Ecuador: Interview -- President Rafael Correa discusses `Citizens' Revolution', socialism for the 21st century

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In April 2009, Rafael Correa was elected to his second term as president of Ecuador with 51% of the vote. This gave him a mandate to continue and deepen the program of reforms and structural changes initiated since he first became president in November 2006. In three years Correa’s government has introduced unprecedented social and economic reforms – known as the Citizens’ Revolution – to reverse the poverty and exploitation suffered by the majority of the population in a country which has been ravaged by neoliberalism.

Correa has announced that Ecuador is building socialism for the 21st century and joined the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA). In late October 2009, he made a brief trip to London, speaking at universities and to over 1000 Ecuadorians living and working in London, en route to a formal state visit to Russia. On December 13, 2009, Helen Yaffe had the privilege of interviewing President Correa during a boat trip on the River Thames and a translation appears here. [This interview first appeared in socialist newspaper Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!, #212, December 2009/January 2010. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]

Helen Yaffe: In what way is ALBA distinct from previous attempts by Latin American countries to develop mutually beneficial   trade and investment strategies?

Rafael Correa: In every way because it is integration based on fraternal solidarity, not between competitors, which has been the great mistake in the past. The integration that we have sought, above all in recent years, has been orientated towards trade, to having larger markets and competing between us. In ALBA we don’t talk about competition, we speak of coordination in energy, finances and even in defence, but coordination, not competition.

In 1965, Che Guevara said, "there should be no more talk about developing mutually beneficial trade based on prices imposed on the backward countries by the law of value and the international relations of unequal exchange that result from the law of value… We have to prepare conditions so that our brethren can directly and consciously take the path of the complete abolition of exploitation …" How does ALBA trade and the formation of supranational companies achieve thisconstraining commercial exchanges based on profit - particularly given that, with the exception of Cuba, the means of production in the ALBA states are predominantly in private hands?

The question of value is perhaps the most difficult and complex economic problem. It is clearly very difficult to remove the question of monetary prices when large parts of the means of production are in private hands. But with ALBA we are experimenting with other forms of exchange, not necessarily based on market prices but on mutual compensation, collaboration and bi-national enterprises. For example, since the beginning of my government I have sent crude oil [to Venezuela] and they refine it and charge me the cost.

So, Che was right, and you are right, it is difficult to remove the law of value, basically monetary prices imposed by the market, when the means of production are in private hands and are guided by the logic of capitalism, the logic of profit. But at the level of countries something can and is being done. For example, Chavez has a lot of experience with petrol in the area of the Caribbean where he gives petrol without considering the market prices but considering the costs and the need for help and other circumstances. We are doing a lot of this. We are seeking food sovereignty and sovereignty in health, producing our own medicines, guiding ourselves by planning and coordination, without competition and without this relationship to the market.

Let me state something clearly, Marxism has not overcome this question of value either. It is very difficult. Sometimes you can remove monetary prices set by the market, other times you cannot. You have to try to prevent speculation and the power of the market.

There is the problem of what value is, and the problem of utility also – the markets try to respond through supply and demand. Supply expresses the costs of production and the social costs of producing; demand expresses preferences, the usefulness to the consumer, but in practice with an unequal distribution of income, price represents anything, not the intensity of preference. So the problem is there and no-one has been able to convincingly solve it. In its trade the Soviet Union also used money prices, not necessarily set by the market, but not compensations based on equivalent values either.

There are alternative proposals, like the one for equivalent values presented by Heinz Dietrich who works on socialism for the 21st century, but all these alternatives are insufficient and inapplicable.

This term "socialism for the 21st century" is sometimes used as a way of rejecting all the antecedents, all previous struggles …

There are things which should be superseded – I have spoken with Raul and Fidel about Cuba – for example, state ownership of all the means of production. Of course there should be a certain space for private property and obviously the strategic sectors, certain areas which are fundamental for food sovereignty and so on, should be controlled by the state. But in the 21st century, it is difficult to sustain state ownership of all the means of production.

It is also difficult if you permit small private production. What controls are there to prevent the accumulation of capital or speculation?

This is easier than directly managing everything.

Announcing the plan for land distribution, Ecuador’s minister of agriculture said that the land was "not considered to be a commodity, but for its social function, as a means of production, a place for settlement and a way of living".

This is important. There are things which are not commodities – the earth, water – that have to be under state control – their exchange has to be controlled. We are introducing a law where the state has to authorise the sale and purchase of land to avoid what has occurred in the past – peasants cheated and left without land. But the land is going to be theirs and the communes’; it is not going to belong to the state. Under control of the state – that’s another matter.

It is similar to the new campaign in Cuba to distribute lands in usufruct. They have to produce, if they don’t produce, the land will be taken back.

Yes. We are also going to distribute 130,000 hectares of state land and we are drawing up an inventory of all the unproductive private lands to distribute – around one and a half million hectares. This is why they are desperate to destabilise us so quickly.

Che Guevara believed in using the technological advances and managerial methods of capitalism but with different social objectives… You were trained in economics in the US and you have spoken about the poor quality of university education in Ecuador. How does your government plan to train skilled workers, while at the same time forging a political commitment to social development and the Citizens’ Revolution?

What Che did was commonsense. Technology cannot be the patrimony of capitalism – there is no capitalist technology, just technology. Of course it uses the human resources formed by capitalism. The Cuban Revolution benefited from the human resources formed by the Soviet Union, China and so on. For the development of our countries we have to emphasise technology and this is linked to human resources. We are not referring to having technology without the human resources capable of using and generalising it, so we are introducing major reforms in education that have generated resistance from the groups which have always appropriated the education system.

Public education in Ecuador is very bad, we need to make a huge effort to improve it and higher education is also terribly bad. We have a new law which, among other things, obliges universities to carry out research. At present, half of the universities don’t spend 20 centavos on research. Their argument is that resources are scarce. But there is Cuba, with few resources, carrying out research. Resources are always going to be scarce, but these universities have invested in expensive extensions instead of funding research. We have strong programmes to improve education, the law of higher education, scholarship programmes, to train people in other countries, and clear policies to invest in science and technology despite the scare resources.

The development of revolutionary consciousness and commitment depends on various factors. I believe that part of this education is about social commitment, without it being partisan. I also believe that when leaders are seen to have enthusiasm and a real desire to change the country, people support this desire for change. The future professionals, who will be trained because of this change, are going to have this revolutionary consciousness. With this dynamic period Ecuadorian society is living through – along with the opportunities that we are creating – we believe that all these new professionals who are receiving scholarships, who go abroad to train, will develop this revolutionary consciousness. But you are probably right that we have to work more directly on this. We are already training people, but what you said about revolutionary consciousness is more difficult to achieve. We have political education schools, but we lack structure in the Movimiento País [the political organisation which Correa heads], we lack consolidation and this is perhaps the great challenge that we face.

The next question is about the SUCRE [the common trading currency among ALBA countries] – how will it function?

It is very easy, we are going to start pilot operations to test it. It is a system of compensation. It is for commercial or private trade. It will not be pegged to the dollar. We are going to create an electronic currency and we won’t have to use any [US] dollars.

If the aim of the SUCRE is to replace the dollar in trade between ALBA countries, is the goal eventually to replace the dollar as the national currency of Ecuador?

No. We are minimising the need for dollars. Unfortunately, Ecuador adopted the dollar as the national currency [in 2000]. It is very difficult to undo dollarisation; it could create a total social cataclysm.

How can the ALBA countries defend themselves against the kind of reaction seen with the coup in Honduras?

Well, there is no infallible defence, but, for example, [the media organisation] Telesur is a great assistance – in providing information – imagine, before that the news came from CNN – as is having strong relations between countries for mutual support. But there is nothing that guarantees that this cannot happen in Ecuador, in Venezuela, in Bolivia. We must be very well organised. You know that our governments have great popular support, but we are not organised to defend our process from any intent at destabilisation. They tried to do this in Ecuador a few days ago and unfortunately indigenous people and teachers collaborated. A small group of teachers called a totally unjustified indigenous uprising and the right wing began a campaign in their newspapers claiming that the popularity and credibility of the president had fallen. They are also preparing mobilisations in Guayaquil. They had everything ready when we managed to resolve the problems, but perhaps not next time. Basically every country has to organise its internal structures.

Recently you spoke about socialism for the 21st century in Ecuador combining elements of "classical socialism", the socialism of Mariategui and liberation theology, and socialism based on Ecuadorian conditions. Can you expand on these concepts?

Socialism for the 21st century is a process of construction which tries to take the best of traditional socialism, but also of other socialisms that have existed, like Andean socialism, agrarian socialism and also, at least in Ecuador, you note the social doctrine of the church, liberation theology. We are a Christian continent. In Cuba, they declared the state to be atheist when the people were believers. This created big conflicts and impeded, perhaps pointlessly, significant support because there were many Catholics committed to the revolution. They recognised the mistake and rectified it decades ago. A much better and legitimate strategy is to guide religion to be revolutionary also. This is what liberation theology did. Basically the message was "enough with this theology that tells us to endure exploitation in life because after death you are going to have the Kingdom of Heaven". No, the Kingdom of Heaven must be made here – it is the kingdom of justice. You have to struggle against injustice. 21st century socialism is based on this search for social justice, and it coincides with the social doctrine and liberation theology. This project can be joined by atheists, practising Catholics – because I am a practising Catholic. It doesn’t contradict my faith which, on the contrary, reinforces the search for social justice.

Socialism for the 21st century seeks this change through democratic processes and the vote, we have became accustomed to this in Latin America, it is no longer through armed struggle. There are things in traditional socialism which we agree with; the primacy of human labour above capital, the need for collective action, the need for planning, the role of the state in the economy, the search for justice in all its dimensions, social justice, gender justice, ethnic justice, international justice. But we are obliged to reject some elements of traditional socialism which are not feasible or desirable; class struggle, violent change and dialectical materialism itself. This will grate with you as a Marxist, but any attempt to explain processes as complex as the advance of human society with simple or simplistic laws will fail. Just as it is simplistic to say that the motor for the advance of society is individualism, abstracted from culture, the community, etc, it is also a simplification to say that it is class struggle, the opposition of forces within the productive system.

A technological revolution can create more social changes in the revolutions in production than by supposed dialectical materialism, the conflict between oppositional forces. Not only this, dialectics takes as an infallible law thesis, anti-thesis and a synthesis which emerges and is better than what you began with. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can have a thesis that is true, you present an antithesis that is erroneous, and the synthesis can be worse than the thesis. This is the reality we have lived in Latin America. We propose something that is correct, we are told some nonsense in the name of democracy, of dialogue, and we have united the two proposals and produced a synthesis, but the synthesis is worse than what we had before. We have to improve all these things, it is necessary to be objective, it is not necessary to be romantic.

Doesn’t what happened in Honduras, or before that in Venezuela, demonstrate the importance of class struggle?

We completely agree that the great challenge in our countries is to change the relation of forces and pass from a state which is captured by certain powers to a state that represents popular power. This is the first step in Latin America, but to go from that to believing that this change in the relation of forces will resolve everything is a mistake in my view. There are many important things to consider. The technological base, cultural changes; also be careful about how you identify the poor. The poor have many values, but they often make mistakes. It is not certain that the masses, the proletariat, are always right. You can convert a bourgeois state into a popular state, but that does not mean that it is going to take all the right decisions.

For example, Latin America has to make huge cultural changes. Among the Indigenous people, who are so mythologised, is where there is most interfamilial violence, but these things are not spoken about. So the point is not only about transforming the structures, it is also about transforming the family, people, transforming culture, transforming technology. There are many factors which generate social advance. It is a very complex process. This is a difference. We do not reject dialectical materialism, but neither do we accept that the idea that it is fundamental for us, as the motor for society, producing class struggle which means violent changes.

Perhaps the greatest error that traditional socialism made was in not disputing the notion of development proposed by capitalism. They sought the same, via a faster and supposedly more just route, but the same, in the Soviet Union – industrialisation, mass consumption, accumulation – this was a mistake. It is impossible to generalise the Western development model. If all the Chinese people achieved the standard of living of people here in London, the world would explode. Traditional socialism never presented an alternative notion of development. Today we are presenting this alternative.

To what extent can we say that the welfare-based development model of socialist Cuba, and its global status achieved through its internationalist health and education programs, was the inspiration to ALBA.

Cuba has great things and obviously ALBA was started by Chavez and Fidel. A great example provided by Cuba is that in its poverty it has known how to share, with all its international programs. Cuba is the country with the greatest cooperation in relation to its gross domestic product and it is an example for all of us. This doesn’t mean that Cuba doesn’t have big problems, but it is also certain that it is impossible to judge the success or failure of the Cuban model without considering the [US] blockade, a blockade that has lasted for 50 years. Ecuador wouldn’t survive for five months with that blockade. Of course ALBA is largely inspired by the good things of the Cuban model, like solidarity, trade between peoples based on solidarity, not for profit, cooperation for development. Of course ALBA is inspired by the successes of the Cuban model.