Citizens, Indians and Women: The Politics of Exclusion in Ecuador

Marc Becker
Visiting Scholar
Latin American Studies
Gettysburg College
Gettysburg PA 17325


Citizenship has always been exclusionary in Ecuador. Electoral politics was a minority affair, with only about 3 percent of the population voting. Due to literacy requirements, elites have historically excluded Ecuador's large rural Indian population from political discourse. Ecuador was the first country in Latin America to extend the franchise to women, but the elites intended it as a move to retain control over the political process. This paper examines the efforts of subaltern classes to open up the political process in Ecuador by disputing exclusionary understandings of citizenship. As a result, Indians and women challenged fundamental concepts on which elites had build Ecuadorian state structures. Placing debates over the construction of citizenship in the context of Indian and women's political organizing efforts highlights the manner in which excluded groups inserted themselves into the political process, and the result which that process had on struggles for social justice.

Prepared for delivery at the 1999 meeting of the Conference on Latin American History (CLAH), Washington, D.C., January 7-10, 1999.

Draft--please do not cite without author's permission. Comments welcome.

Citizens, Indians and Women: The Politics of Exclusion in Ecuador

Near the end of January 1931, thousands of Indians from throughout the small South American country of Ecuador began to converge on the northern highland town of Cayambe to hold a congress of peasant organizations. As Indians with their colorful costumes and traditional music gathered to discuss common problems of social and economic exclusion from the country in which they lived, the government panicked. In an exercise of state power, the president closed the roads to prevent more people from arriving, sent in military troops, arrested the organizers, and shut down the conference. A newspaper editorial denounced the gathering on the grounds that the Indians were not citizens and therefore could not hold a political party assembly.(1)

In May of 1944, women joined a popular movement against the government of Ecuadorian president Carlos Arroyo del Río. Dolores Cacuango, a long-time Indian leader who later founded the Ecuadorian Federation of Indians (FEI), led Indigenous forces in an attack on the local army barracks in Cayambe. In Quito, white feminists including Nela Martínez and Luisa Gómez de la Torre who had founded the Ecuadorian Feminist Alliance (AFE) helped organize a human enclosure around the Government Palace in Quito and gained the surrender of the men stationed there. Without the support of the military, Arroyo resigned the presidency. Contemporary reports indicated that women's committees played an important role in the large street demonstrations which accompanied this change in government. For three days following this May Revolution, Martínez served as a Minister of Government.(2) For several days, one author observed, "Ecuador was in the hands of its legitimate owners."(3) Incoming president José María Velasco Ibarra, however, did not recognize the women's contributions, excluded them from his government, and denied them full access to citizenship rights.

Who is a citizen? What is citizenship? For most people in the United States, this relates primarily to the question of who is allowed to go to the polls on the first Tuesday in November every two or four years to select between the candidates of two increasingly identical political parties. By United States standards, a country in Latin America is judged to be "democratic" if there are similar types of electoral contests, even though ultimately power continues to reside in the hands of the armed forces (as in Guatemala) or a small, privileged oligarchy (as in Mexico). When the history of citizenship is examined, it is often reduced to a discussion over the disenfranchisement of women or the exclusion of immigrants. In reducing the concept of democracy to a narrow view of electoral democracy, we ignore the long debates over the underlying issues of the rights, responsibilities, and privileges of citizenship.

In reality, citizenship debates are much broader than mere electoral contests. In A People's Charter: The Pursuit of Rights in America, James MacGregor Burns and Stewart Burns examine what they call an activist citizenship. Democratic citizenship is not only the "'outer frame' of duties such as voting, paying taxes, and obeying laws," but also concerns the struggle for political, civil, economic, and social rights. Legal establishments do not grant these rights, but they "are created far more by those who actively shape them and live them in the thick of personal and social struggles."(4) Similarly, Charles Epp observed that rather than gifts from judicial leadership "rights grew primarily out of pressure from below, not leadership from above."(5) Joe Foweraker and Todd Landman concluded that "the essentially individual rights of citizenship can only be achieved through different forms of collective struggle."(6) In reality, these issues are tightly related. Citizenship rights require participation in defining the nature of society and social relations, while the reverse is also true. For example, J. M. Barbalet observed that "while social movements may advance the development of citizenship, citizenship rights facilitate the emergence of social movements."(7)

The concept of a universal, comprehensive, and inclusionary citizenry is a relatively recent idea, and one that continues to experience repeated and intense attacks worldwide. Commonly, elites denounce the concept of democracy as mob rule and attempt to limit civil, political, and social power to their own privileged class. Elites believed they were best informed and trained to make governmental decisions, and the general population should trust their benevolent intentions. The framers of the United States constitution used this as a justification to create a representative rather than direct democracy, thereby removing the general population from political decisions. In Latin America, this has evolved into what Guillermo O'Donnell called "Delegative Democracy."(8) Nevertheless, ultimately the results are the same. The elites maintain their power through control of state structures, including the military, courts, schools, the economy, religious institutions, and the media. Creating a society which responds to the needs of the general population therefore meant wrestling control of these institutions away from the elite-it meant universal citizenship. Extending and expanding citizenship rights is inherently a social struggle from below which often gains revolutionary connotations.

With varying degrees of success, Latin American countries have attempted to define the nature of citizenship rights. Ecuador is not unique in delineating these rights in highly exclusionary terms. For similar reasons, the liberal state excluded both Indians and women from political discourse and their exercise of civil rights. What does democracy mean for a country that historically (and, arguably, currently) does not attempt to extend equal civil, political, and social rights to all its peoples? Searching for democracy does not mean merely examining voting patterns, but analyzing the struggle of marginalized and excluded populations seeking full participatory rights in society. From the point of view of upper-class society, "Indians are human beings because they walk on two feet, but that is all."(9) Women, and particularly Indian women, were also part of this sub-human category. Citizenship succeeds in as much as it is able to provide for the underclass of society. In Ecuador, this entails interpreting the attempts of women and Indians to redefine the meanings of citizenship as a method of creating a more inclusive and multi-cultural society. They engaged in similar popular efforts to challenge the liberal state in order to broaden definitions of democracy. Women's and Indian movements stand at the heart of struggles to expand citizenship rights, and need to be studied together in order to understand the evolution of these demands in Ecuador.(10)

A brief history of citizenship

In very literal terms, a citizen is a member of a polity. Citizenship governs relations between an individual and the state, and seeks to protect people from the arbitrary application of state power.(11) The genealogy of this term is clearer in Spanish than English in which a ciudadano (citizen) is a member of a ciudad (city). This concept originally emerged in the Greek city-state in which only a few privileged urban dwellers had the prerogative to participate actively in political life. Similarly, under Spanish colonial administration, whites lived in the city and Indians lived in the countryside; only wealthy, landed, literate white males held the privileged status of vecino ("neighbor," meaning citizen). European feudal society had no concept of uniform rights and duties which applied equally to all members of a society. The colonial regime treated Indians as wards of the state and declared them to be legally inferior to those of European descent. Along with this status came the crown's paternalistic protection policies which defended the Indians from some of the colonial elites' worst abuses. Like Indians, elites portrayed European-born women as inferior beings in need of protection.

While independence brought political freedom from their European masters to the American colonies, this did not mean a more comprehensive concept of citizenship. With independence, liberal ideals flourished which did away with special privileges and categories for certain groups of people. Indians in Ecuador, as with their counterparts across the Americas, were freed from a legally inferior (though protected) status. Their real position in society, however, fell due to the loss of protection from the Spanish crown and the concentration of power in the hands of the creole elite as they scrambled to consolidate their control over the new countries. Despite the significant role women and Indians played in independence struggles, in the end they had very little in terms of gains in civil and political rights to show for their efforts.

Philosophical changes with the implementation of liberal ideas on civil rights at the same time advanced and retarded Indian and women's struggles. The emerging Latin American republics embraced a theoretically color-blind legal system; everyone would be equal before the law. Argentina led the way and was one of the first countries to extend citizenship and civil rights to everyone born in their territory and to provide women citizenship separate from that of their husbands.(12) El Salvador embraced the concept of universal suffrage; everyone, whether Indian or illiterate, was allowed to vote. There is, of course, a broad gap between legal constitutional traditions and reality. Even though everyone participated in the elections, through patronage and clientelism the elites still maintained tight control over political power. The result rendered the concept of popular suffrage a myth and undermined the theoretic liberal concepts of citizenship.(13)

The rhetoric of legal equality cloaked the reality of a discriminatory situation which Indians faced. This is partially due to a racist situation in which the dominant culture viewed Indians as inherently inferior. Throughout most of the twentieth century very real barriers remained which prevented Indians from being fully functioning members of society. Although constitutional law had little immediate impact on the Indians, it both reflected discriminatory social attitudes as well as creating structural impediments to their political participation in society. As long as these legal hurtles remained, Indians could never hope to become fully participating members in society. These barriers would have to be dismantled for them to join society on an equal footing with other Ecuadorians. This became one of the battles which the Indians faced in their effort to gain political space for their concerns in Ecuadorian society.

Women faced similar barriers to full and equal participation in society. With the cult of marianismo, women were relegated to the domestic sphere and, even after the expansion of citizenship rights, treated as second-class citizens. Poor Indian women faced a particularly discriminatory situation. It has been common to speak of their triple burden: they are repressed by racial, class, and gender barriers.(14) To this we could add a fourth hurtle which they needed to overcome to become fully functional members of society: citizenship. In the United States, as Nancy Cott has expounded in a recent issue of The American Historical Review, as well as in most of the rest of the world, women's access to citizenship rights have historically been subjugated to male control and often negotiated through the medium of marriage.(15) Similarly in Britain, women "could not be trusted with the political rights of citizenship without instruction and control."(16) It is no surprise, then, that women in Latin America faced a long and difficult struggle in their search for social justice.(17)

Liberal concepts of citizenship in Ecuador were built on broader legal traditions. One of the earliest expressions of universal citizenship was the French Revolution's "The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen" which stated that "men are born and remain free and equal in rights" including the rights of "liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression."(18) Although women were consciously and specifically excluded from the practice of these rights, this was a significant step in breaking down the exclusive rights of the aristocracy and broadening definitions of citizenship.

Even in the United States, a country which has prided itself on a tradition of freedom and liberties, citizenship rights have been highly exclusionary. The United States constitution did not define citizenship except to declare that a person needed to be a citizen in order to hold elected office. Civil rights were defined and extended along the lines of the French "Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen" in the 1791 Bill of Rights which amended the constitution. This situation was somewhat clarified in the fourteenth amendment adopted in 1868 which stated that "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States." Section two of this amendment, however, excluded women and Indians from electoral representation, and supreme court decisions in the 1880s specifically excluded Indians from the protections of citizenship. Thereafter, assimilated Indians could gain United States citizenship, and a construction normally used to protect individuals was used cynically to destroy the cohesion of traditional Indian communities. It was not until the nineteenth amendment in 1920 that women gained the right to vote, and four years later Indians universally gained the rights and protections of citizenship.(19) These gains on paper, however, did not translate into significant political advances. White supremacist groups including the Republican National Convention continue to hold to these highly exclusionary concepts of citizenship.(20) In addition to women and Indians, slaves, communists, pacifists, homosexuals, illiterates, felons, and others have not enjoyed universal citizenship rights. In his book Civic Ideals, Rogers Smith contends that historically "lawmakers pervasively and unapologetically structured U.S. citizenship in terms of illiberal and undemocratic racial, ethnic, and gender hierarchies."(21)

In 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" which declared that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." These rights included "life, liberty and security of person." Furthermore, the declaration stated that "All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law."(22) Although this increasingly inclusive definition of citizenship rights arrived only partially and slowly in countries like Ecuador, it did establish basic definitions of civil rights to which political actors could appeal.

In his classic study, T.H. Marshall defined citizenship as containing the three elements of civil, social, and political rights. Civil rights refer to individual liberties, including freedoms of speech and religion. These were the main concern of the French declaration and the United States Bill of Rights. Social rights refer to legal constructions of equality and access to due justice, and are very visible in the United Nation's 1948 declaration. Political rights which is the ability to participate in the exercise of state power, therefore, is only one aspect of citizenship.(23) These are separate rights and have been conceived of differently in different eras. Full exercise of citizenship, however, requires access to all of these rights.

Lucy Taylor has expanded on Marshall's concepts and established four models of citizenship based on developments since his study was first published in 1950. Marshall's welfare model is only one of these. In addition, an elite restrictive model creates weak, alienated citizens. A neo-liberal model as implemented recently in Chile and Argentina embraces an individualistic concept of society. Finally, a participatory model largely based on Jean Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract provides the basis for social movements.(24)

Marshall's categorization of citizenship rights remains important because traditionally most people have conceived of citizenship as a political right which includes the right to vote and exercise state power.(25) While these political rights are significant, focusing exclusively on them obscures other important civil rights including those of life and liberty as defined by a variety of constitutional traditions. Civil liberties, including freedom to marry, work, live and own property, often translated into more significant aspects of citizenship than the occasional right to cast a vote in an election. Recognizing this, elite men were often very careful to control the civil rights of women in order to build a national culture that reflected the values which they sought to impose on society. Female citizenship rights were based not on a woman's actions, but those of her father and husband, with the result that changes in the status of their civil rights could also negatively affect women. By subjugating constructions of female citizenship rights to male control, women could be effectively maintained in a marginalized position in society.(26)

Citizenship is inherently and tightly bound up with equality issues. In this, Marshall finds an implicit contradiction. Citizenship as defined by the French Revolutionary and United States independence movements is closely related to issues of capitalism and industrialization. Western societies extended citizenship rights at the same time as deepening class contradictions excluded many people from full and complete enjoyment of those rights. Universal citizenship rights and hereditary class privileges are incompatible. In traditional societies like Ecuador, this has led to a sustained elite attack on citizenship rights. At the same time, popular movements recognized the revolutionary character of universal citizenship and suffrage rights and clung to those issues as organizational strategies to end their marginalized position. Conservatives feared citizenship rights because it empowered the underclass and lead them to expect more from society.

Taylor expands significantly on Marshall's ideas that citizenship does not mean automatic equality. Citizens are central to the creation of a democracy, and it is only through participation that citizenship rights are embraced. Nevertheless, the nature of these rights are skewed by class, race, and gender differences. As a result, social movements have been critical in forcing a universal extension of citizenship rights on free and equal terms throughout the populous. The struggle continues to the present as popular movements "struggle to protect and promote values of equality and inclusion" in the face of exclusionary neo-liberal models of citizenship.(27) Defining citizenship continues to be a process that involves debates over constitutional forms, political practices, and social movement struggles.(28)

Citizens and Nationals in Ecuador

In the United States and elsewhere, citizenship debates have often revolved around the exclusion of undesirable "aliens." Writing in Argentina in 1938, Salvador M. Dana Montaño argued for the necessity to maintain a distinction between citizens and nationals. Citizenship, he maintained, should be reserved "as a prerogative and an honor for those, and only those, who are dignified and capable of enjoying it."(29) Particularly in times of war, Latin American republics have sought to exclude natives of enemy countries.(30) Although this was Dana Montaño's principle focus, he also explicitly excluded women from his definition of citizenship because of their alleged lack of interest in affairs of state, specifically electoral and military concerns. As another Argentine observed several years later, "our legislature has been slow in evolving on this issue."(31) Government functions, as well as civil rights, were to remain firmly in the hands of those born in the country.

Although the United States has a long and proud xenophobic tradition from the Chinese exclusion act to Proposition 187, traditionally the enemy "nationals" in Ecuador have not been from Peru or Japan but from the Sierra highlands and eastern Amazonian region. From the founding of the country of Ecuador in 1830 to the reforms which reimplemented civilian rule in 1979, every constitution recognized a fundamental distinction between Ecuadorian "nationals" and "citizens." The constitution bestowed Ecuadorian nationality primarily upon those who were either born in Ecuador or gained the status through a process of naturalization. To enjoy citizenship rights, however, the 1830 constitution required a person to be married or older than twenty-two years of age, own property worth at least 300 pesos or be engaged in an independent "useful" profession or industry (domestic servants and day laborers are explicitly excluded), and be able to read and write.(32) Until 1929 when women formally gained the right to vote, only the 1883 constitution explicitly limited citizenship to males, although this was implicit in the rest. With some minor variations (in subsequent constitutions, the age requirement varied between eighteen and twenty-one years, the property requirements were eliminated 1861, the marriage requirement was dropped in 1897, but the literacy requirement was always retained), these have been the determining factors of citizenship for almost all of the country's history.

The exclusionary nature of citizenship in Latin America has been very slow to change. In 1961, Paraguay was the last country in Latin America to give voting rights to women. Similar rights came even slower to illiterate Indians and peasants. It was not until 1978 in Ecuador and 1979 in Peru that they gained the franchise. Constitutional reforms in 1991 finally recognized Indians in Colombia as citizens with full rights. As special recognition of civil and social rights for Indigenous peoples makes its way into constitutions throughout the Americas, it remains obvious that the "dead letter of the law" has not broken down lingering distinctions between those with full citizenship rights and those who are merely "nationals." Much is at stake in these debates. As Jeff Gould noted in the case of Nicaragua, "to accept the validity of indigenous claims to citizenship and communal rights would be to delegitimize and destabilize local ladino identities and power."(33)

Although this distinction between citizens and nationals may seem strange to a North American audience, Eric Foner has recently pointed out that the phrase "we the people" which opens the United States constitution reveals a similar, though unstated, division within the imagined community. "The people" were the white males who held citizenship rights, while Indians and Africans (and one might add women, though Foner does not) were relegated to an inferior status. The Naturalization Act of 1790 codified that only "free white persons" could acquire citizenship rights. As in Ecuador, there was no concept of universally held civil, social, and political rights.(34)

Constitutional law and voting rights

Historically, one of the principle citizenship rights has been that of the franchise. In Ecuador, although the 1830 constitution declared the government to be "popular, representative, alternative, and responsible," only the 2825 people (0.3% of the population) who met the stringent citizenship requirements selected the government which ruled over the rest of the population.(35) Although over the course of the next 150 years this number slowly rose, citizenship and voting remained over-whelmingly a minority and exclusionary affair. Until the 1944 May Revolution, only about 3 percent of the population voted in elections (see Table 1). Most people did not participate (and, furthermore, were not permitted to participate) in electoral politics. In 1912, an Indian remained "a complete outsider in government and public affairs," and was "treated by the rest of the population like a domestic animal."(36) A journalist in the 1940s described Indians who had learned to read and write, and thus were technically permitted to vote, hiding their identity papers at election time because police and landowners would confiscate the documents in order to control the ballot.(37) As David Schodt observed, most people were left untouched by changes of government in Quito; "Ecuadorian politics was a profoundly elitist politics."(38) In 1950, Ecuador ranked last in electoral participation among ten South American countries.(39)

Year Population Electorate Percentage
1830 800,700 2,825 0.4%
1865 950,569 30,925 3.3%
1869 1,000,000 14,154 1.4%
1875 1,000,000 45,056 4.5%
1888 1,004,651 30,636 3.0%
1892 1,004,791 62,878 6.3%
1894 1,073,329 35,508 3.3%
1899 1,062,506 17,709 1.7%
1931 2,010,029 62,117 3.1%
1933 2,109,787 64,664 3.1%
1940 2,481,166 82,802 3.3%
1948 3,031,394 288,941 9.5%
1952 3,407,807 361,073 10.6%
1956 3,868,258 631,218 16.3%
1960 4,397,649 764,622 17.4%

Source: Rafael Quintero and Erika Silva, Ecuador: una nación en ciernes, 3 volumes, Colección Estudios No. 1 (Quito: FLACSO/Abya-Yala, 1991), t. 1, 100; t 2, 148. Quintero and Silva caution that due to vote fraud some of these figures (particularly for 1892) may be artificially elevated.

In addition to limiting voting rights and governmental offices to citizens, the constitution also extended certain civil liberties and guarantees only to its citizens. For example, Title VIII of the 1830 constitution declares that citizens could not be denied their natural rights, had the right to the protection of a court of law, and had complete freedom of speech. The constitution, however, remained silent on the issue of extending these rights to the non-citizen inhabitants of Ecuador. Article 68, however, did call on parish priests to play the role of tutors and fathers for the Indians, a group of "innocent, wretched, and miserable" people.(40) As Guillermo O'Donnell has observed, although "equality before the law" was a liberal value, its reality was effectively skirted by excluding the masses from the discourse of citizenship.(41) Not only was the Ecuadorian government unable to provide political rights (the franchise) to Indians and women, it also denied them civil rights (freedom of speech, religion, etc.) and social rights (employment, housing, etc.).

The 1895 Liberal Revolution should have opened the way for Indians, women, and Afro-Ecuadorians to a more active participation in Ecuador's national life and political discourse. General Eloy Alfaro relied on the dispossessed masses to bring him to power. His 1897 constitution, however, still restricted citizenship to those who could read and write, effectively disenfranchising the Indians who were illiterate almost in their entirety. Although it articulated traditional liberal principles such as free and obligatory primary education and freedom of expression (freedom of religion would have to wait until the 1906 constitution), it made no effort to extend these rights to the masses. Eloy Alfaro's 1906 constitution, the twelfth one to govern Ecuador since it gained its independence from Spain, granted day laborers (who were primarily Indian) the right to the protection of a contract, but it did nothing to eliminate the much more odious system of debt peonage known as concertaje.(42)

These types of policies were common throughout Latin America. For example, in Colombia the Law 89 of 1890 which established resguardos (reserves) considered Indians "to be minors, a norm that was enshrined with protectionist purposes permitting direct control of the state over the indigenous territories."(43) Underlying these reforms were fundamental nineteenth-century liberal ideologies which believed Indians (and women) were holding back the progress of the country. In order for the country to move forward, they would need to be assimilated into a mestizo nation. Only through an elimination of their ethnic identity could they become fully functioning members of society. To become a citizen and participate in the political process of determining social and economic relations in the country would mean a denial of basic cultural values. In this lay a fundamental contradiction which proved to keep Indians subjugated: in order to defend the cultural values which were most important to them, they would have to eliminate those very same cultural values. The struggle for citizenship rights became one to express their concerns as Indians, not as de-culturated mestizos.

Gould has noted "a fundamental dilemma of Latin American Liberalism: the democratic demand for equal rights of citizens versus the recognition of special rights and autonomy for indigenous peoples."(44) At least in the case of Ecuador, however, the liberals pursued a third path which excluded Indians from concepts of citizenship and therefore were not bothered by intellectual quandaries over the issue of whether or not Indians should be granted any rights, much less special rights. Broadening the debate to include women further clarifies the issue. Few people advocated extending either equal or special rights to women. Maintaining these groups as a subclass provided a way for the elite to consolidate their power over society.

President Isidro Ayora proclaimed a new constitution in 1929 which embodied two important changes. First, it formally extended the right to vote to literate women; Ecuador was the first country in Latin America to do so. This was not, however, a progressive move on the part of the liberals. In the public mind, women were associated with tradition, religion, and conservativism. In fact, many male liberals who supported progressive social legislation opposed extending this right because they viewed women as a conservative force in society. It made no sense to extend the franchise to those who would create barriers to the successful promulgation of progressive social legislation. In fact, the conservative political coalition which extended the vote to women in Ecuador in 1929 did so in order to create a bulwark against what they perceived as a growing socialist threat in society.(45) This action was also designed to preempt a nascent feminist movement and prevent many women from entering the political arena. Something that on the surface might appear as an opening of society was, in fact, an attempt by the elite to tighten their grip.

Likewise, a second constitutional innovation in 1929 appears to broaden political participation but in fact narrows it. This constitution stipulated that various national bodies would select fifteen "functional" senators to serve in the government. These senators represented the interests of the universities, secondary schools, primary schools (two), the press, agriculture, merchants, industry, workers, peasants (one for the coast and another for the sierra), and the military. Finally, Article 92 of the 1929 election law stipulated that the Council of State would elect a senator "for the guidance and defense of the Indian race."(46) No senator would represent the special interests of women. Whereas the other groups had the right to select their own representation, Indigenous peoples and women had no such privilege. Although Indians were by far the single largest group of those named in the law, they enjoyed no input into this decision. Indians and their sympathetic supporters fought for years without success to gain control over this position. Not only was the language of the article paternalistic, it was also alienating of the very people it purported to defend. Furthermore, rather than supporting Indigenous struggles, the people who filled this post were antagonistic toward the very people they were to guide and defend.

May 1944 Revolution

Ecuador's fourteenth constitution drawn up in 1938 never was implemented, but the 1945 constitution written after the May 1944 Revolution was the most liberal one Ecuador has ever had. The Ecuadorian Democratic Alliance, a leftist coalition which led the May Revolution and was responsible for bringing José María Velasco Ibarra back into power, held a dominant position in drafting the constitution. It contained extensive checks against executive power and ensured permanent leftist representation in the government, provisions which led George Blanksten to declare the document to be utopian and unworkable.(47) It extended legal guarantees defending freedom of assembly and political organizations, while at the same time restricting military and religious participation in political activities. It incorporated elements of the progressive 1938 labor code, including outlawing child labor and preserving the right to strike. It declared the state educational system to be free and secular, and dedicated to eliminating illiteracy.

The May 1944 "Revolution" was to open the way for broader popular participation in society, but in the end these apparent gains were limited and short lived. A week before the May 28 uprising, a flyer called on women to vote for Velasco Ibarra in the upcoming June elections in order to defend their citizenship and voting rights, and to help their husbands "hacer patria."(48) Although women and Indians had played a significant role in this political transformation, after the victory they were soon forgotten, marginalized, and excluded from participation in governmental affairs. Only white males were present in the constituent assembly which gathered in Quito in August of 1944 to draw up the new constitution. As a minor concession, the last delegate in the assembly was Ricardo Paredes, the founder of the Communist Party and a close friend and advocate of the Indians, who was named functional representative of the Indigenous peoples.

The role of Indians and women in conceptions of Ecuadorian citizenship became a common topic of debate in this constituent assembly. Conservative members denounced universal suffrage as an undesirable and unattainable utopia.(49) Some delegates saw no need to include explicitly the word "women" in defining citizenship claiming that this was implicitly included in the language "those who are older than eighteen years and know how to read and write," although this could very well leave open the possibility for gender discrimination.(50) In a debate on defining a national language, socialist leader Carlos Zambrano maintained that the Indian language Quichua should be used only as a vehicle to educate and incorporate Indians into a national culture.(51) In the end, while Article 5 declared Spanish to be the official language, for the first time it also recognized "Quichua and other aboriginal languages as elements of the national culture."(52)

The resulting 1945 constitution failed to extend citizenship rights to the Indigenous peoples and did not significantly increase the participation of women even though it continued to claim that the Ecuadorian government was "republican, elected, responsible." In fact, delegates spent more time discussion the rights of foreigners, were more willing to extend citizenship rights to immigrants, and it was easier for these people to achieve citizenship status than illiterate Indians who had lived on their lands for thousands of years. Critical observers noted that denying the vote to illiterate Indians was a throwback to (or, perhaps more accurately, a continuation of) debates within the Catholic Church after the conquest as to whether the Indians could be considered human beings.(53) Nevertheless, accompanying a rise in literacy rates about 10 percent of the population now participated in elections and this statistic was destined to continue to grow.

As with the 1929 constitution, a system of functional representatives guaranteed congressional representation for minority interests (though Indians who comprised almost half of the country's population could hardly be properly termed a minority group and women were still excluded). The 1945 constitution, however, gave Indians significantly more control over their representative. Unlike the 1929 electoral law which gave the Council of State the right to select this functional representative, in the 1945 constitution selection of this office lay with Indigenous organizations. Article 161 of the 1945 electoral law stipulates that the president of the Cantonal Electoral Tribunal would assemble the leaders of legally recognized Indian communities (comunas) and similar associations which had operated for at least a year. These meetings would select delegates which would then elect a deputy to the national congress.(54) An inherent limitation of this system was that the comuna structure often functioned to undermine leftist organizing strategies and many of the more politicized Indigenous communities rejected these structures. Their true representation of Indigenous concerns was thus limited, and the Ecuadorian Federation of Indians fought without success to claim for itself the right to name this person.(55)

Throughout these debates, the members of the Communist Party were the ones who consistently pressed for universal citizenship and suffrage rights, including women and illiterate peasants, Indians, and urban workers. The Communist Party incorporated both Indians and women into the upper ranks of its party, and even presented women as candidates for office. Nela Martínez, one of these leaders, participated in the 1945 National Assembly as a representative of the working class. She used this position to fight for the rights of women and to denounce the sexual discrimination which women faced in the political, cultural, and social realms.(56) She later led the list of candidates for the Frente Popular coalition for deputy for the province of Pichincha.

Within of two years, Velasco Ibarra turned his back on his previous supporters and began to persecute those on his left. When on March 30, 1946, Velasco Ibarra suspended the 1945 constitution (which had been in effect only a little more than a year) and reinstated the 1906 constitution, it represented a definitive break between his government and leftist forces. This eventually led to Velasco Ibarra's second departure from the presidency and a re-entrenchment of the exclusionary nature of Ecuadorian politics that denied a voice to the Indigenous peoples, women, and popular movements in general.

In August of 1946, a constitutional assembly convened with the task of writing a new constitution. Leftists refused to participate in this affair, favoring instead to adhere to the constitution which they had implemented the previous year. The result was that the conservatives held the upper hand in writing a document which would govern the country for the next twenty years. Although this new magna carta included some of the progressive reforms of the 1938 Labor Code including a minimum wage, an eight-hour day, and the right to organize, it did not include many provisions which would prove beneficial to the rural workers. It still provided a legal basis for the continuation of the latifundio as the primary mode of agricultural production. Articles which directly addressed the Indigenous population did so in a paternalistic manner and were simply carried over from the earlier constitution. For example, Article 171 on education stated that "both public and private schools shall give special attention to the indigenous race." Article 185 which outlined labor provisions stated that "agricultural labor, particularly by Indians, shall be especially regulated, above all in matters connected with working hours." It proceeded to proclaim that the confiscation of the huasipungo plots "without just cause shall be considered as untimely discharge of the worker."(57) There was little effort, however, to meet the general demands which the Indians and peasants had been pressing with the national government.

Like the 1929 constitution, article seventeen of the 1946 constitution extended the right to vote to women (although it was optional, unlike for men who were obliged to vote), but it still denied suffrage to illiterates which continued to make the election of officials a minority affair. As George Blanksten observed, roughly "95 per cent of Ecuador's Indians are illiterate; accordingly, illiteracy legally bars the Indian from any major participation in political life." This exclusion provided "a significant background against which political instability has developed in Ecuador."(58) Voting was largely the arena of wealthy white men; there was no outlet for peaceful political dissent from other sectors of society. In the 1960s, one observer reported that "the ruling minority is enjoying what has been euphemistically termed 'democracy in the Greek sense', in which effective citizenship is limited to a few men of education and culture, with the others rigidly barred from participation in responsibility."(59)

The limited functional representation which Indians and peasants enjoyed in the 1929 and 1945 constitutions was struck from the 1946 constitution. This indicates the determined effort on the part of the conservatives who drafted that constitution to exclude from political discourse those who they felt were unworthy of this activity. Nor were these provisions reimplemented in the 1967 constitution. It was not until the return of civilian rule in 1978 that Indians gained the option to vote, extending to most Indians for the first time, however problematic or partial it might be, electoral representation in the Ecuadorian government. Even in this situation, Indians and women still faced what Guillermo O'Donnell termed conditions of "low-intensity citizenship" in which there continued to exist a notable gap between principle and practice.(60)

The 1946 constitution also failed to acknowledge the importance of ethnicity. Article seven defined Spanish as the official language of the republic removing the reference from the previous constitution to Quichua and other Indigenous languages, even though it remained a minority language as in much of the country. It was not until the constitutional reforms of 1979 which accompanied the reintroduction of civilian rule after seven years of military dictatorships that Quichua was formally recognized. Although Spanish (Castellano) remained the official language, the resulting 1984 constitution (which remained in effect in the 1990s) reinstated in its first article the notion that "Quichua and other aboriginal languages form a part of the national culture." It stopped short, however, of declaring Quichua or any of these others as official languages. This article also declared Ecuador to be a "single" unified state.(61) A central political demand for which Indigenous organizations pressed in the 1980s and 1990s was to reform this article to officially acknowledge the pluri-national character of the "state" called Ecuador. As a concession, constitutional reforms in 1998 recognized the "pluricultural and multiethnic" nature of the state, and granted "Quichua, Shuar, and other ancestral languages official use for Indigenous peoples."(62) Without a doubt, citizenship has always been highly exclusionary in Ecuador, and changes come only as a result of fierce popular struggles.

Citizenship and capitalism

T.H. Marshall observed that "citizenship and the capitalist class system have been at war." Capitalism requires and creates social inequalities. If "citizenship is a status bestowed on those who are full members of a community," then capitalism requires a subclass of people who are denied these rights.(63) For those who valued an egalitarian and just society, this meant fighting to overthrow the current capitalist system. As Marshall understood, extending citizenship mean expanding social rights. Fighting for citizenship became an effective means to struggle for broader changes in society.

In his 1961 book Estudios económico-sociales del Ecuador, José María Vivar Castro analyzes what he perceived to be the alienation of peasants in Ecuador from the political processes in that country. Of the 3.5 million inhabitants of Ecuador, only 700,000 exercised their right to vote. The peasantry almost in its entirety, Vivar Castro concluded, played no role in determining the political functions of the government and remained isolated on the fringes of society. Vivar Castro contended that the peasantry's lack of political consciousness and involvement in the country's civic life needed to change, and that this change was essential for effecting agrarian reform. Such changes could come about through education, but he did not place much faith in the country's current educational system. It was in the hands of paternalistic elites and foreign imperialists who stressed an apolitical education designed to create a passive rural workforce. Without an effective education system to raise the civic consciousness and political activities of the rural masses, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to carry to completion a program of agrarian reform.(64)

What is missing in Vivar Castro's analysis is an acknowledgment of structural barriers which held Indians (and women, although he does not discuss this aspect) in a second-class citizenship and prevented them from exercising the franchise. He does not present proposals to extend the right to vote to Indians and peasants, but at the same time he criticizes them for not participating politically. Although he does not explicitly state as much, the implication is a common assimilationist one--Indians must put aside their ethnic identity and join the dominant mestizo culture, and only in this way could the country progress forward. This was a typical modernization view from the mid-twentieth century, but it was not the direction which Indians sought to pursue.

Vivar Castro also incorrectly contended that the peasantry did not play a political role in Ecuador. Perhaps if "political" were narrowly interpreted in electoral terms this would be the case; we have already seen they were largely excluded from this arena. Nevertheless, over the next several decades, the Ecuadorian Federation of Indians (FEI) played an important role as an Indigenous organization in fighting for the rights and interests of Ecuador's highland Indigenous peoples and improving conditions for Ecuador's peasant and Indian population. The organization struggled for higher salaries, a shorter work week, pay for women's work on the haciendas, and the end to requirements of personal service in landlords' houses. Communists were acutely aware that a lack of democracy and citizenship rights played a significant role in this process, and that this situation would not change until the Indians were extended political and electoral rights.(65)

Although Indians had their own organizations, understood, and were able to articulate their own demands, until they gained formal political rights they could not press for legal and structural changes such as raising the level of minimum salaries and enacting a program of agrarian reform which would be necessary to improve their economic and social position. Since the Indians legally were not citizens, the government denied them access to the national congress. Elites who benefitted from this status quo held political power, and there were very few sympathetic voices who had access to the halls of power who could argue for legislative changes. This has been true not only in marginalized countries like Ecuador but throughout the world. In The Rights Revolution, Charles Epp noted the necessity of mobilizing significant material resources to command changes in constitutional law, which has normally left these concerns under the domain of powerful business interests to the exclusion of ordinary individuals. It is only through the ability of popular organizations to mobilize their resources that concepts of democracy and citizenship can be expanded, and a more just and egalitarian society can emerge.

Although formal political discourse in Ecuador was exclusionary, popular movements from the founding of the Socialist Party and the first Indigenous organizations in the 1920s through current ethno-nationalist mobilizations persistently sought to break through that stronghold. This happened despite the elites' efforts to prevent women and Indians from becoming politically involved. As the leader of the Communist Party observed in 1960, "the enemies of the peasants are also the enemies of the working class." If they shared common enemies, they would also share a common struggle.(66) While the Indians worked from the outside, sympathetic leftists struggled from within the system to create political spaces for the dispossessed. White women, perhaps understanding better than their male peers the negative consequences of this exclusion, took a leading role in demanding that citizenship rights be expanded. As Foweraker and Landman noted, labor movements became "the vanguard of the citizenship struggle."(67) It was not a coincidence, a member of the party's Central Committee observed, that numerous Indigenous leaders were party members and that many Indians (as well as women) saw in the party their best opportunity for a better future.(68)

Tom Bottomore has observed that concepts of rights are continually evolving "and should not be regarded at any historical moment as having attained a final, definitive form."(69) Particularly, today there is more of a focus on the necessity of general human rights rather than citizenship within the context of a nation-state. In a global economy, this type of perspective becomes increasingly important or we face the danger of further entrenching divisions between the rich and poor. Eric Foner has recently written,

The story of American freedom is not simply a saga of a fixed set of rights to which one group after another has gained access. Time and again in our history, the definition of those rights has been transformed by the demands of excluded groups for inclusion. The authors of the notion of freedom as a universal birthright, a truly human ideal, were not so much the founding fathers, who created a nation dedicated to liberty but resting in large measure on slavery, but abolitionists who sought to extend the blessings of liberty to encompass blacks, slave and free; women who seized upon the rhetoric of democratic freedom to demand the right to vote; and immigrant groups who insisted that nativity and culture ought not to form boundaries of exclusion. The struggles of such groups for freedom elevated equality to a central place in the language of liberty, challenging the views of other Americans who held that equality is the antithesis of freedom.(70)

This also is the nature of the citizenship demands which women and Indians in Ecuador made throughout the twentieth century. Elites effectively excluded Indians and women from the exercise of political and economic power. In so much as they could define a larger role for themselves in civil society, the Indigenous peoples would be able to guard their culture, and women would be able to shift government priorities to the household economy. Thus, a redefinition of "citizen" often lay at the very heart of their demands. The struggle for citizenship is one which has yet to be completely realized. As long as all members of society do not have equal access to civil, political, and social rights, Ecuador, albeit with an elected, civilian government, should not properly be termed a "democracy." The same is perhaps equally true of countries throughout the Americas.


1. "El congreso indígena," El Día, January 31, 1931, 3.

2. Sergio Enrique Girón, La revolución de mayo (Quito: Editorial Atahualpa, 1945), 336, 118.

3. Raquel Rodas, Nosotras que del amor hicimos... (Quito: Raquel Rodas, 1992), 60.

4. James MacGregor Burns and Stewart Burns, A people's charter : the pursuit of rights in America (New York: Knopf. Distributed by Random House, 1991), 462, 13.

5. Charles R Epp, The rights revolution : lawyers, activists, and supreme courts in comparative perspective (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 2.

6. Joe Foweraker and Todd Landman, Citizenship rights and social movements : a comparative and statistical analysis, Oxford studies in democratization (Oxford. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 1.

7. J. M. Barbalet, Citizenship : rights, struggle, and class inequality (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1988), 97.

8. Guillermo O'Donnell, "Delegative Democracy?," Journal of Democracy 5:1 (1994): 56.

9. John Lear, "The Lady Pack Mule Rebels," Saturday Evening Post (New York) 217:26 (December 23, 1944): 63.

10. In the setting of the current Zapatista struggles in Chiapas, Mexico, Neil Harvey in the essay "The Zapatistas, Radical Democratic Citizenship, and Women's Struggles," Social Politics 5:2 (Summer 1998): 158-87 also observes the close relation between women's and Indians' struggles for citizenship rights.

11. Foweraker and Landman, 3; Barbalet, 18.

12. Donna J. Guy, "'White Slavery,' Citizenship and Nationality in Argentina," in Nationalisms and Sexualities, ed. Andrew Parker and others (New York: Routledge, 1992), 210-11.

13. Erik Ching, personal communication, November 12, 1998.

14. Audrey Bronstein, The Triple Struggle: Latin American Peasant Women (Boston: South End Press, 1983).

15. Nancy F. Cott, "Marriage and Women's Citizenship in the United States, 1830-1934," The American Historical Review 103:5 (December 1998): 1440-74.

16. Sonya O. Rose, "Sex, Citizenship, and the Nation in World War II Britain," The American Historical Review 103:4 (October 1998): 1168.

17. Francesca Miller, Latin American women and the search for social justice (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1991).

18. "The Declaration of the Rights of Man (August 27, 1789),"

19. "The Constitution of the United States of America,"

20. Eric Foner, The story of American freedom (New York : W.W. Norton, 1998), 329.

21. Rogers M. Smith, Civic ideals: conficting visions of citizenship in U.S. history, The Yale ISPS series (New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 1997), 1.

22. United Nations, "Universal Declaration of Human Rights,", December 1948.

23. T. H. Marshall, Class, citizenship, and social development; essays (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1964), 71-72.

24. Lucy Taylor, Citizenship, participation, and democracy : changing dynamics in Chile and Argentina (New York, N.Y: St. Martin's Press, 1998), 13-23.

25. Foner comments that "Noah Webster's Dictionary of the English Language noted that the term 'citizen' had, in America, although not in Europe, become synonymous with the right to vote." Foner, 53.

26. Guy, 202-203.

27. Cathy Blacklock and Jane Jenson, "Citizenship: Latin American Perspectives," Social Politics 5:2 (Summer 1998): 128.

28. Foweraker and Landman, xvii.

29. Salvador M. Dana Montaño, Ciudadanía y nacionalidad. Su diferenciación jurídica (Santa Fe: Imp. de la Universidad nacional del litoral, 1938), 7.

30. Edward N. Barnhart, "Citizenship and political tests in Latin American republics in World War II," Hispanic American Historical Review 42:3 (Aug. 1962): 297-332.

31. Manuel Antonio Zuloaga, La ciudadanía en el problema de la población americana (Buenos Aires: Imp. Ferrari hnos, 1945), 54.

32. "Constitución de 1830," in Federico E Trabucco, Constituciones de la República del Ecuador (Quito: Universidad Central, Editorial Universitaria, 1975), 35. For a general discussion of citizenship in Ecuador, see Amparo Menéndez-Carrión, "Ciudadanía," Revista Paraguaya de Sociología 30:88 (Sept-Dec 1993): 81-92.

33. Jeffrey L. Gould, To Die in this Way: Nicaraguan Indians and the Myth of Mestizaje, 1880-1965 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 86.

34. Foner, 38-39.

35. Trabucco, 34; Rafael Quintero and Erika Silva, Ecuador: una nación en ciernes, 3 volumes, Colección Estudios No. 1 (Quito: FLACSO/Abya-Yala, 1991), t. 1, 100.

36. Harry A. Franck, Vagabonding down the Andes: Being the Narrative of a Journey, Chiefly Afoot, from Panama to Buenos Aires (New York: The Century Co., 1917), 152.

37. Lear, 63.

38. David Schodt, Ecuador: An Andean Enigma, Westview Profiles: Nations of Contemporary Latin America (Boulder: Westview Press, 1987), 68. According to Schodt, before the 1979 constitutional reforms "no more than 18 percent of the population had ever voted in a presidential election." Schodt, 67.

39. Rafael Quintero and Erika Silva, Ecuador: una nación en ciernes, 3 volumes, Colección Estudios No. 1 (Quito: FLACSO/Abya-Yala, 1991), t. 2, 140.

40. "Constitución de 1830, in Trabucco, 40-45.

41. Guillermo O'Donnell, "On the State, Democratization and Some Conceptual Problems: A Latin American View with Glances at Some Postcommunist Countries," World Development 21:8 (1993): 1357.

42. "Constitución de 1906," in Trabucco, 326.

43. Jesús Avirama and Rayda Márquez, "The Indigenous Movement in Colombia," in Indigenous Peoples and Democracy in Latin America, ed. Donna Lee Van Cott (New York: St. Martin's Press in association with the Inter-American Dialogue, 1994), 92. Also see Joanne Rappaport, Cumbe Reborn: An Andean Ethnography of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 27.

44. Gould, 168.

45. Francesca Miller, "The Suffrage Movement in Latin America," in Confronting Change, Challenging Tradition: Women in Latin American History, ed. Gertrude Matyoka Yeager (Wilmington, Del: Scholarly Resources Inc, 1994), 169.

46. Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE), Elecciones y democracia en el Ecuador, Volumen 3, Legislación electoral ecuatoriana (Quito: Tribunal Supremo Electoral. Corporacion Editora Nacional, 1990), 187.

47. George I. Blanksten, Ecuador: Constitutions and Caudillos, University of California Publications in Political Science, vol. 3 no. 1 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1951), 51-52. Also see Lilo Linke, Ecuador: Country of Contrasts, 2d ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), 47-49.

48. Comité Nacional Femenino Pro Velasco Ibarra, "A la mujer ecuatoriana," Quito, 21 Mayo 1944, Private Collection of Leonardo J. Muñoz. Thanks to Sandra Fernández Muñoz and Jorge Canizares for facilitating access to this collection.

49. "Actas de la Asamblea Nacional Constituyente de 1944," t. 5, 3, Archivo Palacio Legislativo (hereafter APL), Quito, Ecuador.

50. Ibid., 10.

51. "Actas de la Asamblea Nacional Constituyente de 1944," t. 1, 741, APL.

52. "Constitución de 1945," in Trabucco, 356.

53. "El voto verbal para analfabetos," Atahualpa (Quito, Boletín del Instituto Indigenista del Ecuador) 1:4 (January 1945), 3, reprinted from América Indígena, 4 (October 1944).

54. TSE, 210.

55. Federación Ecuatoriana de Indios, Estatutos de la Federación Ecuatoriana de Indios (Guayaquil: Editorial Claridad, 1945), 10.

56. Lilya Rodríguez, "Acción por el Movimiento de Mujeres," in Acción por el Movimiento de Mujeres, Homenaje a Nela Martínez Espinosa (Quito: Acción por el Movimiento de Mujeres, 1990), 5-6.

57. Ecuador and Pan American Union, General Legal Division, Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador, 1946 (Washington: Pan American Union, 1961), 35, 39.

58. Blanksten, 73-74.

59. Joseph S. Roucek, "Ecuador in Geopolitics," Contemporary Review 205:1177 (February 1964): 77-78.

60. O'Donnell, "On the State, Democratization," 1361.

61. Jorge Mario Eastman, Constituciones políticas de los países del pacto andino: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Perú, Venezuela, 2. ed., corr. y aum, Colección "Fondo de publicaciones" (Bogota, D.E.: Secretaria Ejecutiva del Parlamento Andino, 1991), 238.

62. "Constitución Política de la República de Ecuador, 1998,"

63. Marshall, 84.

64. José María Vivar Castro, Estudios económico-sociales del Ecuador (reforma agraria), Biblioteca de autores lojanos v. 3 (Loja: Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, Nucleo de Loja, 1961), 367-72.

65. Pedro Saad, "Sobre la alianza obrero campesina," Bandera Roja (Guayaquil) 1:3 (May-December 1961): 38.

66. Pedro Saad, La reforma agraria democratica, 2d ed., Problemas de la revolucion ecuatoriana; Biblioteca Ecuatoriana, no. 42 (Guayaquil: Editorial Claridad, 1987), 107.

67. Foweraker and Landman , 31.

68. Milton Jijón, "La ideología de J.C. Mariátegui y su influencia en el Ecuador," in Seminario internacional sobre la vida y obra de José Carlos Mariátegui, ed. (Guayaquil: Editorial Claridad, 1971), 65.

69. Tom Bottomore, "Citizenship and Social Class, Forty Years On," in T. H. Marshall and Tom Bottomore, Citizenship and social class, Pluto Classic (London. Concord, Mass: Pluto Press, 1992), 91.

70. Foner, xx-xxi.