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Losing Ecuador

About the author
Guy Hedgecoe is co-editor of the website Iberosphere, which provides news, comment and analysis of Spain and the Iberian world. He was previously editor of the English-language edition of El Pais, and founded and edited the Ecuador Focus weekly bulletin and the Qorreo website

The new president of Ecuador, Alfredo Palacio, has called for the country to undergo a profound soul-searching in the wake of the political crisis which saw his predecessor, Lucio Gutiérrez, removed from office on 20 April. “The dictatorship has ended,” said the Andean nation’s new leader, a cardiologist who was Gutiérrez’s vice-president. Palacio has also echoed a phrase much used by the nation’s commentators and political figures recently: that Ecuador needs to be “refounded” – that is, it must start a new, democratic era now that Gutiérrez has gone.

Also in openDemocracy on the global politics of Latin America:

▪ Ivan Briscoe, “Argentina: how politicians survive while people starve” (April 2003)

▪ Marco Aurélio Garcia, “ Brazilian future” (July 2003)

▪ Bella Thomas, “ Paradox regained: a conversation with an old comandante in Cuba” (August 2003)

▪ Ivan Briscoe, “ All change in Venezuela’s revolution?” (January 2005)

▪ Sergio Aguayo Quezada, “ Mexican democracy in peril” (April 2005)

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Gutiérrez fled the presidential building on 20 April, when the armed forces officially withdrew their support for him in the face of increasingly angry protests against the government’s meddling in the judiciary. Gutiérrez took refuge in the Brazilian embassy, while congress ratified his “abandonment of power.” On 24 April he was whisked off to Brazil to claim political asylum.

But Ecuadorians are only too aware that calls for a major change in the way the country is managed are nothing new.

In 1997, Abdalá Bucaram, El Loco (“crazy one”), an eccentric and charismatic populist who had governed for only six months was removed, following mass protests triggered by his economic policies, corruption and provocative brand of politics. By the time congress branded him “mentally unfit to govern”, he had fled to Panama.

In 2000, Bucaram’s elected successor, Jamil Mahuad, whose neoliberal policies and links to bankers had demolished his popular support, was ousted by an uprising of highland Indians and army officers. The leader of that rebellion was a 43-year-old colonel demanding an end to the corruption of the present generation of politicians: Lucio Gutiérrez.

Gutiérrez ended up being briefly imprisoned for his part in the 2000 putsch, but two years after his release he was a presidential candidate, on his way to an extraordinary, if not landslide, election victory. The focus of his campaign – almost to the exclusion of other issues – was the fight against corruption and the depoliticisation of the courts. Gutiérrez had no experience of public office, but his leadership of the 2000 rebellion made him the only candidate who could legitimately claim to have taken a courageous stand against corruption. And the fact he was a lower-middle class mestizo, a sector of the population largely excluded from the political scene, made him a genuine outsider.

“Ecuadorians want a president who is new to politics, who is young, of proven honesty, a citizen who does not belong to the traditional political economic power circles, and someone who has the courage to face up to the corrupt oligarchic mafias and carry out the changes that the country needs,” he told me during the first-round election campaign.

At that stage, many people doubted Gutiérrez’s abilities, but few questioned his intentions. How was it then, that just over two years after that 2002 election victory, he was being helicoptered out of the presidential palace, while an angry mob of thousands stood below, accusing him of being a dictator, a nepotist and perhaps worst of all, corrupt?

Afloat on oil

The current political upheaval in Ecuador is not quite the same as its precursors. Bucaram and Mahuad each governed a country that was in deep economic crisis. Despite its profitable range of exports, which include oil, shrimp and banana, by the late 1990s Ecuador was on its knees. Low oil prices, the devastation of the El Niño current along the Pacific coastline and years of massive corruption took their toll; government measures were ineffective or counterproductive. One of Mahuad’s desperate last acts before Gutiérrez’s coup was to replace the national currency with the United States dollar.

Gutiérrez oversaw one of the most macroeconomically stable periods of recent times – projected growth for 2005 is estimated at around 3.5%. With the help of successive market-friendly finance ministers, he implemented controversial, IMF-prescripted measures. These helped to scotch the theory that he was “a Chinese Marxist” – as his presidential rival in 2002, banana mogul Alvaro Noboa, famously labelled him – but they soon caused his leftwing indigenous backers to storm out of their alliance.

Further proof that he was not a leftist firebrand came when Gutiérrez emerged from a meeting with George W Bush in Washington to announce that Ecuador would be “the United States’ best ally in the fight against drugs and terrorism”. The image of the new president as a leftwing firebrand appeared buried.

Yet Gutiérrez was constantly undermined by the perception that he did not understand the demands and limits of the presidential post. He made a seemingly never-ending series of gaffes – such as announcing that his predecessor’s entire cabinet would be slapped in jail, or that he would be sworn into office in a football stadium rather than in the corrupt confines of Congress – which he usually had to rectify with clumsy U-turns. He also appeared to backtrack on his electoral promise to appoint only “the best Ecuadorians” to official posts, by instead putting mediocre former army colleagues, newly-made political allies and often members of his own family, in these positions.

Sinking in law reform

However, despite his widespread unpopularity, Gutiérrez looked likely to see out his term, if only because the high price of oil would keep the economy afloat. Nonetheless, after he narrowly survived an attempt by opposition groups last year to impeach him through congress, he put his promise to shake up the country’s judiciary back on the political agenda.

Ecuador’s courts are controlled by political parties and consequently steeped in corruption, so a reform was welcome. However, Gutiérrez’s response was to lead to his downfall. Cutting a barely secret deal with the exiled Bucaram, the president assured himself the congressional support of the former leader’s Partido Roldosista Ecuatoriano (PRE). By late 2004, Gutiérrez and his parliamentary alliance set about illegally replacing the members of the supreme, constitutional and electoral courts, packing them with Bucaram-friendly magistrates. By the beginning of April, the supreme court had predictably quashed all pending corruption charges against Bucaram and he made a triumphant return from exile.

Meanwhile, stories were mounting of corruption within the administration and thuggish intimidation by Gutiérrez allies against political, civil and media opponents. Gutiérrez defended himself against charges of being a dictator by calling himself a “dictocrat”: a dictator for the oligarchs and a democrat for the poor. However, the return of Bucaram, the paradigm of government corruption for many Ecuadorians, put Gutiérrez firmly in the category as those same oligarchs he claimed to be battling.

The latest popular uprising was not born of economic desperation, like so many of its counterparts in Latin America in recent years. Instead, it was both a demand for democracy to be respected and an expression of frustration at democracy’s limits. Ecuador made the transition from military dictatorship to democracy in the late 1970s, at around the same time as a good number of other Latin American countries. Like so many of them, however, it is still struggling to see the rewards. Gutiérrez put his finger on perhaps his country’s biggest hindrances: the weakness of its institutions and the corruption of its state. But that took him no closer to solving those problems.

But then, clues that Gutiérrez’s idea of democracy was not exactly clearly-defined, no matter how well-intended he was, were there from the start.

“We wanted to strengthen the democratic institutions so that there was more freedom,” he told me during his spell in prison, in reference to the coup. “The main enemy of democracies, especially in Latin America and also around the world, is corruption. Corruption is the main enemy. And there is not one organisation, not in the Organisation of American States or the United Nations which as far as I can see has a strong or specific programme to fight corrupt governments.”

Breaking Ecuador’s cycle of corruption and “refounding” the nation will be no easy task, least of all for an interim president with a term that lasts – in theory – only until January 2007. Ecuador is a country whose democracy is so warped that those who are elected on the promise of change are those who keep the country stagnated in corruption, and those who use the masses to gain power are surprised when they are thrown out by popular demand. Alfredo Palacio’s challenge is a huge one.


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