The overthrow of President Jamil Mahuad last weekend was quick and bloodless, almost routine by Ecuadoran standards. Most unusual, however, was the group at the center of the drama--thousands of indigenous people, historically the country's poorest and most politically marginalized group.
In fact, the Ecuadoran Indians are believed to be the first native group in South America to carry out what many are calling a coup d'etat. On a continent where native peoples in several countries are enmeshed in decades-old struggles over land, language and civil and political rights, Ecuador's Indians have emerged as South America's most cohesive and influential indigenous movement.
"The indigenous movement in Ecuador has shown its power," said Simon Pachano, a political analyst here in the capital, Quito. "They've shown that they can throw a president out of office if they want to, and they can do it again."
The fallout from the movement's role in Mahuad's ouster is not yet clear. Analysts and even supporters are divided over whether his removal ultimately marks a step forward for Ecuador's Indians. Some wonder if the group was manipulated by the military, which also took part. Others wonder if the Indians wasted hard-earned political capital by using non-constitutional means to get rid of Mahuad.
That debate will grow even sharper in coming days, with the expected arrest of indigenous leader Antonio Vargas. The longtime activist led protests in the days before Mahuad's ouster, then became part of a short-lived junta that occupied the presidential palace for a few hours Friday evening before it was agreed that Vice President Gustavo Noboa would succeed Mahuad. What is clear, however, is how far the Indian movement here has come.
Indians have inhabited Ecuador's economic and political doldrums for decades. About 90 percent of the country's 12.4 million inhabitants are at least part Indian, but the 10 percent who are white control more than 50 percent of the nation's wealth. Annual per capita income in Ecuador is $1,600; among Indians, it has stagnated at about $250.
Indians generally inhabit Ecuador's highlands, the least developed area of the country, with the fewest enterprises, the lowest level of public services and the deepest sense of alienation.
For much of Ecuador's history, its Indians generally shunned politics. Indigenous leaders thought their cause was better served by ignoring a political system that for decades had ignored them. The people of Ecuador's 11 indigenous groups also believed that embracing politics would force them to tamp down their ethnic identity.
All that changed in 1996, when indigenous leaders decided to create a political party that would include other marginalized Ecuadorans--women, ecologists, human rights activists, Christians, community associations. They called the party Pachakutik, which means change, or revolution.
"We decided that we wouldn't just fight for our issues," said Nina Pacari, a member of the national legislature. "We decided to fight for issues that affected all of society."
Pacari recalled that before 1996 perhaps only one or two indigenous Ecuadorans held a seat in the 121-member Congress. Today, six Pachakutik party members hold seats; four are Indians. The party's emergence has allowed the indigenous movement to focus on nationwide issues, such as low wages and corruption, while also forging a broader base of support for issues dearest to them.
Using both politics and protest, the Indians forced a host of rights for themselves into the constitution in 1998, including the right to teach their native languages in their schools, to have their cultural traditions protected and to enjoy equal status before the law.
Vargas, 40, has stood at the center of the movement. His Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or Conaie, has become one of the best known indigenous organizations on the continent, and he has drawn praise for his ability to mobilize the nation's Indians for protests, such as last week's.
Vargas, who could face arrest for his role in Friday's events, said today that the government would risk further disorder by apprehending him. He said he expects to meet with government officials today to try to persuade them them not to arrest him. "If the people go to the street now, there will be bigger problems," he said at the Conaie offices.
Vargas declared also that the military had manipulated his movement by essentially forcing him to take part in the overthrow of Mahuad. "We never had any desire to take power," he said. "We knew that if we tried to do that there would be a lot of bloodshed."
Some Indians who took part in the protest last week said that Mahuad's ouster filled them with a sense of power they had rarely felt as Ecuadorans.
"We did the ultimate," said Estela Santillana, who sells sweaters in Otavalo, a city about 75 miles northeast of Quito. "We changed the presidency. That's what we wanted." Santillana, 25, said she makes $12 a month. "With the life we have," she said, "we can't make it."
It remains unclear how the rest of Ecuadoran society will now view the movement. By working within the political system, it had begun to earn respect from the mass of Ecuadorans who historically had never paid much attention to the cause of indigenous groups.
"Now you're hearing a lot of racist talk from the middle class and the general public," said Enrique Ayala, rector of Simon Bolivar Andean University in Quito and a strong supporter of the movement. "It's a setback."
And by hurdling the political system, "they're positioning themselves as a threat to the democratic system," said Pachano, the political analyst. "They're going to have problems working with other political parties because now they're seen as a anti-democratic actor."
Nonetheless, Indian activists say that at least the government recognizes now that their movement will use drastic measures to pressure politicians to change social and economic inequities. Noboa, who was sworn in today, has said he is eager to engage in dialogue with the movement.
"We've told the political class," Pacari said, "that if things don't change, we will make them change."
CAPTION: Indigenous movement leaders Antonio Vargas, front, and Blanca Chancoso, speak with reporters following the overthrow of President Mahuad.