April 19, 2005 [LINK]

Upheaval in Ecuador

Only weeks after the government of Bolivia narrowly averted being tossed aside by opponents, Ecuador is now in the midst of a similar wave of mass protests, what one might call a "quasi-insurrection." The issue in Ecuador is abuse of executive power. President Lucio Gutierrez arbitrarily dismissed the entire Supreme Court, and responded to a wave of street demonstrations, after and declared a state of emergency in an effort to silence dissenters. This did not have the intended effect, however, and yesterday he rescinded the declaration rather than risk a bloodbath or mutiny. Even though Ecuador's Congress unanimously approved the mass dismissal, the protests escalated, showing that the specific grievances are secondary to the main goal of ousting Gutierrez. Jaime Nebot, mayor of Guayaquil, led the protest march attended by tens of thousands. What may have triggerred this wave of protests was the recent supreme court ruling that cleared former president Abdala Bucaram ("El Loco") of corruption charges, which many people say was part of a deal by Gutierrez to secure more political support. One protester's sign alluded to the fact that the president's first name (Lucio) rhymes with the Spanish word for "dirty" (sucio). Now his support is dwindling rapidly, which is in a sense poetic justice, because he himself spearheaded a coup in 2000. His days may be numbered. See CNN.com. Ironically, U.S. diplomats feared he would follow in the radical footsteps of Hugo Chavez, but instead adopted a conciliatory posture toward Washington. His successor would be tempted to change course in order to assuage nationalist-populist sentiment.

Comparing the situations in Ecuador and Bolivia might help determine which way the continent is heading. In Bolivia, opposition to economic policies was the central grievance, and opportunism by coca-growers provided extra leverage for the opposition. One underlying similarity between the two countries is that indigenous rights groups are in the forefront of protest. The Andean Group, headquartered in Lima, Peru, used to play an active role in harmonizing politics among the countries in the region, encouraging democratic transitions, etc., but it has been withering for over a decade. Now the dream of regional integration seems farther away than ever. Events in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador in recent years seem to have established a new process by which sitting democratic heads of state can be removed from office by extra-constitutional means, without waiting for the next scheduled elections. This might be interpreted as an appeal to manifestation of the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, emphasizing the "general will" of the people rather than constitutional norms. It is yet another sign of how weak democratic traditions and state institutions are in much of Latin America.