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Hispanic American Historical Review 83.4 (2003) 697-733
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Popular Liberalism and Indian Servitude:
The Making and Unmaking of Ecuador's Antilandlord State, 1845-1868
Speaking to Congress in September 1856, Ecuador's President José María Urvina called for the passage of legislation to protect Indian pueblos from water-source appropriations. 1 Ecuador's indígenas, he lamented, were too often a casualty of exploitation—their resources divested and extorted by a class of "feudal lords." Citing firsthand grievances collected while traveling in the sierra north of Quito, Urvina denounced the country's deplorable history of halfhearted state protection of the indigenous class and affirmed his commitment to guaranteeing "community rights" against powerful serrano landlord interests. Sympathizing with the plight of pueblos that were being "squeezed dry," he suggested that a violent Indian uprising against aggressive landlords, were it to happen, "might be excusable." The president forcefully laid bare the potentially tumultuous consequences for the rural oligarchy should its advocates in Congress fail to intervene on behalf of the indígenas: "Now, I ask myself, if the pueblo throws itself into a deplorable extreme [of violence] as a last [End Page 697] recourse [against] oppression, will the authorities have the heart to order its repression with bullets . . . ? If it became the case that all justice was denied to a pueblo protesting for one of its most clamorous rights, then the Government would not be able to respond." 2
In classic caudillo rhetoric, Urvina reminded the legislature of his firm leadership over Ecuador's armed forces. Indeed, his successes in professionalizing and centralizing the military made any threat of nonintervention a weighty one. At the same time, however, the speech gave voice to a broader attempt during the Urvina era (1851-59) to represent the central government as protector and advocate of Indian rights. Citing the "impotence" of Indian communities and other "unfortunate classes" in making their grievances heard, the central government asserted its responsibility to promote the "social well-being" of all sectors that "make up the great ensemble of the state." 3 The 1856 water-rights law, which passed shortly after Urvina's speech, was part of an assemblage of midcentury legislation premised on making Indians "equal" to "the rest of Ecuadorans in the enjoyment of their civil rights." 4 While such laments over the Indian condition were standard official discourse in early postcolonial Ecuador, Urvina's willingness to identify the specific and present causes of their misfortune was not. In his official pronouncements, Urvina articulated a formidable critique of serrano landlord interests—their "feudal" economics, their "colonial" social practices, and—at base—their "oligarchic" control over political decision making. Indeed, Ecuador's midcentury liberalism was marked by antagonism toward landlord power and—adopting a similar anticolonial logic—religious authority. In so doing, it posed a coherent alternative to the customary political model premised on the state's transparent and active advocacy of hacienda and church interests.
Within Ecuador's nineteenth-century political history, the Urvina project stands as an anomaly—a short-lived liberal exception that seemingly proves the rule of Ecuadoran conservatism. Indeed, early republican Ecuador is best characterized by its continuity with colonial attitudes, institutions, and geography. Perhaps nowhere in the former Spanish empire did landlordism and clericalism [End Page 698] survive intact after independence as in Ecuador. Hacienda and church interests, geographically concentrated in the central-north sierra around Quito, continued to dominate political decision making. 5 Compared with other new Latin American states, Ecuador's ruling class was strikingly reluctant to experiment with liberal-republican precepts of a secular state, free labor regimes and land liberalization. 6 Rather, Ecuador's most viable political projects were embodied by the monarchism of Urvina's predecessor, Juan Flores (1830-45), and the ultramontanism of his successor, Gabriel García Moreno (1860-75). 7 It would only be in the 1870s that liberals in Guayaquil, buoyed financially by booming cacao exports, surfaced as a legitimate opposition to the conservative Catholic hegemony. Liberal ideologues would have to wait...