Ecuador’s Indigenous Socialism

Against the Current, No. 141, July/August 2009

Joanne Rappaport

Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador’s Modern Indigenous Movements
By Marc Becker
Durham: Duke University Press, 2008; Series:
Latin America Otherwise; 303 pages, $22.95 paperback.

FOR SEVERAL DECADES now, national elites in Latin America have accused the left of acting as a ventriloquist for indigenous movements: allowing Native leaders to speak, but pulling the strings behind them.

Supporters of these movements — many of them politically progressive — have consistently denied leftist involvement in indigenous politics, frequently pointing to the demands of the Zapatistas, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), and other organizations as evidence of the independence of indigenous movements from the parties and organizations that have traditionally dominated the Latin American left.

Although those of us who have been close to Native rights organizations know that reality is more complex — that the indigenous movement has always maintained a close relationship to the left, sharing its demands while also pressing autonomous indigenous ones — few scholars have explored in detail the connections between leftist and indigenous activists.

What is really at stake is twofold. First, we must begin to comprehend the fact that indigenous leaders have always been capable of working with others without being controlled by them — something that most scholars, whether establishment or leftist, have not acknowledged. Second, indigenous political agendas have emerged in dialogue with leftist demands, even if leftist parties haven’t listened to Native organizations.

Marc Becker, a historian with a lengthy experience of collaborating with Latin American indigenous organizations, primarily through the early development of websites and listserves, provides convincing evidence to support these points. Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador’s Modern Indigenous Movements is a rigorously researched and nuanced exploration of the history of indigenous-leftist collaborations in 20th-century Ecuador, within a broader context of the emergence of a distinctly indigenous voice in Ecuadorian politics.

Based on meticulous archival research, the study of the national, indigenous and leftist presses, and thoughtful interviews with Native leaders from various phases of the development of the Ecuadorian indigenous movement, Becker argues that since the early 20th century, indigenous and leftist demands overlapped to a considerable extent in Ecuador, and that while leftists participated enthusiastically in indigenous organizations, so did indigenous activists in socialist and communist parties.

Indigenous and Socialist Activism

Indigenous activism has been central to the agenda of the Ecuadorian left.(1) Becker opens his history with a look at indigenous participation in the Ecuadorian Socialist Party (PSE) in the 1920s, which shortly after its foundation welcomed indigenous activists to its 1926 congress.

Highland indigenous communities of the period were primarily engaged in land struggles with semi-feudal haciendas, demanding better conditions and salaries for sharecroppers (huasipungueros) who, in exchange for a plot of land, were required to provide labor to hacienda-owners; their wives were also obliged to work as their domestic servants.

Organized sometimes into worker syndicates, a small number of indigenous activists, both men and women, considered their efforts to be part of a broader class struggle and joined forces with the nascent PSE. As Becker notes, their class analysis did not disrupt their growing awareness of their ethnic difference, but instead allowed them to situate indigenous problems within a broader constellation of global structural problems.

The 1920s-1940s were a key period in which Ecuadorian indigenous struggles were consolidated on a regional basis, fostering collaborations and joint actions between local communities. The left played a significant role in facilitating this consolidation of the struggle against agrarian capitalism.

The PSE included rural demands for expropriation of hacienda lands in their general platform and raised funds for local indigenous struggles; in turn, socialist candidates received electoral support from indigenous organizations.

In particular, Becker details the legal assistance and the support in negotiations with the state that indigenous strikers received from the left, as well as the opportunity to publicize their struggles in the socialist press. The left provided crucial logistical support for the 1931 First Congress of Peasant Organizations and, during the various indigenous protest marches against forced hacienda labor that converged on Quito in this period, assisted indigenous organizations in presenting demands to the government. They played a key role in pressing legislative reforms in favor of indigenous agricultural workers.

A Milestone: The FEI

The coalition of indigenous syndicates and leftists that emerged in the 1920s blossomed into a concerted effort at creating a mass movement in 1941, with the creation of the Ecuadorian Federation of Indians (FEI). Becker views its appearance as a milestone in the history of Native organizing. The FEI’s program included the economic emancipation of native Ecuadorians, raising the cultural level of native people while retaining their customs, contributing to national unity and establishing links of solidarity with all Native Americans.

Unlike the ideology sweeping Latin America at the time, which sought to envelop diverse peoples into a homogenized (and whitened) mestizo nationality, the FEI underlined the indigenous nature of their movement and the need to fight racism and promote ethnicity through class struggle. Through the Native press — in a newspaper called Ñucanchic Allpa (Our Territory) — the FEI publicized local struggles; the Communist Party (PCE) assisted in its publication, and also included indigenous demands in their paper, El Pueblo.

In fact, the PCE — among whose membership were indigenous people — played a significant collaborative role in the emergence of the organization. In the wake of the creation of the FEI, agricultural workers began to demand compliance with the national Labor Code, higher salaries, shorter work weeks and pay for women’s work, as well as organizing to claim lands and for basic services for indigenous communities. They established independent bilingual schools in a number of activist communities, which promoted new redefined notions of citizenship that were not only individual but collective (thus foreshadowing the demands of today’s indigenous movement).

From 1948 to 1960 Ecuador was governed by elected leaders, an unusual hiatus in a century of coups. The coastal bourgeoisie developed an agro-capitalist model that led to a banana-boom; in the highlands, landowners sought to modernize agricultural production. The FEI broadened its scope to include large agricultural enterprises with wage-workers, demanding, alongside the PCE, compliance with the Labor Code.

From Land Reform to CONAIE

Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, the left shifted its focus to the coast, where plantations were staffed by a largely mestizo workforce.(2) As the PCE and PSE grew concerned with non-indigenous issues, the FEI branched out from traditional wage issues to promote agrarian reform.

Proposals to reform the structure of agrarian landholdings, which were extremely unequal in Ecuador, were offered by an elite that feared indigenous and peasant protest and hoped to quell class conflict. The FEI, along with its leftist allies, supported a radical and democratic agrarian reform; but the agrarian reform law that emerged in 1964 under a military government sought to eliminate leftist influences among rural activists, outlawing land invasions and unleashing a wave of government repression.

Although feudal arrangements on haciendas were abolished and in this sense agrarian production was modernized, a substantial redistribution of land never occurred. Yet the very existence of a law of agrarian reform, which had been promoted by the FEI, had profound effects on the organization. The FEI’s national presence diminished, the organization being unable to move beyond its agrarian demands.

New regionally based organizations dedicated to raising ethnic consciousness began to arise across Ecuador, ultimately resulting in the pan-indigenous federation, CONAIE, which pressed for land, economic development, education, and the recognition of indigenous nationalities in a series of uprisings in the 1990s.

The notion of indigenous nationalities had been introduced in the 1930s by the communists and used over the decades by the party. In the late ‘80s, when CONAIE presented its interpretation of the term, it was in the context of demands for a plurinational state, with a new notion of citizenship in which cultural difference contributed to the exercise of democracy.

CONAIE is a fitting ending for Becker’s book, as it brings us full-circle to the early years of the Native-left alliance in Ecuador, demonstrating that there are both continuities and transformations in indigenous politics over the past eight decades.


  1. Calculations of the proportion of the Ecuadorian population that is indigenous range between 25% and 43%, depending upon the organization making the estimate <>.
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  2. Mestizo is the designation given to the majority of the Ecuadorian population, which is of mixed descent and participates in what could be called the dominant culture. However, mestizo should not be thought of as rooted in biology, but in culture and social relations.
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ATC 141, July/August 2009