- Indians, Oil, and Politics: A Recent History of Ecuador
Ecuadorian politics have been characterized by turbidity since the beginning of the republican era. The late Dr. José María Velasco Ibarra, who was elected to the presidency five times in the twentieth century but never served out a full term, is often quoted as saying that Ecuador is a very difficult country to govern. In the mid-1960 s, oil was (re)discovered in the Amazonian territories (which are about two thousand miles from the Amazon itself), and its political-economic history since then can be characterized as one of rising expectations and declining resources for the majority of its peoples, coupled with increased wealth and power for a small minority. More recently, Colombian cocaine distribution has contributed to Ecuadorian money laundering, again to the impoverishment of the vast majority of the population and the increase in wealth for a few.
In 1990, indigenous people from throughout the country staged the first millennial event there, the renowned Levantamiento Indígena (Indigenous Uprising), [End Page 555] which was followed in 1992 by a second such event, the Caminata (March) from Amazonia to Andean Quito. The Caminata was led by Antonio Vargas and brought heretofore scarcely known indigenous people of the Canelos Quichua, Achuar, and Shiwiar cultural systems to the heart of the capital to claim (and win) usufruct to their ancient Amazonian territory. They were joined on the March and in Quito by other nationalities, including Andean Quichua-speaking people and Afro-Ecuadorians. These millennial instances within escalating modernity came one after the other, culminating, for this book, in the conjoined indigenous-military uprising of January 21 , 2000 , which ousted president Jamil Mahuad Witt and forced him to exile as a professor at Harvard University.
If history is a radical selection of events from a huge potential corpus, and if the focus of history is twofold—something that happened and the stories told about that something—then Gerlach, an Albuquerque attorney with a doctorate in history, offers a cascade of facts and factoids about events, selecting in a clearly radical manner what he will present from secondary and tertiary sources. The stories told are both revealing and obfuscating. Information omitted is as crucial as what is presented to understand the stories about the interrelationships of national and international power politics, global capitalist economics, and an indigenous (and less powerful Afro-Ecuadorian) movement for social justice that has altered the very fabric of Ecuadorian society and profoundly influenced the caudillismo of national and nationalist politics. The indigenous movement, and other social movements it sometimes represents, however, keeps running into the cement wall of encrusted global capitalism in this small but highly significant country of northwestern South America.
This well-written book is jargon free but marred by careless or poorly informed use of descriptive terms, such as the pejorative word cholo as a catch-all for what is generally called the "white-mestizo sector." The term pueblo indígena (indigenous people) is translated as "Indian pueblo," bringing to mind the American Southwest. "The Amazon" is used endlessly for the Amazonian region that comprises the Andean piedmont and upper Amazonian biome. Historiography is marked by a very close reading of newspapers and a selective sampling of some pertinent books. Other books listed in the bibliography are not referenced in the text, to its detriment. Oddly, the first Levantamiento Indígena of 1990 is credited to the nonparticipating Huaorani, and no credit is given to the Amazonian Quichua-speakers from Pastaza Province who led the 1992 Caminata (a key event not even mentioned in the book). Gerlach places the Huaorani in a province in which they do not live (Sucumbíos), has them transforming from "slash and burn" horticulture (they do not burn) to fix-field expanded agriculture (which they do not practice), and grants some college degrees to indigenous leaders who do not hold them. By so doing, he denies grassroots credit to...