We’re both anthropologists who’ve spent time living and working in the Ecuadorian Andes. We’ve been drawn to the way Ecuadorian social movement organizers and organizations, politicians and bureaucrats, experts and entrepreneurs have been caught up in, if also authors of, tumultuous economic change: neoliberalism and neo-extractivism, to be sure, but also solidarity economies and alternative development strategies. Along the way, we have tracked livelihoods among the winner-take-all economies of street-level capitalism. More recently, we have committed to linking this research across other sectors, from the organization of cooperative financial services to the creation of local community development efforts.
In all this, we have been committed to describing the intimate experiences of macroeconomic change, and it is this commitment, especially as it plays out in Ecuador, that frames our intervention here.
Taylor Nelms: Rudi, it’s a popular moment to talk about the apocalypse, from the pandemic to climate change to political collapse to economic crisis to zombies. But there’s also a tendency today in accounts of the end of the world—pop-cultural representation, scientific admonition, religious prophecy—to focus less on the apocalypse itself than the post-apocalypse, utopian or dystopian. It’s as if we’re rushing through the end to get to whatever’s next. The effect is to elide moments of upheaval and subsume them to historical narrative or explanatory context. The post-apocalypse becomes another form of transcendence.
So, I want to begin this exchange by asking, is it worth it—is it even possible—to sit with the apocalypse, to dwell in and on the ending of one world before the beginning of another?
With that opening gambit, let’s go to Quito, Ecuador and talk about an episode, appropriately enough, from the turn of the millennium.
It’s a sunny October afternoon in Quito. After little more than a year of seismic activity, Guagua Pichincha, the volcano overlooking the city from its western perch, wakes up. Two days later, ash erupts for a second time from the mountain, blanketing Quito in white and gray. When Ecuadorians reflect on that moment, the comparison they often draw is to apocalyptic visions of atomic explosions.
Pichincha’s eruption happened in the midst of a deep and worsening financial and economic crisis in Ecuador, one of a series that rolled across Latin America in the late-1990s after a period of financial liberalization and the subsequent collapse of international capital flows intended to prop up growth—the terrifying return, it seemed, of the region’s prior “Lost Decade.” In Ecuador, a banking crisis quickly metastasized into an economic catastrophe that is tightly bound in the minds of many of Quito’s residents with the memory of the volcano’s ash cloud.
Less than three months later, Ecuador had a new national government and—with the announcement that the country would abandon the national currency, the sucre, and officially adopt the United States dollar—a new money.
You can imagine, one woman told me a few years later, how it seemed like the world was ending.
Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld: Natural disaster, economic and political turmoil, currency change. It seemed an unstoppable escalation of crises. Cataclysmic upheaval indeed.
This episode, though, sets up an initial problem. What makes a crisis “apocalyptic”? Even among shocks that bring countries to the brink of economic ruin, there’s a lot to pick from. Late-twentieth-century South America is a catalog of the episodic destruction of savings, livelihoods, trades, and currencies. Hyperinflation in Bolivia in 1985 reached a monthly rate of 60,000 percent. Argentina’s Great Depression began in 1998, lasted four years, and saw its economy shrink by more than one quarter. I typed “Brazil Economic Crisis” into a search engine, and autofill suggested six different years since 1980. Such events are distressingly frequent. All this recurring hardship builds habits of response and techniques of retrenchment.
So, why single out one specific breakdown as so different?
We might answer that question ethnographically. “Apocalyptic” crises break the rules of “routine” emergencies. They ripple through encounters of daily life and unravel the premises underlying normal defense mechanisms. I agree that the turn of the millennium was such a moment in Ecuador, a neoliberal financial shock that interlocked with other ruptures. The term “dollarization” names it, but these months of upheaval were as much political, cultural, even geologic as they were financial and monetary. As Matthew Wolf-Meyer observes, “the apocalypse bundles together multiple forces and changes everything irrevocably.”
The sped-up cycles of indigenous uprisings through the 1990s in Ecuador only reinforced these feelings. After a decade of mass activism, native organizations had shown an ability to block national highways and shut down cities, especially in the Andes. Indigenous leaders had expanded their objectives so that the economic welfare of all working-class Ecuadorians was their concern, not just the well-being of rural communities.
In July 1999, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (or CONAIE) joined the cause of Quito’s striking taxi and bus drivers, mobilizing over 10,000 indigenous participants. It was in the midst of that quickly spreading financial crisis, marked by massive price increases, spikes in unemployment and poverty, and a series of unprecedented drops in the value of the sucre. To slow the crisis, the government implemented a lengthy freeze on bank deposits. After twelve days of protest, however, the government signed an agreement with CONAIE agreeing to freeze the price of fuel, establish a subsidy for electricity used by the poorest sectors, and slowly unlock bank accounts.
Even after the strike ended, indigenous activists backed a new signature drive that would force a national plebiscite to undo the government’s fiscal measures. At the time, the civil society protests seemed to have no end.
TN: So, the uprisings had been ongoing for weeks, months, years when on January 21, 2000, the doors of the Ecuadorian National Congress opened, and the crowds flooded in.
Not two weeks before, then-President of Ecuador Jamil Mahuad had appeared on national television to announce his intention to make the US dollar Ecuador’s official currency. Leading up to Mahuad’s decision, it really had been a devastating economic catastrophe. In 1998 and 1999, seventeen banking institutions in Ecuador failed—more than half of the financial system—including the largest in the country. A panic-inducing bank holiday was imposed, accompanied by a series of account freezes. Ecuadorians faced a massive devaluation of the sucre, Ecuador’s national currency since 1884, alongside inflation and increasing instability. Unemployment and poverty spiked, and hundreds of thousands of people left the country.
Dollarization, Mahuad said, was the only way out of the crisis. (“There is no alternative,” right?) But many Ecuadorians saw dollarization as a desperate move by an embattled politician, a betrayal of state sovereignty, and an extension of the greed and corruption that had led to the crisis. The uprisings had been sparked by the economic disorder that then supposedly forced Mahuad’s hand, but they were about more than that, too. The late-1990s crisis and dollarization also coincided with increasingly visible efforts by indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples in Ecuador to assert their autonomy, struggle against inequality, and—like many social movements gaining force at that time around the world—challenge the broader neoliberal policy package and development agenda implemented throughout the 1980s and 90s. Dollarization was seen as the “last straw”—as a press release by CONAIE put it—in a long history of “neoliberal, corrupt, anti-popular, and anti-sovereign policies, imposed by bankers, powerful economic groups, [and] the government that represents them.”
The Ecuadorian government again called a state of emergency as part of its plan to implement the dollarization plan, the heart of which was the massive devaluation of the sucre. One dollar was to be worth 25,000 sucres, evaporating the savings of most Ecuadorians.
Mobilizations planned by CONAIE for later in January were moved up in response. Tens of thousands of indigenous people and their allies—students, teachers, workers, artisans, merchants, office workers—marched, went on strike, and set up roadblocks around the country. By the end of the month, Mahuad would be deposed by a coalition of indigenous leaders and military officers.
And now, hundreds of protestors were inside the National Congress to witness the alliance of Ecuador’s indigenous movement and military and installation of a new government, led by Antonio Vargas, then-President of CONAIE, an army colonel named Lucio Gutiérrez, and Carlos Solorzano, President of Ecuador’s Supreme Court. If dollarization amounted to a breach of sovereignty and a kind of outsourcing of identity through US currency, then here was an unprecedented effort to claim—or indeed reclaim—power.
There is an astonishing documentary film by the anthropologist and filmmaker Sergio Miguel Huarcaya that captures this moment.
Standing above the crowd at the front of the freshly occupied congressional building, alongside Vargas and camouflaged members of Ecuador’s armed forces, including Gutiérrez, indigenous leader Salvador Quishpe announced the ending of one world and the beginning of another.
“My dear Ecuadorian people,” he shouts, “the new millennium has arrived—the new pachakutik—a new era for Ecuador, built with the hands of the people.”
I think it is significant that Quishpe uses the word pachakutik. It’s the name CONAIE gave to its electoral political arm, so Quishpe is referring to the new horizon for indigenous politics. But there’s also more to it. In the Andean Quechua language, pacha means both earth or world and time, era, or season; the word folds time and space together. Kutik means a return or reversal. A pachakutik is literally, then, a world-reversal or world-turning.
Most specifically, the term refers to the death and replacement of the Sapa Inka, ruler of Tawantinsuyu. Each Inka inaugurated another pacha, another space-time; one of the most important Inka rulers, who oversaw the vast expansion of Inka dominion into an empire spanning the Western coast of South America, took the name Pachacuti. But the term also has profound cosmological implications. It is rooted in precolonial Andean understandings of the duality of the universe; it has been inflected over time by conquest and Catholic eschatology. It denotes a cataclysmic reordering of the world: the end of an established order and the beginning of a new order that also represents an inversion of the previous. What had been latent or implicit is made patent and explicit, what was below is put on top, and what was unjust and disordered is made right. Worlds replace one another: every world begins in a familiar cataclysmic destruction of the previous and every world, a reversal of a past world, will end in a similar apocalypse. (For an overview, see Peter Gose, Invadors as Ancesors and Sabine MacCormack, “Pachacuti: Miracles, Punishments, and Last Judgment: Visionary Past and Prophetic Future in Early Colonial Peru.”)
So, I’m struck by what Quishpe says there in the National Congress, in the midst of an indigenous revolt against neoliberalism and its avatar in the form of dollarization—an announcement of a world-turning, the end of one world and the beginning of another.
I don’t want to overdo it. Indigenous leadership and self-determination at the national level lasted only hours. The military quickly betrayed their alliance with CONAIE and handed power over to Ecuador’s Vice-President Gustavo Noboa. The moment was ultimately an ambiguous one; for many, it is now seen as a strategic mistake. But in the moment, it was seen, at least in part, as a culmination of indigenous struggle and a significant achievement for an indigenous social movement seeking influence on the national political scene. “A sense of possibility” emerged.
The origin of the term “apocalypse,” of course, is in revelation or disclosure; only over time has it come to be shorthand for an abrupt and imminent crisis that shatters an old-world order. What does this declaration of a pachakutik reveal?
It is perhaps not surprising that, just as Latin America was an original laboratory of neoliberalism, so too would it be a key site for resistance and alternative political economic imagination. What’s interesting is the specifically Andean vision of world transformation.
The conquest is itself, of course, an archetypal pachakutik, just as it is clear for many native people around the world that, as Grace Dillon put it in her anthology of indigenous science fiction, “the Native Apocalypse, if contemplated seriously, has already taken place.” Yet throughout the colonial and postcolonial history of the Andes, the concept of pachakutik has also been marshalled to describe and incite resistance to conquest of various kinds, from late eighteenth-century rebellions against the Spanish to the eruption of the indigenous political movement in Ecuador in 1990, in advance of the quincentennial of Columbus sailing the ocean blue.
In 2000, then, another turning point, spun up by the collective efforts of indigenous activists who, through their critique of neoliberalism, sought to link their demands for the transformation of state, nation, and economy to a broad and diverse public. Indeed, just as importantly, the announcement of the pachakutik also foreshadowed immense transformation in Ecuadorians’ everyday economic lives, as the government decided to move forward with dollarization. Norman Whitten writes, reflecting on this period of what he calls “millennial Ecuador”—“an inchoate present poised between a remembered past and an imagined future”—that “remembrance and destiny are culturally intertwined.” Perhaps the pachakutik was dollarization itself.
RCM: Taylor, as you observed, the insurgent government fell apart immediately. Noboa ascended to the presidency, and the legislature enacted the dollarization program in March despite popular resistance. By June 2000, the transition was underway, but the day’s transactions were wobbly moments of gain that felt like uncertain tests of reality. One sensed that one had a potentially flawed understanding of how things worked.
For many working-class Ecuadorians, the enormity of the dollarization came home in a quirky little fact—the irrational size of the dime in relation to the nickel. I returned to the southern neighborhoods of Quito in June 2000, months after dollarization was passed into law. When I rode the bus, passengers often dropped US coins into my hand and pointed at the fare collector. Their values mystified people. The tokens did not have numbers indicating their worth. The littlest one (the dime) was worth more than larger brown one (the penny) and the larger silver one (the nickel), though not as much as the largest (the quarter). Bewildered by the coinage, they entrusted to me the task of plucking out the eighteen cents needed cover the fare.
In the aftermath of the eruption of the volcano the year before, citizens throughout the city had followed advice of civil defense authorities to place wide crosses of masking tape on windows. Ribbon walls of glass on office blocks still sat taped up, able to ensnare the fragments of a percussive geological explosion.
Amid these atmospheric uncertainties, residents now transacted life—buying daily bread, purchasing a newspaper, riding a bus—with objects that made little sense. Ecuadorians stumbled through basic exchanges, as each coin needed to be consciously remembered and deployed. It was like being forced to swap out four of the most common words in daily speech for new ones and never being sure how to pronounce them. They were no longer fluent in mundane life’s daily business.
Outside the city, farmers and artisans had a related experience of confusion. The massive devaluation and re-denomination of their work in dollars left them unable to properly calculate the value of their labor. Reckoning what one needed to get paid for one’s products meant having to convert mentally between the two regimes of value. They lived in two moments at the same time, the immediate lost past of the old, devalued national currency and the dawning present of a new, “hard” foreign currency.
In Otavalo, a town north of Quito that had become the epicenter of indigenous textile production, these uncertainties drove indigenous weavers and knitters to boycott their suppliers, taking on the yarn-producing factories owned by Spanish-speaking mestizo families. By June 2000, after weeks of miscalculating what was needed to charge for their wares, paying more for the supplies than they received in return for the finished product, the artisans were in debt.
Weeks into the boycott, wool factory owners refused to come to Otavalo for fear of being ensnared by an indigenous mobilization. “We have no guarantee of our safety,” one owner told the secretary of the artisan union. They finally compromised, agreeing to meet, but insisting on a small community on the Pan-American Highway up on a mountain pass. Over the first two hours of the gathering, the union made their objectives clear: freeze all prize increases for the remainder of the year, learn the prices of the factories’ raw material, labor, and electricity to understand if the increases were just, and “touch the hearts” of the factory owners (in the words of the union vice-president). They wanted their suffering known.
But then, the vice-president pivoted, gesturing to the hundreds of weavers, knitters, and market vendors who filled the hall. As I recorded in my fieldnotes on June 15, 2000, he framed the standoff in epochal, even millennial terms:
“Those of us who are here are perhaps the generations that directly come from the colonial factories of forced labor. I am speaking since the colonial era and even before [to the Inka]. We are a people who have always worked in this spirit of production. It is our blood. We have had different difficult periods at different stages of colonial and republican life. For example, we were obliged to produce bolts of cloth that built the Spanish empire. The English empire ensued, the production of their factories relegated Peru and New Spain. These epochs we have lived through. It is not something new, but now, with this globalization, with this time that is made of capital that has no borders for us, certain problems are emerging.”
Linking the upheaval of the crisis and dollarization to other turning points in history, the vice-president sought to bring the factory owners—non-indigenous people from outside their province—into his perspective. First, the vice-president challenges a common stereotype. Pitting himself against the stigmatization of indigenous people as isolated, timeless, and outside of history, he spoke of their place in empires. Second, he speaks of collapse, of the passing of a sequence of regimes. In his telling, history is not the rise of the modern world order. It is a cycle of “epochs,” not just change, but endings and beginnings, over and over again. They had arrived again at such a moment. The pricing problems that brought them into the room were portents of a world being re-made under them by capital unleashed. In that place, they were confronting again the turn of history.
Andean Ecuador skipped along in this unsettled way throughout the rest of the year and into the new millennium. The world-turning moment of January had turned again.
TN: Part of what’s interesting about this moment in Ecuador is how often those who experienced it come back to it to reflect, retell, and relive it. Last January, we saw a slew of articles with headlines like “20 years of dollarization.” (The Central Bank of Ecuador put together an extensive archive of material to memorialize the event.)
Your ethnography gets to the sense of shock people experienced in that moment of dollarization: trying to get around with coins you can’t read and don’t understand, a loss of control over the basic instruments you need to live your life, to reckon the value of your work. And the effort to then link that shock into the longue durée of colonial and post-colonial life.
Just a few years later, a sense of possibility emerged in Ecuador that was not unrelated to the shock and void of that apocalyptic moment. A young, charismatic left-populist economist named Rafael Correa was elected to be Ecuador’s President in 2006. Correa’s popularity was propelled by vehement denunciations of socioeconomic inequality and entrenched oligarchical interests, and his sweeping promises to inaugurate a “Citizens’ Revolution” that would leave behind what Correa described as Ecuador’s “long, sad neoliberal night.” With a new constitution and development plan, Correa’s political project was explicitly, in its own terms, not simply “anti-neoliberal” but “post-neoliberal.”
Correa’s vision of emancipatory political change was, as Pilar Pérez Ordóñez has written, suffused with Catholic imagery of redemption—characterizing poverty and inequality as sins, mapping a path of salvation towards social and economic justice. Correa sought to establish a “refundación” [refoundation], “a new dawn,” not simply “an era of change, but a change of era.” Here was the core of the revolutionary promise: the explicit possibility of an end to neoliberal capitalism. Correa’s project seemed to offer the possibility of messianically inaugurating a new era untainted by the inheritances of history.
Chief among those inheritances, and at the very center of the story of neoliberalism (re)told by Correa, was the turn-of-millennium financial crisis and adoption of the dollar.
Post-neoliberalism is a periodizing, historiographic enterprise, as both empirical phenomenon and scholarly preoccupation. It proposes to mark, as Correa sought to do, the end of one era and the dawn of another. In doing so, however, it also invites a particular kind of critique: do post-neoliberal experiments offer “true” alternatives to or departures from neoliberalism or do they represent more of the same, reiterating neoliberal principles, policies, or operating procedures in another guise?
We might say the same of any post-apocalypse. Have we truly left the apocalyptic moment behind?
RCM: I think Correa responded to an era. But I’m not convinced that he responded to the world-turning. Dollarization served well as a foil for him, encapsulating decades of woe—the 1982 loan crisis, the lost decade, the Washington Consensus, the IMF’s structural adjustments, and finally the late-90s crisis and dollarization itself. He broke comprehensively from this orthodoxy. He stirred in people a belief that Ecuadorians could bring about a better world based on real, human well-being.
In the end, though, his Ecuador incorporated and blunted the apocalyptic moment. The full consequences of an indigenous takeover under a cloud of volcanic uncertainty did not play out. Absolutely, his administration turned from the neoliberal era. But it was a shifting back to a conventional, state-led vision of development, with a deeply extractivist core. He raised the state up to a more central role in citizens’ lives, fulfilling the expectations that many working-class Ecuadorians have long held for their governments, but ultimately betraying the more fundamental transformation laid out by the indigenous movement and their allies.
TN: The possibility of reversal is always there, lurking in the background; a revolution is itself a kind of cycle. Post-neoliberal time is inevitably marked by this duel between possibility and its frustration, hope and its disappointment.
While many in Ecuador still yearn for that sense of possibility and scale of investment and change, by the time Correa left office in 2017, more than ten years after he first became president, his revolutionary promises had worn thin in the shadow of the regime’s growing extractivism, authoritarianism, and demonization of indigenous peoples, the media, and other critics. A familiar cycle of hope and disillusionment. The frustration and cynicism that emerges in the midst and wake of early twenty-first-century post-neoliberal pronouncements cannot be divorced from the anticipation that the very prospect of a “post-” arouses.
What was lost, as Thea Riofrancos points out at the end of her book Resource Radicals, was “the radical promise” that had animated both Correa’s “twenty-first-century socialism” and the indigenous movement-building that resulted in that dramatic “pachakutik” in January 2000, as the eruptions of dollarization were first beginning to rumble.
RCM: In 2020, on the twentieth anniversary of the dollarization, Ecuador shared in the accumulating anguishes of the Covid-19 pandemic, economic shutdowns, and—ironically, considering his former role as Correa’s vice-president—the neoliberal prescriptions of President Lenin Moreno. Covid-stricken bodies literally accumulated in the streets of Guayaquil. Across the globe, the pandemic has provoked new narratives of apocalypse, with world-dissolving consequence of disease, economic collapse, and powerless governments.
In Ecuador, is this a new cataclysm or a return to the old one?
I think we have come up against a key question: How long does an apocalypse last? Is it the length of a volcanic eruption over a city of millions? An urban, indigenous uprising that brings the government down? A banking crisis and currency collapse? A decade of austerity or a generation of lost opportunity? Hundreds of years of conquest and genocide?
Andean concepts do not elevate suffering alone as the apocalyptic threshold (as with the pandemic), nor bold social and political change (as with Correa). The pachakutik shifts existence powerfully. Time-space itself, the life realm of humans, gives over to new spaces to realize a new kind of humanity.
Staying in the apocalyptic present in 2000, one could hear indigenous leaders single out the possibilities of a turn of human affairs. The rise of indigenous power, the fall of Mahuad’s government, the destruction of the currency fleetingly opened the possibility of a real Andean world-turning. An intercultural world showed through cracks in the old order. Pretty quickly, this possibility gave way to uncertainty, and uncertainty to extended hardship. The flow of capital without borders, to use the framing of the artisan union’s vice-president, ended up nickel and diming the elemental forces of a pachakutik, picking away at the huge change that had seemed close at hand. It was an apocalypse, in that sense, delayed.