Monday, April 25, 2005

Ecuador dumps another president

Last week, the National Congress in Quito ousted former army colonel Lucio Gutierrez, who had been in office since 2003, amid widespread anti-government protests in Quito. Gutierrez has since fled to Brazil and vice-president Alfredo Palacio has been sworn in as the Andean nation's head of state. Palacio becomes Ecuador's eighth leader in ten years (more details below); no president has been allowed to finish a four-year term of office since 1996. According to The Independent, Ecuador is now officially the most policially unstable nation in South America. And that's no small feat, considering that political crisis and Latin America seem to go hand in hand. 
Ironically, Lucio Gutierrez was one of the leaders of the January 2000 coup that deposed Jamil Mahuad. That coup was caused by widespread opposition to Mahaud's plan to dollarize the economy following the nation's 1999 economic meltdown. Economic instability doesn't seem to be an underlying cause of Gutierrez's ouster, however; the country's economy grew by 6 percent last year, and the nation has benefitted from high oil prices. Instead, this most recent round of political instability appears to be due to the Ecuadorean population's growing frustration with corrupt politicians, as a story in today's Chronicle notes:
[Critics] point out that Gutierrez campaigned for the presidency on a populist, anti-corruption platform. But once in office, they contend, Gutierrez approved harsh economic austerity measures, installed family members in government posts and cut deals with corrupt politicians rather than jailing them.
"You give them your trust, and they do the exact opposite of what they promise," said Carlos Tamayo, a taxi driver in Quito. "They suck the blood of the people like bats."
Indeed, the nation's political infrastructure is rife with corrpution - the watchdog group Transparency International claims that Ecuador is one of the most corrupt nations in the region. What really seemed to upset the Ecuadorean people, however, was Lucio's deal with exiled former president Abdala Bucaram and his populist PRE party (for more information on Abdala, see my 1997 Daily Cougar column about him):
The move that seemed to seal Gutierrez's fate was his temporary alliance with Abdala Bucaram, a former president who fled to Panama after being ousted from office in a 1997 uprising.
Pro-Bucaram legislators briefly gave Gutierrez a razor-thin majority in Congress. Gutierrez persuaded lawmakers to fire the Supreme Court and then reconstituted the judicial body with his cronies. The new court annulled corruption convictions against Bucaram, paving the way for the ex-president to return to Ecuador earlier this month.
The move sparked a wave or protests that came to a head Wednesday. Fearing a blood bath if they were ordered to fire on demonstrators, Ecuador's army and police withdrew their support from Gutierrez, and the Congress voted to dismiss him.
"The person who violated the constitution was the president," said Gustavo Larrea, director of the independent Latin American Human Rights Association in Quito. "The people were calling for a return to a state of law. This was an exercise in direct democracy."
The Chronicle article, however, focuses on the possibility that these "exercises in direct democracy" that seem to be occurring with increased frequency in Latin America are not necessarily a good thing, because they are little more than incidences of mob rule mentality. Don't like the president? Then there's no reason to wait until his term of office is up - just take to the streets and force him out of office! Rather than being an affirmation of democracy, these uprisings could really be nothing more than events that undermine the democratic process and foment political instability:
[John] Walsh, of the Washington Office on Latin America, said people power doesn't necessarily lead to more democracy.
"Mob rule lends itself to any configuration," Walsh said. "The next time it happens, (people) might not agree with the result, and, in that sense, it's very dangerous."
Given the dangers of "mobocracy," however, I can fully understand the frustration of the Ecuadorean people and their propensity to take to the streets. Ecuador's leaders, democratically-elected as they might be, have collectively done very little to improve the impoverished nation's standard of living. As I noted in following my most recent trip to Ecuador, "the things that needed to have changed the most - the poverty, the lack of basic infrastructure, the corruption, the pollution - are still the same. It's depressing, since the country really doesn't seem to be better off than it was fifteen years ago, when I first visited." Contrast this to Mexico, the other Latin American nation I visit frequently, which, while still very impoverished, is clearly progressing economically and politically. Corrpution is waning, the infrastructure is improving and a middle class is emerging in Mexico. The same cannot be said for Ecuador, unfortunately...

Since Ecuador moved from a military dictatorship to a civilian democracy in 1979, the country has experienced the following results:

Jaime Roldos: 1979 - 1981: Killed in a plane crash shortly into his term

Osvaldo Hurtado 1981 - 1984: Finished Roldos's term; he left office right as a nasty El NiƱo and the oil bust decimated Ecuador's economy
Leon Febres-Cordero 1984 - 1988: This guy was lucky he survived a full term, considering the mess that the economy was in while he was president. He did spend an evening as a prisoner at a Guayaquil air force base during a failed coup attempt

Rodrigo Borja 1988 - 1992: The leader of the Izquierda Democratica (Leftist Democrat) party fancied himself as an enlightened neo-Marxist reformer - until his party's congressional majority was wiped out in 1990 mid-term elections

Sixto Duran 1992 - 1996: This Boston-born architect was Ecuador's last president to serve a full term; he presided over a short border war with Peru in 1995 (Jimmy Carter intervened and the two nations later signed a peace treaty)
Abdala Bucaram 1996 - 1997: It wasn't hard for the National Congress to dismiss this Guayaquil populist on grounds of "mental incapacity" - his preferred nickname was "El Loco" and he released an album entitled "A Madman in Love" shortly after his election

Rosalia Arteaga - 1997: She served as interim president for a few days, becoming Ecuador's first female head of state in the process
Fabian Alacran 1997 - 1998: Caretaker president appointed by Congress until new elections were held; he left office during the devastating 1998 El Nino and the Asian economic meltdown and subsequent oil crash

Jamil Mahuad 1998 - 2000: Ecuador's economy collapsed during his presidency; he was forced out by a coup led by junior military officers and indigenous leaders 

Gustavo Naboa 2000 - 2003: Tried to rebuild Ecuador's economy by pressing ahead with Mahuad's reforms, including dollarization. Ecuador's official currency is now the US Dollar

Lucio Gutierrez 2003 - 2005: One of the army colonels who participated in the 2000 coup now finds himself on the other end of the wrath

Alfredo Palacio 2005 - ???: Good luck, Al. You're going to need it!

If this political instability continues, Ecuador should consider changing its national anthem from Salve O Patria to Won't Get Fooled Again... 

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015. Palacio finished his term but was replaced by Rafael Correa in the subsequent election. Although Correa's left-leaning, authoritarian administration has been controversial, it has also resulted in the longest period of political stability in Ecuador since the mid-90s; Correa was re-elected in 2013.)