By Semana 56
Translated by Joseph Keady (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Manuela Picq has not stopped supporting social movement struggles. Last week she was in Guatemala during the hearings on the criminalization of indigenous Mayan people. Her partner, Ecuarunari leader Carlos Pérez Guartambel, was also there. It has been very difficult for her to see him since August 21, 2015, when the Ecuadoran government accused her of unauthorized political activities due to her migrant status, forcing her to leave the country.
“The government revoked my visa in August 2015 and then rejected my Mercosur visa without any justification. Now they say they won’t recognize by family relationship with Carlos so they can suspend our application for a family refuge visa. The Foreign Ministry refuses to recognize our union under the indigenous justice system, claiming that we have to register it with the state Registry Office. Denying a union established under indigenous law is a way of denying the plurinationality of the state.” Under the circumstances, she has not ruled out turning to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the next few months.
Ms. Picq, a journalist, professor, and social activist, agreed to answer a few questions that semana56.com sent her via email concerning the criminalization of social protest.
Why has social protest become a problem in the countries identified with socialism of the twenty-first century?
The problem is that the left stopped being right: we expect violence and censorship from military governments, we expect neoliberal policies from right-wing governments, but we don’t expect that from left-wing governments that were democratically elected through social movements’ struggles. We expected structural changes, a new kind of state, but what we got was an intensification of the extractivist model.
Left-wing governments in Latin America do not support the social movements’ critical outlook and protests. Some of them ignore the social movements’ demands, as in Brazil, while others criminalize them, like in the Bolivarian states. But none of the “New Left” governments were able to maintain a reflective, self-critical perspective or listen to their bases.
Part of the problem is a matter of form: socialism of the twenty-first century wanted to maintain the appearance of legitimacy at all costs and in the process it silenced dissent, particularly from the left. It could not accept being the object of popular protests and accused the popular movements of being “right wing”. As far as their content, the left-wing governments in Latin America continued financing their states by exporting raw materials and today they are more dependent than they were ten years ago. In other words, they intensified the capitalist model of exploitation (of the land) and defended it to finance their social redistribution policies.
But the people know that extractive exploitation of their land will not bring social justice. The left doesn’t want to hear that critique. In fact, it has tried to silence anti-extractivism throughout the region. The question now is where are we going and what are the political alternatives. Some people are talking about reinventing the left, others about dropping the left-right paradigm because it is no longer sufficient. In short, the question is how to think about other forms of political authority, like reclaiming democracy.
How have fear, persecution, trials, and even assassinations in organized communities and groups factored into all this? Are they also paralyzing the rest of civil society?
That’s what I call “lawfare” or legal warfare. Governments use the full weight of the state judicial apparatus against activists through endless trials without due process in which the justice system is used against citizens to limit their civil and political rights. Instead of torturing them, now they criminalize them. It’s a soft form of state violence and it has the effect of deterring social protest. The murder of Berta Cáceres was a message to everyone who participates in protests: we have impunity to kill anyone who talks too tough, so shut your mouth. We are not going to tolerate criticism. That’s the message.
Is the rest of society complicit by not making enough noise or demands as social protest is criminalized?
I see the silence in the rest of society as a combination of various factors: disinformation, disinterest, and fear. Disinformation is inevitable given the censorship and the state’s media monopoly. The disinterest is a consequence of the lack of information. And fear is understandable when the government puts the police and the military in the streets to suppress—sometimes brutally—peaceful social protest.
I’ll give you an example: I don’t believe that Ecuadoran society is any more in favor of oil extraction in the Yasuní rainforests than the social movements are. What I do think is that part of our society is uninformed about the real implications and the cost (with no benefit) of that extraction, the extent of the corruption around the use of petro-resources, or the scale of Ecuador’s debt to China. I also think a lot of people are concerned about this for five minutes when they hear about it on the news, but they don’t have the time, interest, or courage to go into the streets regularly for the Yasuní.
Under these circumstances, are social movements being undermined? How is its protection and development ensured and where does that come from?
Social movements are weak given the censorship, criminalization, and repression. Decreto 16 and the Ley de Communicación badly undermined them. And at the same time, social protest is stronger because there is a common enemy, because every sector of society is affected by the loss of democracy. 2015 will go down in the history books as a year of strong social protest from indigenous peoples, doctors, students, ecologists, women, teachers… The government brutally repressed the protests in August 2015 precisely because they were unprecedented in the recent political history of the country.
For example, look at the failed meeting between representatives of the right wing and the indigenous movement in February 2016. To me it’s a historical fact that the banking interests are looking for an alliance with the indigenous people and campesinos in the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE). The indigenous grass roots said no to the discussion in part because it was a government assembly to set internal agendas and they were not consulted. Probably also because the indigenous movement and the banks have historically pursued opposing economic agendas and they don’t want to be co-opted just for an electoral process.
Maybe there will be other forums for discussion and maybe not. The point is that the movements were weakened on one hand and gained ground on the other.
What combination of interests would it take for social protest to put an end to assassinations like that of Berta Cáceres in Honduras or of other people in other countries? How do we fight against that?
It isn’t just states that want to silence people like Berta Cáceres. It’s also Chinese and North American multinationals. In fact, a lot of governments are just agents for the interests of the multinational mining and petroleum companies.
Is freedom of movement a real problem in the region or is it a matter of isolated cases, like yours, which prevents you from returning to Ecuador?
My case is unusual in that my arrest and deportation were clearly acts of political vengeance and persecution because of my work and my relationship with Carlos. At the same time, my case is a common one. In the first place, that’s because other foreigners were deported from Ecuador before me, also as a form of political retaliation, when the government arbitrarily closed the offices of the Fundación Pachamama. In the second place, it’s because all the people deprived of their freedom in the Hotel Carrión were also victims of political persecution. Maybe not for the same reasons, not for a political stance allied with the indigenous movement, but dozens of people from countries like Argentina and Haiti had been arrested without due process, silenced, and criminalized for being foreigners.
How are you able to continue supporting CONAIE and social movements from Brazil?
Social movements are a way of telling the state that it does not have impunity or absolute authority. They are a way of demanding accountability, of telling the government that we are watching. As a political position, this implies a certain conception of politics. It’s a way of relating to the state with accountability—what indigenous people call “leading by obeying”. Leaders sometimes forget that they act as representatives of the people. Social movements exist to make them remember and they do so transnationally.
I support the Ecuadoran indigenous movements because they are an essential democratic force despite their contradictions, despite the fact that they still have a long way to go in terms of gender, and despite the fact that I don’t always agree with their positions.
Being far away from Ecuador, I can’t join in the marches anymore, but I can use this as an opportunity to draw attention to what is happening in Ecuador in other contexts. In February I testified before the European Parliament on the criminalization of human rights defenders. I spoke with a lot of people on that trip. I talked to indigenous people from Guatemala and Chiapas and told them about the criminalization in Ecuador as a way to break down the myth of a left wing savior. In June I’m going to the UN in Geneva to present a report on the violation of civil and political rights in Ecuador. That will be the outcome of a collaboration among women from social movements like Ecuarunari, CONAIE, and the Frente Popular.
Will you stay in Brazil until you can return to Ecuador?
Brazil is my home base, but right now I’m working as something of a nomad between conferences and field research. I had hoped to return to the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in August, but given that the government is still denying my visa, I’ve decided to take a permanent position again as an associate professor of political science at Amherst College in Massachusetts starting in September.
What are you working on now?
I’m doing a little of everything, from acting in movies on Kilimanjaro to gardening with friends. My main activity is still writing academic papers and doing research. I’m writing journalistic articles for Intercontinental Cry, which is dedicated exclusively to indigenous news from around the world. I mainly deal with rights and territories of the Mayan peoples in Guatemala. I am also collaborating on various research projects about self-determination, sexualities, and academic activism. While I was in jail, I got a lot of support from the international academic community, including from the organization Scholars at Risk and now I’m reciprocating by helping to expand support networks for academics who are at risk due to their ideas and their research.
 “Executive Decree No. 16 … created the National Secretary of Politics Management, which is now the authority responsible for regulating the fulfillment of the objectives and activities of social and civic organizations. The Decree was used to hamper [civil society organization] activities on December 4, 2013, when the government dissolved Foundation Pachamama on the grounds that it was not ‘fulfilling its objectives’ and that it was ‘acting like a political party that affects the internal security of the state as well as public peace.’” (Source: International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, NGO Law Monitor: Ecuador. Retrieved June 10, 2016.)
 While Ecuador’s 2013 Communications Law has broken up corporate media monopolies in the country, it has also been used to “muzzle journalists critical of the administration.” (Sources: Committee to Protect Journalists, “Cartoonist sanctioned under Ecuador’s communications law,” February 3, 2014. Retrieved June 10, 2016; IFEX, “Ecuador’s Communications Law: 1 year later, 4 reasons why there’s little to celebrate,” June 25, 2014. Retrieved June 10, 2016.)
 Hotel Carrión is a detention center in Quito, Ecuador, where immigrants are held pending deportation. (Source: Front Line Defenders, “Case History: Manuela Picq”. August 26, 2015. Retrieved: June 11, 2016.