The people prevail

Published : May 20, 2005 00:00 IST

Ecuador's Congress votes President Lucio Gutierrez out, in response to popular protests against his anti-people policies.

IN late April, Ecuador once again saw the premature departure from office of a President. In the past 10 years, five heads of state have been forced out of office in the country much before their terms ended. Protests on the streets of Quito, the capital, and other cities ultimately forced the resignation of President Lucio Gutierrez. Gutierrez himself had a role to play in the ouster of his predecessor, President Jamil Mahuad, in a military coup in 2000. Gutierrez, then a lieutenant colonel in the army, was the mastermind behind the coup, and had to spend some time in jail for his role in the overthrow of an elected government.

The unrest in the Andean country escalated after Gutierrez's ham-handed attempts to ride roughshod over the judiciary. He had dissolved the country's Supreme Court for partisan political ends in December last year and replaced it with a new court, packed with his own and his political allies' supporters. The Supreme Electoral Council and the Constitutional Court were also reconstituted on similar lines. The first important decision the new Supreme Court took was to clear a former President, Abdala "el loco" Bucaran, of corruption charges and allow him to return from exile. Bucaran is the leader of the Roldodista Ecuadorian Party (PRE), which still retains some popularity, as reflected in the local elections held last year.

After his return earlier in the year, Bucaran became one of the closest political allies of Gutierrez. When things started going beyond the President's control, Bucaran advised Gutierrez to dissolve the Congress and project himself as another Hugo Chavez. However, the only thing common between Gutierrez and Chavez, the Venezuelan President, is that both were army officers. Chavez never indulged in opportunistic politics or looked for support from Washington. In a last-ditch attempt to buy political peace, Gutierrez dissolved the newly constituted Supreme Court, but the dice was already loaded against him. Bucaran went into exile once again on April 20 and is unlikely to be back in Ecuador any time soon.

SINCE March, the country has been in turmoil, with indigenous groupings such as the Federation of Indigenous Peoples of Ecuador (CONAIE) joining the mostly middle-class demonstrators on the streets. CONAIE's major demand is the rejection of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that the Gutierrez government proposed to sign with the United States. CONAIE, the Pachakutik Multicultural Movement (PK), and the Popular Democratic Movement (MPD) were all supporters of Gutierrez when he ran for President in 2003. Gutierrez is a "mestizo" (mixed race) himself.

On April 20, Ecuador's Congress finally voted the President out. Sixty-two out of the 100 legislators passed a resolution accusing the President of "abandoning his post" and appointed the Vice-President, Alfredo Palacio, in his place. The security forces were no longer prepared to use violence against the protesters; they instead pressured the President to quit. Gutierrez called the vote unconstitutional; however, he had no option but to flee from the Presidential Palace in the face of growing popular anger. He sought refuge in the Brazilian Embassy after demonstrators blocked the runway at the airport, preventing his plane from taking off. After he spent a few days in the embassy, he was allowed to leave with his wife and daughter to Brazil, which had agreed to give him asylum.

The new government wanted to try Gutierrez on charges of corruption and excessive use of force against protesters. However, it could not withstand the pressure from the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the Brazilian government to let him go into exile. Latin American countries are not too happy with the political instability in Ecuador, which has lasted more than a decade. They would like constitutionally elected governments to last out their full terms. The right-wing in Venezuela had also managed to organise big street protests and strikes, with American help, in its abortive bid to oust President Chavez. Latin American leaders do not want Ecuador to be setting a precedent in the region's politics.

Gutierrez, who had won office on a populist platform, was initially counted among the group of progressive Latin American leaders. However, three months after assuming office he changed tack and started vigorously implementing the policies dictated by western financial institutions. Ecuador is the fifth biggest producer of oil in Latin America and the second largest exporter of oil to the U.S. from the region. But as in the case of many other oil-exporting countries of the world, a rapacious elite mismanaged the economy. An estimated 70 per cent of the population lives in poverty.

The last government did little to address the question of poverty. Instead, after an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2003, 70 per cent of the national budget was earmarked for the servicing of foreign debt and only 10 per cent was allocated to health and education. At the behest of the IMF and the World Bank, Gutierrez cut the subsidies on food and cooking oil. Like his predecessor in office, Gutierrez lent support to the American agenda in the region, including "Plan Colombia".

Many in Latin America are of the opinion that the "Plan" is aimed at destabilising the progressive governments in the region while at the same time undermining popular movements. In January last year, Ecuadorians and Colombians worked together to capture Ricardo Palmera, an important leader of the main guerilla group in Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Palmera was captured in Quito and promptly extradited to the U.S., to face charges of drug-trafficking and kidnapping. Gutierrez was one of the first Latin American leaders to offer support to President George W. Bush's war on Iraq.

The OAS questioned the constitutionality of Gutierrez's removal from the presidency and asked the new government for an explanation. The government has defended its action by arguing that there is a clause in the country's Constitution that allows the Congress to remove a President for "abandonment of the post" and that the action was "supported by the Ecuadorians". The disbanding of the Supreme Court and the declaration of "a state of emergency" by the former President are also being cited as unconstitutional acts by the new government.

Elections are due only after a year and a half. The new President can try and hold on to power until then or go in for early elections. He has a difficult task ahead as he lacks a majority in the Congress. The country is also currently without a Supreme Court.

Palacio is a man with progressive views. As Vice-President, he had opposed the steep budgetary cuts in social spending, and, one of his first acts as President was to appoint a left-wing economist, Rafael Correa, as the Finance Minister. The new government has been critical of the American military presence in the country and the IMF-dictated fiscal responsibility law.

The new government has indicated that like the Venezuelan government, it will use the burgeoning oil revenue to revive the social sector instead of using it mainly for servicing foreign debt. Palacio will be dependant on the support of the centre-left "Democracia Popular" Party and the Social-Christian Party, which together have a sizable presence in the Congress. The new President has already signalled that he wants the indigenous communities back into the political mainstream. Gutierrez's victory at the polls in 2002 was mainly because of the support of indigenous groups.

In the short run at least, the Bush administration has lost yet another ally in the region. The U.S. has never been more isolated in Latin America as it is now. Today, it has the assured support of only a handful of countries, most of them located in Central America.

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