Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Community Experiences...

Last night, sitting by myself at the corner of an almost deserted street in a small town that cannot even be found on many maps, I had one of those moments of self-reflection.  The sun had set and the cool ocean breeze cast a slight chill as it stirred the dirt roads that connected the different ends of this community.  It was dark and nearly silent; the few street lights that the municipality had provided cast a dim glow, I could hear the sounds of foot steps from far away.  The occasional person would pass by on their way to the tienda.  I expect them to stare at me - this is no place where foreigners come and my tanned skin is not quite enough to conceal the gringo within me - but they simply tell me the customary “good evening” and continue on their way, as though I am supposed to be here.  I later realize that they probably already know who I am and what I am doing here; word spreads quickly in a community like this.

I’ve experienced similar moments before, where I’ve felt completely outside of my comfort zone, completely removed from everything I know.  I was in a place where not many people from my part of the world have ever been, and will likely never go.  Usually at times like that I get a little down on myself and I question what I’m doing.  Why did I choose to put myself in this situation?  Is this really where I want to be right now?  Last night though, as I sat waiting patiently for a meeting that I had with the community leaders, I came to realize that I was truly privileged to be where I was.  I realized that I thrive off of such uncertainty, and that it is such experiences that have shaped the person that I am today. 

The leaders of the various barrios slowly began to assemble about an hour later than the scheduled start - such is the custom in these parts.  I was to take part in the meeting of the newly elected Community Development Committee which was composed of leaders of the nine different barrios, all of whom were informally elected by their constituents of mainly close friends and family members.  I quickly came to realize that what I was about to participate in was the most direct, fundamental, grass-roots manifestation of democracy that we as organized societies know. 

We gathered around a table in the yard of one of the older leaders, sitting on a wooden bench I inspected the faces of those around me, their features illuminated by a hanging light in the centre of the semi-circle.  Most of their eyes caught my own as I crossed by them, their curiosity equal to my own.  They all knew who I was but their interest in me seemed heightened; after all I was an outsider participating in the local politics of this community.  What did I represent?  Was I a threat to them?  Such thoughts, I soon came to realize, were not just my creative imagination but rather a reality in a community and a country that has seen decades of broken promises and exploitation on the part of outsiders.

With such thoughts going through my mind the meeting began and immediately I was introduced and invited to say my words.  They all watched me with an intensity that I have never before felt – this was no power point presentation, it was politics, and we were discussing the future of this community, of these people.  As I finished speaking and opened things up for questions and comments, immediately those more vocal members of the committee had some grilling to do.  One person asked me how the community was to trust that I wasn’t here with an ulterior motive and that I didn´t really just represent a group that wanted to exploit the people or a natural resource in the community.  As prepared as I was to answer such questions, it was at that point that I came to terms with the responsibility and accountability that I had accepted with this position, and I realized the magnitude of the message that I had brought to this community.

What was my message?  I don’t feel that this is the appropriate space to discuss the specifics of what I am doing here, and I think that it would take much more than a few paragraphs to explain.  I’ll leave those who are interested to know more with a promise to explain in more detail at a later date, and I’ll say the following for now.  The community that I am working with here is one that is relatively poor and under-developed in regards to infrastructure, education, and health, and is lacking much needed alternative sources of income that they have the potential to realize.  In a country that calls itself socialist, this community is a clear example that not everything can be provided by a top-down governmental structure.  Thus, in very general terms, I feel that my main purpose here, for now, is to assist in community organizing.

Returning to the meeting, it went on for almost three hours, and in the end the Committee seemed both satisfied and appreciative of my presence there with them.  They represented a community that has not received much interest from any outside group, and they were clearly united in their openness to the support.  As we finished off freshly baked empanadas and glasses of soda that were passed around, I was invited by them all to take part in the next meeting. 

Today, as I think about that experience last night, I feel humbled and at the same time extremely privileged and proud.  Witnessing such a meeting was a learning experience like no other, and was a moment of personal and professional growth.  Participating in such a meeting, and being respected and treated as an equal among those wise and obvious leaders, I felt ready to move forward with confidence.  My position here in Ecuador, while ambiguous at first, is beginning to reveal itself.  And just as my job here may impact the lives of those I am working with, it is clearly affecting my own. 

Friday, October 1, 2010

Ecuador, Sep. 30th 2010: Reflections on a People's Victory...

I awoke today, on my 27th birthday, to the regular sound of downtown Guayaquil coming through my balcony door from the streets below.  Although there is no doubt that much needs to be done in order to bring Ecuador back to the point of stability that it had appeared to be in before the events of yesterday, a calm seems to have set and people have gone back to business.  Yesterday will likely be one of the most memorable days that I've ever lived, every minute of it remains vivid in my mind right now.  I have lived in politically unstable countries before: I was in Thailand during a successful Coup D'etat by the military; I worked briefly in Honduras while it was under the control of a Coup regime (the situation in Honduras is still terrible, lest we forget).  In both of those cases, the police and the military were in control, controlling the masses with an iron fist.  In Ecuador, the nature of the situation here made things much different, and much more volatile.  What happened here yesterday was something usually confined to the realm of Hollywood; it was a display of solidarity amongst the masses in the face of chaos and oppression.  I'll try here to go through my day yesterday to give those wondering an idea of what exactly happened here.

I was drinking my usual morning coffee at around 9am when I got a call from a fellow Canadian living here in the city.  "Are you watching the news?" was the first thing she said to me, and I knew at that point that, just from the sound of her voice, that something big had happened.  The perceived sense of stability that the current government had instilled here led me to believe that there had been a terrorist attack in North America, or perhaps even political unrest in another country close by, but when I switched on the news and saw police burning tires in the streets just blocks from my apartment, I realized then that something huge was happening right here.

The police across the country had decided to suddenly protest against a public servants law that had just been passed by the government.  It is not clear how many police were involved in the protest, as the country has about 40,000, but reports say that there was some division between them.  Looking deeper into the grievances of those police involved, it seems that there indeed was misinformation and shortsightedness involved in many of their decisions.  The new law would have canceled some bonuses and made it two years longer before they could receive promotions, but it would have also raised their salaries.  The President mentioned that before this insurrection took place, the police generally agreed that his administration had done the most to help police than any other administration in the past.  It is because of this disinformation being spread amongst the police that many people were led to believe that this was much more than just a common police protest but rather an attempted Coup D'etat by powerful forces from the right.

I went downstairs and passed by the security guard, he told me that five banks had been robbed already with the absence of police.  I began walking around my neighborhood, passing banks with at least ten heavily armed security guards standing outside.  Slowly as I came back around to my apartment, I could see that businesses were starting to close.  Indeed the reports this morning show video footage of banks and supermarkets being looted, but the reality is that such incidents were isolated and not widespread across the city or the country.

I came back home and was joined by my room mate and some of his business partners, and the other Canadian that had called me that morning.  She had been living in Ecuador for the last eight years, and she had never seen anything so serious happen here before.  It was tense in the apartment, all eyes were posted on the news.  It was an odd feeling being a foreigner here, I almost feel guilty about the thought processes going through my head.  I was thinking, "what will this mean for my job here?", when sitting right beside me was someone who was likely thinking "what will this mean for my life?".

We had learned that the President was attacked by police while giving a speech at a military barracks.  Images of him speaking fiery words, ripping at his shirt shouting "If you want to kill me, here I am!".  They then shot tear gas at him and and tried to rip off a gas mask that he had put on.  Eventually he was taken to a hospital where he was basically locked in a room under guard of dissident police who were trying to force him to revoke the law that they were against.  It was at this point that people began to say that the President had been kidnapped and that a Coup was underway, but no one knew where the military stood at this point - they were still remaining silent.

The smell of smoke and the sound of chanting began to creep into our 16th floor apartment, we decided to go downstairs to investigate.  Down the street on the Malecon people were beginning to gather to show their support for democracy and for the President.  This gathering grew as the day carried on, people from all strings of society, from different political affiliations, all showed up to show solidarity in this time of crisis in their country.  The city was shut down by now, everything was closed, only the street vendors were out in full force taking advantage of the masses beginning to fill the street.  We ventured back home to check the news, we saw that thousands of people had begun to gather outside of the presidential palace in the capital Quito and outside the hospital where the President was being kept.  Finally, the leader of the military forces in the country said publicly that he will defend democracy and follow the orders of the constitutional government.  This was a huge sign of relief in a way, because we knew then that the President had not been abandoned, but the potential for violence had just escalated as the chances of a battle between the police and the military were very real.

We went back down to the streets and saw that the military had arrived and were securing the area where the democratic supporters were gathering, it had now turned into a full rally.  The military had also moved to secure the public news station, the only channel broadcasting, that was in danger of being taken over by the police.  The crowds were growing in both the capital Quito and here in Guayaquil, it was clear at this point that the people were not going to permit a Coup D'etat in their country.  Although we can consider the declaration of support by the armed forces as the turning point of the events that day, I believe that the earlier silence by them was a sign that they were making a decision.  If it hadn't been for the thousands of people that took to the streets in support of the President, perhaps they would not have decided the way they did.
We spent the rest of the evening drinking local liquor and watching the news with a group of friends here in our apartment.  Everything was still uncertain, the President was still a hostage, and until his freedom was secured anything could have happened.  It was at that point that I witnessed the most dramatic hour of live news footage that I have ever seen in my life.  Journalists were stationed both inside and outside of the hospital where the President was being held, and the cameras were running as a military force moved in on the building preparing for a rescue attempt.  The footage was constantly shaking and blurry, as those filming were in serious danger.  We watched a gun battle between police guarding the hospital and military moving in, meanwhile a journalist on the inside of the hospital was reporting what was happening.  He said he couldn't recognize who was police or military, there was smoke and gunfire everywhere, and bombs going off.  After about half an hour of this shaky footage we saw an SUV leaving the hospital surrounded by soldiers, one soldier seemed to have been shot and toppled down in front of the camera.  We quickly learned that the President had been rescued.  My Ecuadorian friends were ecstatic, cheering and shouting at the television.  Five minutes later the camera switched to the Palace where thousands of chanting people waited.  All of a sudden the cheer went louder and there was a frantic rush of everyone as the President appeared on the balcony of the Palace.  It was a magical moment for everyone in that room with me, and I'm positive that every person across the country was sharing that moment with us.

Democracy and the constitutional order had been saved, and any attempt at a Coup D'etat had failed.  My personal opinion was that this crisis did not begin as a Coup attempt, but that opportunists against the government used the unrest to attempt to bring the government down.  The people of this country had been through so much political turmoil before the administration of Correa had arrived and brought some semblance of stability in the country, to lose that would have been to lose everything that they have been struggling for. As a foreigner I can only speculate on the feeling of joy and relief sweeping across the masses in Ecuador, but it has undoubtedly been an incredibly special event to be a part of.  It was an unequivocal statement by the people of Ecuador that they will not stand for a breach of their democracy, that only they the masses will remove a President from power.

I have yet to venture into the streets, but I look forward to hearing the conversations that will take place, and to seeing the way this clear sign of solidarity will propel a peoples movement in this country.