second agrarian reform law in 1973, the United Front dissipated, although the shortcomings of that law led to the formation of the Frente Unico de Lucha Campesina (FULC, United Front for Peasant Struggle) in 1978. The coalition soon recognized the importance of ethnicity to rural struggles with a change of name to the Frente Unico de Lucha Campesina e Indígena (FULCI, United Front for Peasant and Indigenous Struggle). This newly named United Front petitioned for an effective agrarian reform, a return to democratic governance, universal suffrage, expanded educational opportunities for Indigenous peoples, and the promotion of the roles of women in society.

In 1980, Amazonian activists in Ecuador formed the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana (CONFENIAE, Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon) to struggle for social, political, and economic equality for Indigenous communities, and to gain respect for their cultures within the Ecuadorian state. The communist Left had used the language of Indigenous nationalities since the 1930s to mobilize rural struggles, but the name of this confederation marked the first time that an explicitly ethnic organization employed this terminology. The formation of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon took place in the midst of a shift in language as a new generation of activists began to embrace the discourse of Indigenous nationalities. The First Regional Conference of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon that founded the confederation was originally to be called the First Regional Conference of Indigenous Organizations of the Ecuadorian Amazon. The decision to change the name reflected an increased concern with petitioning for territorial and political rights as nationalities.

The regional confederation was followed several months later by the Consejo Nacional de Coordinación de las Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONACNIE, National Coordinating Council of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador). The council emphasized the double dimension of their struggle, as both members of an exploited class and as part of different Indigenous nationalities. Even while embracing the double character of an Indigenous struggle, the council was torn between ethnic-oriented Amazonian organizations and highland groups grounded in class politics. The limitations of the council led in 1986 to its refounding as the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE, Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador), with the goal of joining all Indigenous peoples in the country into one large movement to defend their concerns and to agitate for social, political, and educational reforms. Their demands included calls for land, funds for economic development, respect for Indigenous languages, development of bilingual education, and recognition of traditional medicine. Although academics often present this confederation as one of the best examples of a new social movement that privileged an ethnic discourse over class analysis, its strength and lasting power was due largely to its successful fusion of class analysis with ethnic perspectives.

Ethnic Organizations: Bolivia

Ethnic movements emerged earlier and converged into a national-level federation sooner in Ecuador than in Bolivia, where social movements developed under the stronger imprint of labor organizations that emerged out of the 1952 revolution. In Bolivia, an Aymara political movement broadly known as Katarismo surfaced in the 1960s and 1970s. The name of the movement and its associated organizations came from the leader Tupac Katari, who led a militant wing of Tupac Amaru’s pan-Andean uprising in the 1780s. Before being drawn and quartered in 1781 as punishment for revolting against the Spanish colonial system, Tupac Katari prophesied that he would return as millions. His late 20th-century counterparts claimed their movements as a fulfillment of that promise.

Students who came from rural areas to study in La Paz but faced discrimination as second-class citizens often provided leadership for these new ethnic-based movements. They promoted new ethnic ideologies that placed renewed value on traditional village authorities. Leaders rejected the homogenizing process of the 1952 revolution, and declared that they were no longer the peasants of 1952 who acted in a subordinate fashion to broader political currents. They resurrected the wiphala, the rainbow-colored flag of the Inca’s Tawantinsuyu, as their symbol, and spread their message through Aymara-language radio programs.

Under the leadership of Jenaro Flores in the late 1970s, Kataristas collaborated with Marxist-led peasant groups to form the Confederación Sindical Unica de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (CSUTCB, United Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia) as the peasant wing of the Bolivian Workers Confederation. Flores had been elected executive secretary of the Confederación Nacional de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (CNTCB, National Confederation of Peasant Farmers of Bolivia) at its sixth congress in 1971. It was founded in 1953 to represent peasant interests, and was the largest rural union until the United Confederation of Rural Workers superseded it in 1979. The intent of the United Confederation was to form one federation to represent all peasants in Bolivia, and to analyze their reality with two eyes: on a class basis as peasants together with other exploited classes, but also on an ethnic level as Aymaras, Quechuas, and members of other oppressed Indigenous nations. With the decline of the mining economy, the United Confederation became a dominant force in the Bolivian Workers Confederation and pulled the broader labor federation in an ethnic direction.

In the early 1980s, Kataristas organized several political parties, but none realized much success. The Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Katari (MRTK, Tupac Katari Revolutionary Movement) attempted to ally with several different mainstream political parties before personal rivalries tore it apart. In 1985, dissidents from the movement formed the Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Katari de Liberación (MRTKL, Tupac Katari Revolutionary Liberation Movement). In 1993, it successfully ran its leader, Víctor Hugo Cárdenas, as a vice presidential candidate, together with the National Revolutionary Movement that had moved in a conservative direction.

Another wing of the Katarista movement organized the Movimiento Indio Tupac Katari (MITKA, Tupac Katari Indian Movement) on an ethnic rather than class basis. They rejected leftist politics and alliances with Marxist-led peasant groups, and instead appealed to an Indianist ideology that embraced an Aymara identity. They called for a return to communal forms of production and the reestablishment of Indigenous languages. One of the founders of the Indian movement was Felipe Quispe Huanca, also known as “El Mallku,” which in Aymara means “condor” and indicates an aboriginal authority or mayor. He pressed for the establishment of an Indigenous republic called Qullasuyu, the name of the part of the Inca’s Tawantinsuyu that comprised the Aymara-majority regions of Bolivia.

Some Kataristas who were impatient with the slow pace of reform in Bolivia became alienated from the Bolivian Workers Confederation and formed the Ejército Guerrillero Tupac Katari (EGTK, Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army). The guerrilla army emerged in the context of the economic collapse in the 1980s, and appeared in 1991 with the announcement of a “Communal War” that included dynamiting power pylons and oil pipelines, and attacks on police stations. Indigenous and Maoist tendencies strongly influenced its ideology. Unlike many Latin American guerrilla groups that were led by middle-class urban militants, much of the leadership of the guerrilla army came from Indigenous, peasant, or mining backgrounds. The capture of its leaders in 1992 collapsed the movement, but some of them reemerged as significant political leaders. Most notably, leading ideologue Álvaro García Linera was elected vice president of Bolivia in 2005 as the candidate for the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS, Movement to Socialism) with the leftist candidate Evo Morales.

Felipe Quispe, founder of the Tupac Katari Indian Movement, was another significant leader of the guerrilla army. He was a staunch opponent of neoliberal economic policies, and strongly opposed U.S.-led coca eradication schemes that he believed were destroying a critical part of Aymara culture. After his arrest in 1992, he served five years in prison under charges of subversion for having organized the guerrilla army. After his release, he was elected general secretary of the United Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia. In 2002, he founded the Movimiento Indígena Pachakuti (MIP, Pachakuti Indigenous Movement), and was elected its president. Quispe was heavily involved in the Bolivian gas wars, and competed with Evo Morales for control of social movements. Their different approaches and organizational styles led to a falling out between the two leaders.


In the 1990s, government attempts to implement neoliberal reforms that were designed to halt hyperinflation and bank failures but that hit poor and Indigenous peoples particularly hard triggered repeated rounds of political protest. Although labor federations had previously organized general strikes designed to force changes in government policy, now Indigenous movements were much more visible in the lead of social protests.

In 1985, Víctor Paz Estenssoro who had nationalized the tin mines in Bolivia in 1952, returned to power in the midst of the crash of the world tin market. His government consented to International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) austerity measures that slashed government subsidies and closed or privatized most of the state-controlled tin mines and other state-owned companies. Often these mines were sold below market value to wealthy politically connected individuals. Paz Estenssoro’s New Economic Policy (NEP) was intended to halt hyperinflation, but it also lowered the living standards of poor people and increased their debt loads. Shutting the mines decimated the labor force and crippled labor unions, which was one of the National Revolutionary Movement’s political goals. Despite these setbacks, the labor movement struggled to remain at the forefront of battles against neoliberal economic policies that resulted in an upward redistribution of wealth.

In the 1990s, Indigenous organizations rose to leadership positions in movements that challenged neoliberal economic policies. In August 1990, eight hundred people from twelve Indigenous groups in Bolivia joined forces in a thirty-four-day March for Territory and Dignity from Trinidad, Beni in the Amazon to the capital city of La Paz in the altiplano (Bolivia’s high plateau). The Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas del Oriente Boliviano (CIDOB, Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivia) led the march, which led to the recognition of Indigenous territories and the government’s ratification of the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 on the rights of Indigenous and tribal peoples. The Eastern Bolivia confederation was founded in 1982 in Santa Cruz de la Sierra to represent four Indigenous nationalities in the eastern part of Bolivia (the Guaraní-Izoceños, Chiquitanos, Ayoreos, and Guarayos). It subsequently dropped its regional designator and became a national organization. The confederation continued to lead protests in support of Indigenous and peasant land rights, sometimes in coalition with the United Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia. Over time, its demands expanded to include increased autonomy, respect for plurinationalism, environmental protections, and more political power. Activists formed a second organization, the Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Markas del Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ, National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu) in 1997. It is a federation of Quechua, Aymara, and Uru communities that pursued the goal of restoring Indigenous self-governance, territorial rights, autonomy, and representation in state institutions.

In June 1990 in Ecuador, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador emerged at the forefront of a powerful uprising that challenged exclusionary neoliberal economic policies through paralyzing the country. Indigenous activists blocked roads with boulders, rocks, and trees, effectively cutting off the food supply to the cities and shutting down the country for a week. Leaders were frustrated by stagnated talks with the government over bilingual education and agrarian reform, and the uprising forced the government to negotiate their demands. The confederation’s central and most controversial demand was to revise the constitution to recognize Ecuador’s “plurinational” character. Their goal was to incorporate the contributions of diverse populations into state structures, a proposal that the dominant ruling class repeatedly rejected as undermining the unity and integrity of the country. The confederation repeatedly led subsequent popular protests for land, economic development, education, and recognition of Indigenous nationalities. Its success in unifying and advancing an Indigenous agenda gained it a reputation as one of the best-organized social movements in the Americas.

Two years of governmental inaction on Indigenous demands led the Organización de Pueblos Indígenas de Pastaza (OPIP, Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza) to organize a caminata, or march, in April 1992 from the Amazon to Quito. Primary demands included gaining legal title to the territories they inhabited, the reformation of the constitution to reflect Ecuador’s plurinational reality, protection of the forest from petroleum exploitation, and a guarantee for the preservation of native cultures.

In 1994, conservative President Sixto Durán Ballén’s government proposed a new agrarian law that would allow communally held land to be sold or mortgaged, turning it into a commodity that could be taken away from Indigenous peoples. This new law would bring an end to thirty years of agrarian reform, and would implement neoliberal policies that included the privatization of water rights and the intensification of the export of agricultural commodities. Peasant and Indigenous groups responded with “La Movilización Por la Vida” (The Mobilization for Life) that blocked roads and paralyzed the country for ten days. The government declared a state of emergency and threatened military action to end the protest. Although the protest did not stop the legislation, it revealed the ability of social movements to influence government policy decisions from outside the traditional avenues of electoral politics.

In a shift in strategies from a focus on civil society to one on electoral campaigns, in 1995 the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador helped form the Movimiento Unidad Plurinacional Pachakutik (MUPP, Pachakutik Movement for Plurinational Unity) to campaign for political office. “Pachakutik” is a Kichwa/Quechua word that signifies change, rebirth, transformation, and the coming of a new era. Pachakutik identified itself as part of a new Latin American left that embraced principles of community, solidarity, unity, tolerance, and respect. Pachakutik opposed neoliberal economic policies and favored a more inclusive and participatory political system. The political movement experienced moderate success on both local and national levels, including the victory of Luis Macas, president of the confederation, to a post as a national deputy in the National Assembly in 1996.

Abdalá Bucaram, one of Ecuador’s wealthiest people, won the presidency in 1996 on the strength of campaign promises of aiding the poor. In office, however, he implemented neoliberal economic policies that included raising transportation and cooking gas prices that hurt the poor but benefited the wealthy. Within six months, Bucaram’s economic policies and rampant corruption led to a mass uprising that on February 5, 1997, that removed him from office. Three years later, lower-ranking military officials and Indigenous leaders allied in a short-lived coup that removed president Jamil Mahuad from power after he had implemented unpopular neoliberal economic policies. Faced with soaring inflation and a free-falling economy, Mahuad proposed replacing the sucre with the United States dollar as legal tender, a policy that would undermine the livelihoods of the poorest people in the country. What had once been seen as a primary example of a new social movement had shifted strategy from organizing broad sectors of civil society to engaging in activities more representative of traditional political actors that directly contested for state power through both constitutional and extraconstitutional means.

One of the military leaders in the failed 2000 coup against Mahuad, Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez, leveraged his popularity in that attempt into a successful run for the presidency two years later. Once in office, Gutiérrez implemented the same neoliberal policies as his predecessors, and another uprising in April 2005 removed him from power as well. Out of these repeated protests, strong and well-organized grassroots movements emerged that led to a struggle against neoliberal economic policies, racial discrimination, and a lack of democracy. Nevertheless, even though social movements were apt at pulling down conservative governments, they were less capable of constructing positive alternatives in their stead.

Similar to those in Ecuador, activists in Bolivia also led ongoing struggles against neoliberal policies that privatized natural resources and embraced policies in favor of the nationalization of the country’s wealth. Social movements played a central role in street protests that led to the resignations of several presidents, and eventually contributed to the construction of new forms of politics.

In 1999, the World Bank recommended the privatization of the municipal water supply in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third-largest city. The bank presented the removal of subsidies as a condition for debt relief and for making available other funds for development. The government complied with these demands by drafting a law that eliminated a legal guarantee of water distribution to rural areas, and required that autonomous and cooperative water supplies be handed over without reimbursement or compensation. These water supplies included private wells and rain-collection systems in houses, which together provided half of the water usage in the city. Even before this law was signed, the government secretly finalized a forty-year contract that delivered a water system worth millions of dollars for less than US$20,000 to Aguas del Tunari, which formed part of the Bechtel Corporation. Under this new arrangement, service declined and prices skyrocketed, reaching as much as US$30 a month in a country with a minimum wage of US$41 a month.

Facing this situation, the Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (Coalition in Defense of Water and Life) mobilized first farmers and then the general population against the law. The escalating protests led to a general strike that paralyzed the city. The government responded with a militarized police force that killed six people and injured 175, including two children who were left blind. Rather than backing down, the protesters fearlessly continued to press forward. A popular referendum revealed that 90 percent of the population wanted the Bechtel Corporation to leave and the water system returned to public control. Finally, after another round of deadly protests, the movement won the expulsion of the water company. In return, Bechtel Corporation sued Bolivia for US$25 million in lost profits, even though it had invested nothing in the country.

The Cochabamba Water War represented the first great victory against corporate-led globalization in Latin America. It highlighted the lie of capitalist promises of superior services at lower prices, and pointed to a growing popular rejection of the neoliberal economic model. At the end of the protests, some activists were left wondering whether they had set too-limited goals, and whether they should demand a more thorough transformation of governing structures.

Protests in 2003 and 2005 in the capital city of La Paz over the exportation of natural gas followed the 1999 Cochabamba water war. Multinational corporations received the lion’s share of the profits from Bolivia’s natural gas reserves, leaving the country ever more impoverished. An additional issue for much of the population was the government plan to export the gas through Chile, which triggered nationalist sentiments since Bolivia had lost its outlet to the sea to that country in the 1879–1883 War of the Pacific. Social movements demanded full nationalization of the nation’s hydrocarbon industry, with profits going to assist the poorest sectors of society. The protests against the government plan began with road blockades and confrontations that left six peasants dead. In the face of a repressive police response, social movements escalated the protests. In a repeat of a strategy that Tupac Katari used in 1781, protesters blocked the main road to La Paz, which led to a severe shortage of gasoline, food, and other supplies in the capital city. President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada sent military forces to the streets with orders to fire on the unarmed protesters. The security forces indiscriminately shot at the protesters with high caliber weapons, killing more than seventy and injuring hundreds. The protests spread across the country, bringing it to the brink of civil war. With growing calls for his resignation, the president fled for the United States despite demands by the social movement that he be extradited to face charges of genocide in Bolivia.

With Sánchez de Lozada gone, vice president Carlos Mesa took office, but he proved to be no more capable of bringing the gas protests to a resolution than his predecessor. With protests once again growing in 2005, Mesa declared that the country had become “ungovernable” and offered his resignation, which the congress refused to accept. His attempted maneuver backfired, and the revelation of institutional weakness fed more massive protests and increased demands for the nationalization of the gas and a constitutional assembly to rewrite the country’s laws. Finally, Mesa resigned, and the supreme court called for new elections.

Pink Tide

Massive social movement protests against neoliberal economic policies in the 1990s led to a dramatic leftward political shift at the beginning of the 21st century. Riding a wave of social discontent, Evo Morales won the presidential election in Bolivia in 2005 and Rafael Correa followed suit a year later in Ecuador. They joined Hugo Chávez in Venezuela as part of a rising “pink tide” of leftwing governments that swept across South America.

Morales was born to an impoverished Aymara family in Oruro in 1959. His family moved to the Quechua-dominated El Chapare region, where in 1993 he was elected leader of the coca growers’ union. As a social movement leader, Morales condemned what he labeled as the reproduction of savage capitalism that significantly deepened the negative effects of neoliberalism. In 2002, Morales campaigned for the presidency of Bolivia at the head of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS, Movement to Socialism) and almost defeated Sánchez de Lozada. After the gas wars in La Paz, Morales won the 2005 election with 54 percent of the vote, a rarity in an environment in which previous victors had barely polled 20 percent. Rafael Correa followed a significantly different trajectory from that of Morales to the presidency of Ecuador. Rather than emerging out of a social movement background, Correa was an economist who taught at an elite private university. He first gained public exposure as minister of finance in the successor government to that of Lucio Gutiérrez’s after popular uprisings had removed him from power in 2005. Correa leveraged his popularity as minister into a successful presidential run in 2006.

In office, both Morales and Correa implemented polices that shifted resources to education and health care, and significantly increased wages and reduced poverty. Following the lead that Hugo Chávez had previously established in Venezuela, both leaders convoked constitutional assemblies that dramatically reshaped the political landscape of their countries. The new constitutions incorporated aspects of Indigenous cosmologies, including recognition of the plurinational nature of the countries and protection for the environment, both of which had long been part of social movement agendas.

An important example of social movement influence on these new governments was the incorporation of the concept of living well, not just living better (known as sumak kawsay in Quechua/Kichwa, suma qamaña in Aymara, and buen vivir in Spanish). Rather than focusing on material accumulation, the sumak kawsay sought to build a sustainable economy. This perspective included an explicit critique of traditional development strategies that increased the use of resources instead of living in harmony with others and with nature. Rather than a neoliberal emphasis on individual and property rights, the sumak kawsay emphasized collective community interests. It entailed a new way of thinking about human relations that was not based on exploitation, and instead required a new relationship between the economy and nature. Social movements embraced these ideas as a way to regain control over governments—to use them for the common good rather than for the profits of wealthy capitalists.

Although both Morales and Correa appealed to Indigenous cosmologies to underscore their ruling agendas, both leaders ran into conflicts with the social movements and their leaders that had placed them in power. In 2011, Indigenous organizations in Bolivia marched against government plans to build a highway through the Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro-Sécure (TIPNIS, Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park), an ecological reserve. Morales advocated for construction of the road because of its key importance to Bolivia’s economic development. His insistence on pressing forward with a road that would destroy one of the world’s most biodiverse regions led to divisions within social movements, with some members of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivis and the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu becoming increasingly critical of his government.

In Ecuador, Correa originally embraced a proposal not to drill for oil in the ecologically sensitive Yasuní National Park in the eastern Amazonian forest in exchange for international development aid. In 2013, Correa reversed that policy, announcing that the government would begin resource extraction from the Ishpingo Tiputini Tambococha oilfields in an attempt to end poverty and fuel economic development. As in Bolivia, this decision ran the government afoul of what should have been its strongest allies on the Indigenous and environmental Left. These policies reveal how difficult it is to break from the capitalist logic of an export-driven economy. Meanwhile, leftist governments and social movements continued a complicated dance to realize mutual objectives of sustainable development that would benefit all peoples.

Discussion of the Literature

Political developments in Bolivia and Ecuador have driven academic interest in social movements. This phenomenon emerged most clearly in the aftermath of the massive 1990 uprisings that led to a flood of publications framed through the lens of “the return of the Indian” to the public consciousness. Much of our understanding of the history and trajectory of social movement organizing in these countries is a result of publications in response to these protests.

Anthropologists and political scientists have published most of the work on social movements in Bolivia and Ecuador, with sociologists and historians also making contributions. Anthropological studies tend to focus on the ethnographic roots of social mobilization, whereas political scientists often examine relations with government structures. Many studies are highly interdisciplinary, and often these academic lines blur to the point of being relatively meaningless.

The interaction between class consciousness and ethnic identities in social movement organizing practices has garnered a significant amount of attention. After a long debate on whether class or ethnicity was of primary importance, much of the literature has reached a consensus that it is more important to understand how various forms of identity (including class, ethnicity, and gender) interact with one another in specific historical contexts.

Contemporary political concerns continue to drive much of the cutting-edge research on social movements in Bolivia and Ecuador. These issues include relations between social movements and elected officials (often framed as debates over horitzonalism versus authoritarianism), and whether the extraction of natural resources can lead to economic development, including intense discussions over neoextractivism and the sumak kawsay.

Primary Sources

Primary source material on recent social movement activity in Ecuador and Bolivia is very difficult to access because of the ephemeral nature of the documents and a lack of libraries or archives with an acquisitions policy that would collect such material. Think tanks and study centers with libraries that contain some relevant information do exist, including the Centro de Investigación de los Movimientos Sociales del Ecuador (CEDIME, Research Center of Social Movements of Ecuador) and the Centro de Investigación y Promoción del Campesinado (CIPCA, Center for Research and Promotion of Peasants) in Bolivia. The best source of information is the social movements themselves, although rarely do organizations maintain coherent and publicly available archives. In lieu of written documentation, most scholars rely on oral interviews with social movement activists.

Occasionally activists will publish periodicals that are sympathetic to social movement perspectives, and these can provide good documentation on the history and trajectory of various organizations. In Ecuador, such publications include Punto de Vista (1980–1993) and Tintají (2002–2006). Academic and public libraries will typically carry such periodicals. Mainstream newspapers will also carry news of social movement activities, though from the perspective of the dominant classes. In Ecuador, a particularly useful collection is Kipu, which assembles press clippings on Indigenous issues.

For contemporary events, organizational Websites can provide a rich source of data, although internal changes in a social movement or technical problems with a Website or domain registration can often mean that earlier information disappears from the Internet. Websites such as La Línea de Fuego for Ecuador or Bolivia Rising reprint social movement proclamations and commentary, and provide convenient sources of information on current events.

Further Reading

Albó, Xavier. “Andean People in the Twentieth Century.” In The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, edited by Frank Salomon and Stuart B. Schwartz, 765–871. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Becker, Marc. Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador’s Modern Indigenous Movements. Latin American otherwise. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Hylton, Forrest, and Sinclair Thomson. Revolutionary Horizons: Popular Struggle in Bolivia. London: Verso, 2007.Find this resource:

John, S. Sándor. Bolivia’s Radical Tradition: Permanent Revolution in the Andes. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Lucero, José Antonio. Struggles of Voice: The Politics of Indigenous Representation in the Andes. Pitt Latin American series. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Pallares, Amalia. From Peasant Struggles to Indian Resistance: The Ecuadorian Andes in the Late Twentieth Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Rivera Cusicanqui, Silvia. Oppressed But Not Defeated: Peasant Struggles Among the Aymara and the Qhechwa in Bolivia, 1900–1980. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 1987.Find this resource:

Sawyer, Suzana. Crude Chronicles: Indigenous Politics, Multinational Oil, and Neoliberalism in Ecuador. American Encounters/Global Interactions series. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Selverston-Scher, Melina. Ethnopolitics in Ecuador: Indigenous Rights and the Strengthening of Democracy. Coral Gables, FL, and Boulder, CO: North-South Center Press at the University of Miami, 2001.Find this resource:

Webber, Jeffery. Red October: Left-Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.Find this resource: