The Rise of Fascism in Ecuador in the 1930’s
The thing you have to understand about fascism is that it isn’t an ideology at all.
It’s all about dressing up and marching around and shouting in unison. It’s about being mad as hell and not taking it, whatever it is, any more. It’s about right and wrong, traditional virtues, manly men, womenly women, nervous but alluring sheep. It’s simple solutions to a complicated world, the innate superiority of tribe and fixing the world with a sock to the jaw of some craven jew/marxist/indian/etc. etc.
Fascist ideology is almost always a contradiction in terms. What a fascist believes, what a fascist does is self serving and fluid, fitting the needs of the moment.
There is no real theory. Theory is for eggheads sitting in their ivory towers, contemplating the world, passively studying and forming theories.
Well, while the eggheads sat there and studied, the Fascists were about action. They would go out and act, and let the eggheads study that. And while the eggheads studied, they would act again. Fascists would remake the world, through the sheer power of will and action.
Fascism was not about thinking, it was about acting. It was not about reflection or ideology or theory, it was about passion.
It was all nonsense, of course. But Fascism had the advantage of looking good with all its shouting and bluster and appeals to blood and virtue.
Of course, this lack of actual ideas or ideology made Fascism nicely protean. Mussolini had started off as a socialist. Hitler as a crank. Businessmen, landowners, union leaders, journalists, peasants and workers could all find a home in Fascism’s big tent. Fascists could speak the language of socialism, cry for the plight of workers and peasants, and do business with businessmen.
Of course, all that tended not to survive a really hard look. Contradictions would start to pop up everywhere, and incompatible goals and constituencies would inevitably mean that in that big tent, more and more people would get the crap end of the stick. The tent would fall in. You could put that off for a while by just shouting louder and louder, but sooner or later it was going to implode.
Unless you’d reached the point of being able to beat people up or throw them in jail, or simply make them disappear.
But the depression offered a unique opportunity. Fascism worked best on an empty playing field, an ideology based on shouting wasn’t likely to handle debates well. But in a landscape where traditional parties and traditional solutions had failed, fascism could thrive. And the depression was just one big long tall drink of fail. Liberalism, conservatism, liberal democracy, traditional dictatorships, technocracy and feudalism, in a worldwide economic collapse, all of them were heaping on the bonfire of failure, their solutions and their ideals exploded. They were all empty suits waiting to be swept away.
In this sort of environment ideologies like communism and anarchism gained terrifying power. But these ideologies preached radical reform, not simply upsetting what was left of the apple cart, but throwing it away entirely. These were divisive ideologies, throwing whole social classes on the bonfire.
As a rival to communism, fascism offered a bigger tent, more familiarity and stability and the allure of emotional resonance – storm and blood, virtue, marching and shouting as opposed to dry dialectics and economic theory.
So too in Ecuador, and the rise of a movement called the National Compact, also known as the Dirty Shirts.
Dirty Shirts? Well, what can we say.
Shirts were big in fascism. Shirts were sort of like a uniform, but relatively cheap and easy to procure and wear. Mussolini started it off with his fascist black shirts, Hitler followed up with brown shirts. Before you knew it, in other countries people were marching around as silver shirts, grey shirts, etc., so on down to the ‘dirty shirts.’
The National Compact was bankrolled by the latifundistas, the big landowners of the Sierra. But it would be a mistake to see the National Compact as only a tool of the landowners. For the latifundista, they had seen nearly fifty years of steady decline of power and influence, although they were still entrenched, one lesson that they’d clearly learned was that their brand wasn’t selling.
The path to power was to buy in. The National Compact, as with fascist movements everywhere, was a big tent attracting the angry and the dispossessed, be they peasants and squatters, urban poor, workers and skilled tradesmen and even middle classes. But it also craved the attention and support of the wealthy and influential.
For a leader going into the 1931 election, the National Compact found… Neptali Bonifaz.
Bonifaz in pictures comes across as a stern but kindly old gent. Spare and well groomed, he’s the image of genteel aristocracy. In 1931, he’s sixty one years old. He doesn’t look like a shouter, and he probably isn’t, which makes him an atypical fascist leader.
But Bonifaz has been around for a while. His family are old school landowners, and he’s one of the biggest and most progressive. Progressive in the sense of treating plantation agriculture as an organized business undertaking, not necessarily in treating people well.
He’s got a nasty edge – one of the most famous quotes attributed to him came when a visitor admired his herd of prize horses. He responds that “Each horse is worth twenty Indians.”
Truthfully, he’s a bit of a racist regarding the Indians, but that’s a common attitude back then.
Bonifaz has the reputation of a tough old bastard, no nonsense, no bullshit, a damned hard bargainer. He’ll push your back right up against a wall. But though he drives a hard bargain, he’s got a reputation for sticking to his word.
And he’s been around, not just hiding out on his hacienda. In the late 1920’s, he had stepped forward to become the governor of the new Central Bank for the Arroyo administration. He had been a key man in breaking inflation, in the last era of good times the Ecuadorans remembered, and he had connections with the technocrats and middle class. And he has street cred as a long time occasionally radical Ecudadorian nationalist, even going so far as to diss his father’s country, Peru.
There was also the fact that his cousin had founded Ecuador’s socialist party and tried to lead an Indian uprising. Bonifaz didn’t have much truck with that stuff. But it gave some hope to the destitute and desperate that the old man might somewhere deep down have had a few ideas and sympathies rub off.
So Bonifaz comes forward as the man for all seasons and all times. When the Dirty Shirts march in the streets, it’s his name they shout. And when they do the usual fascists tactics, placarding and postering, ranting and demonstrating, vandalizing and harassing, its on his behalf.
And let’s be honest – the political fortunes of the business elite of the coasts, the middle class, the landowning elite, and even the army are shot to pieces. They’ve all stepped up, had their chance and failed spectacularly. So the field is wide open.
Come the elections of the 20th and 21st of October 1931, perhaps the first free elections in history, Neptalí Bonifaz Ascázubi is elected as President of Ecuador. He’s elected by an overwhelming margin, winning 36,000 votes, more than his two rivals, Larrea with 18,000 votes and Modesto, with 14,000, combined. Of course this is 68,000 votes in a country of 1.9 million, so perhaps the proper word is ‘free-ish.’ Nevertheless, it is a smashing victory. Satisfied, Bonifaz returns to his hacienda and waits to be sworn in.
And he waits.
And he waits some more.
The trouble is that Ecuador’s constitution gives a great deal of power to the legislature, power to obstruct a President. The National Compact is too radical, Bonifaz is popular in all sorts of places, and all sorts of people, but not with the conservative elements of the middle class, or with the business elites of the coasts. Bonifaz is seen as a reactionary latifundista in sheep’s clothes. They don’t like him, they don’t want him
and they refuse to appoint him. So he waits while they debate and argue.
Finally, the argument gains traction that Bonifaz can’t be President because he’s not a actually Ecuadoran. His father was a Peruvian diplomat after all. He’s only Ecuadoran through his mother.
That argument would have a lot more traction if he’d traveled about on a Peruvian passport, as he had in our history. Or if he didn’t have a bit of a history as an Ecuadoran nationalist, as in this version of reality.
But the fact remains, he’s only half Ecuadoran and his father was a hated Peruvian, a high ranking one. So it’s not as good as it might have been, but its what they’ve got.
Bonifaz has had enough. He warns from his hacienda that if the legislature doesn’t shape up, do its job and confirm his election, ‘there’ll be blood in the streets.’
August 20, 1932, Bonifaz is disqualified by the Congress of the Republic for 43 votes against 41, accused of Peruvian nationality.
Had he been less of a nationalist, or actually been caught with a Peruvian passport from his youth, the margin might have been bigger, say 46 to 38. It’s closer in this version of history, but doesn’t really change the result. But now, in this alternate reality history of Ecuador has begun to slowly drift off the beam, this world is diverging from our own.
Velasco Ibarra is one of his loudest proponents.
Velasco was a conservative member of the middle class, his father was an Engineer, Velasco studied in France, went into journalism, and honed his skills as a writer and an orator in books and newspapers. Now at the age of 38, he was starting out on a brilliant political career. He’s eloquently argued Bonifaz nationalist bona fides and his credibility. But of course, at this point, it doesn’t change the result.
The National Compact, like most fascist movements, wasn’t just a political party. It wasn’t even simply a mass movement. It’s a paramilitary. It’s a bunch of guys in homemade uniforms who have been practicing marching in formation, shouting and saluting, beating up their mostly defenseless enemies and stockpiling weapons.
And on August 20th, they’re not about to take this lying down. They’re mad as hell, and finally they’ve got something that they’re just not going to take any more.
It’s on. They’re bringing it.
The Ecuadoran civil war is on.