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Ecuadorans Say 'No Mas' to Gutiérrez

By Mary Anastasia O'Grady | The Wall Street Journal

Published April 22, 2005; Page A13 | Not long after Ecuador's national police chief resigned on Wednesday, refusing to use force against his own people, the Ecuadoran Congress voted to oust President Lucio Gutiérrez. Within hours, Vice President Alfredo Palacio, who had broken with Mr. Gutiérrez over a number of issues some time ago, was sworn in as president.

The police chief stepped down, declaring, "I cannot continue to be a witness to the confrontation with the Ecuadoran people. I am not a violent man." It was remarkably similar to what Venezuelan General Efrain Vasquez Velasco claimed he said to President Hugo Chávez on April 11, 2002, just before the president handed in his letter of resignation: "Mr. President, I was loyal to the end, but today's deaths cannot be tolerated."

Regrettably, other members of the Venezuelan military were not such principled defenders of human rights and Castro's Venezuelan protégé was returned to power within a few days.

The outcomes are different but the parallels between Mr. Gutiérrez and Venezuelan strongman Chávez are chilling. Both led military coups against elected presidents. Both won office promising to break the stranglehold of a corrupt ruling class. Once safely in office, both turned to the use of force against peaceful protestors to quell dissent, began to rely heavily on shady alliances for support and moved to consolidate power.

One way of viewing what just occurred in Ecuador is that a population saw Chávez-style governance heading its way and decided to push back hard. Notably, press reports coming from Quito describe the massive street protests that finally brought the president down as popular rather than politically organized. There is some relief today that perhaps the Chávez Bolivarian Revolution, which seems to be spreading like wildfire through the Andes, has met resistance. Except, that is, at the feckless Organization of American States, which is up in arms about the removal of Mr. Gutiérrez.

Mr. Gutiérrez took office in January 2003. As a former military officer who attempted a coup d'etat in 2000 against former president Jamil Mahuad, Mr. Gutiérrez drew popular support from his rebellious, outsider status.

In February of his first year in office, while he was still honeymooning with the Ecuadoran people, Mr. Gutiérrez came to the Journal's New York headquarters for breakfast. I asked him about similarities between himself and his Venezuelan counterpart. He said he was pleased to get the question; that it gave him a chance to talk about his democratic government. He was aware of investor fears that he would break with democracy and he did his best to calm them.

But after about six months in office, the president began hitting political roadblocks. His own small party had little power in Congress and Ecuador's notoriously divisive politics made governing difficult. Incompetence, inexperience, nepotism and the culture of corruption added to the mix to erode his popularity. Over the course of 2004, as the president's popularity sank and Ecuador's old guard blocked his agenda, he grew ever-more highhanded.

The president's early coalition in congress fell apart, but in 2004 he managed to put together a new congressional majority so as to block impeachment attempts against him. To do so, he had to pull in support from the party of former President Abdala Bucaram -- aka El Loco.

Congress had relieved Mr. Bucaram of his executive duties in 1997 on the grounds of "mental incapacity" to serve. He had fled to Panama to escape prosecution for corruption. As a quid pro quo for support Mr. Gutiérrez was expected to find a way to allow the exiled president back into the country without facing charges.

Mr. Gutiérrez had already wrested control of the constitutional court and of the electoral tribunal a la Chávez. The solution lay in the supreme court. In December, with the help of congress, Mr. Gutiérrez fired 27 of the 31 Supreme Court members. The decision to simply clean house and restock with his own allies, against the rules of the constitution, met with a firestorm of protest. It was all a little too chavista for most Ecuadorans.

Having had the charges against him dropped, Mr. Bucaram came roaring back to Ecuador, desperately trying to stir up sentiments against what he calls the "oligarch mafia." Mr. Gutiérrez didn't help himself by allying with this former ousted president, who has boasted about his admiration for Chávez. On Monday, Mr. Bucaram blamed the oligarchs for the protests against the president and churned up the nationalistic rhetoric. "We have lost our economic sovereignty" he complained, because of dollarization. "We have lost our political sovereignty by permitting the U.S. military bases in Manta. We have lost territory in peace agreements with Peru."

For many Ecuadorans, Gutiérrez support for Bucaram politics suggested something frightening. So too did rumors that the government had had conversations with Colombian guerrillas. Protestors also objected to the growing violence and intimidation inside the country against Gutiérrez adversaries.

Congress responded legally on Wednesday by invoking a constitutional rule that allows for the removal of the president when he abandons his responsibilities, i.e. violates the constitution.

Mr. Palacio -- a doctor from Guayaquil with little political experience -- is expected to reverse the Gutiérrez trend toward power consolidation and behave more moderately, as he tries to build support. Unfortunately his leftist ideology doesn't bode well for the economy. He is already making noises against the negotiations with the U.S. for a trade agreement and arguing that oil revenues should go to social programs, not to service debt. But at least there is hope that he will be subjected to institutional checks and balances.

Still, Ecuador faces enormous political hurdles. It is widely believed that Chávez has been funneling in money to ramp up the chaos; he's not likely to quit meddling just because Mr. Gutierrez is gone.

Since 1997, the country has had three collapsed presidencies. The frustrations that brought Mr. Gutiérrez to power remain as does the country's dysfunctional constitution. But for now a dictatorship has been averted, and for that Ecuadorans are immensely grateful.

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