During my last two weeks in Ecuador I was feeling somewhat lost with all the new information I had gathered. One of my initial hypothesis as I prepared for my trip was that the proliferation of rights under the new constitution was based in individual rights, and a careful avoidance of collective rights. I was trying to make an argument that because the Ecuadorian economy is dependent on oil extraction and the mining of heavy metals, it purposely undermines the establishment collective rights that might challenge the extractivist economy. I was aware that amidst all the flourishing of social rights there was also a strong government campaign against several environmental groups and that President Correa had gone as far as labeling them “developmental terrorists.”
As I began my research I came to understand that this argument did not translate well because the terms “collective rights” were very explicitly written into the constitution as the rights of indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian citizens. These collective rights include reparations, land rights, anti-discrimination legislation, affirmative action in education and employment, and some degree of political autonomy for small ethnic enclaves. Furthermore, the rights of nature and the indigenous concept of “Living Well” are also written into the constitution. Following the establishment of the new constitution in 2008 many state funded research groups known as “observatorios” are working to track the how well these new laws and social rights are being implemented. The re-drafting of the constitution in 2007 was extraordinary political moment for its inclusion of a diverse array of social activists and intellectuals who wrote, debated, and approved the constitutional articles and amendments through a democratic process. This accounts for why the Ecuadorian constitution is so expansive in the realm of social rights. After careful consideration I was able to discern that to frame my investigation as a comparison between collective and individual rights was not going to be particularly useful in examining the relationship between social rights and political economy.
Instead I found it more useful to think through the possibilities and limitations of the new political and economic order that has developed in the last six years. Following a period of neoliberalization in the 1980s and early 1990s Ecuadorian politics were mired by crisis, corruption, and instability. In the decade that preceded President Rafael Correa election in 2006, five different presidents had been elected and deposed by social protests and political coups. President Rafael Correa’ election marked a distinct shift away from neoliberal politics towards what he calls “21st century socialism.” Since then the Ecuadorian government has managed to re-direct a large amount of the corporate profits from oil extraction and mining toward a wide range of new social welfare programs, public schools, hospitals, roads, and other public goods. This is no small accomplishment, but at the limit of the extraordinary social reforms and redistribution of wealth in recent years is the political economy that provides the capital for these endeavors. The Ecuadorian state is heavily dependent on the revenues from oil extraction and mining in order to fund its social programming. It is an undeniable achievement that the state has redirected these profits from the private hands of corporations into social welfare programs, but ultimately this dependency on the extractivist economy puts the constitutionally decreed rights of nature, Afro-Ecuadorians, and indigenous communities in direct conflict with the national plan for economic development.
Another problem I struggled with was that the scope of my project. I was interested in looking at the feminists, LGBT, and environmentalists movements and making an analysis of the relationship between these three social movements and the reconstituted Ecuadorian state. I found this to be an overwhelming amount of research, not because information was not readily available to me, but because each of these movements has a very particular relationship with state institutions and different forms of state power. I feared that my work would become too descriptive and that the analysis would get lost amidst all the contextual narratives of the social movements. In light of this I decided to limit the scope of my analysis to the possibilities that have been opened up by the new constitution of 2008 and how LGBT activists have used and adapted it for their own work. I plan to establish a lay of the land in LGBT Ecuadorian activism, but also highlight the work of Casa Trans as an exemplary organization in its mobilization around the new constitutional social rights of LGBT people with a particular focus on transgender sex workers. I believe that a similar research project could be developed around the social rights of Afro-Ecuadorians, indigenous, women, and other cultural/ethnic groups and perhaps that will be a possible site of future research for myself. One of the best things that came out of this research trip was that I concretized my topic and managed to narrow my focus in ways that allow me to expand it again later.
I informed some of the members of Casa Trans of my interest in writing two chapters of my dissertation on their activism and they stated they felt flattered that I take such an interest in their work. They said they would be happy to help me in my research. On my last night in Quito we celebrated a goodbye party with delicious food and many of the members and friends of Casa Trans.
Claudia Sofia Garriga Lopez Phd Candidate from the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis of NYU