28 April 2005 Edition

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Ecuador ousts corrupt President

ON 24 November 2002, former army coroner, Lucio Gutiérrez, was elected President of Ecuador, with the support of indigenous and left-wing groups. Today, Gutiérrez is a political refugee in Brazil, and the same indigenous groups, trade unions and left-wing organisations that hailed his election, were responsible for his ousting after days of protests and demonstrators which forced Ecuador's MPs to withdraw their support for the president.

This development in Ecuador is an example of how a sovereign people has found the dignity and strength to depose a corrupt politician who lied to be elected.

Deputy President Alfredo Palacios, a 66-year-old heart surgeon, is Gutiérrez's replacement, and his promises to review the US Army's presence on Ecuadorian territory and to prioritise social expenditure over external debt repayment have brought peace to the streets. The Ecuadorian people warned his new government, however, that they will be monitoring developments and will not accept any more lies. "This is the end of the dictatorship," announced Palacios. "Today is the end of arrogance and fear."

The public's perception of Lucio Gutiérrez, who today resides in Brazil, has little in common with the man who was elected president against all odds in 2002. Then, Gutiérrez was better known to Ecuador's people as the army officer who led the army in the coup in 2000 against then President, Jamil Mahuad. The army, trade unions and indigenous people joined in the government, but only three days later, Gutiérrez abandoned his position to allow one of the generals to take on his government position, which led to the end of the brief alternative government.

Two years later, Gutiérrez entered the political area with his own party, Patriotic Solidarity 21 January, in reference to the Jamil overthrow. He reached the presidency supported by civil society and the indigenous movements.

However, the indigenous organisations started suspecting him after Gutiérrez expressed his support for the presence of the strategic US presence in Manta. He also backed the continuation of the "dollarisation" process — where the national currency is artificially levelled with the US dollar, and supported the US administration's Free Trade Area of the Americas economic project, which would open Latin American markets and resources to US products and corporations while the US maintained its stamp duty and migration control against Latin American products and peoples.

New broom

One of the newly-named Ministers of Palacios' government, Mauricio Gándara, has criticised US interference in Ecuador. Responding to the statements of US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice pointing out to the need for fresh elections, Gándara response was that this is the responsibility of President Palacios and asked the US administration to respect the sovereignty of the country.

Gándara also clarified that Ecuador, which signed the Rome Treaty for the creation of an International Criminal Court to judges cases of genocide and human rights violations, will not grant immunity to US soldiers acting within the country's territory and that they will reconsider the US use of the base at Manta.

The Minister also announced a review of the continuation of the negotiations towards a Free Trade Agreement between Ecuador and the US, in a total u-turn of Gutiérrez's policies.

Broken promises

Gutiérrez, who routinely wore his army fatigues while campaigning in the 2002 elections, was compared in several occasions with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. However, when it came to the realisation of his policies, Gutiérrez showed he had little in common with the Venezuelan leader. During the campaign, he had promised to force the renegotiation of Ecuador's international debt repayments with the IMF to determine the country's real capacity for repayment. He also promised to fight against corruption. Two years later, little was left of his promises.

On Wednesday 20 April, 62 out of the 100 MPs that form the Ecuadorian Parliament met to decide whether they would maintain their support for Gutiérrez's government. Sixty voted against the president. Ramiro Rivera, one of the opposition MPs, summarised the reasons behind the parliament's decision when he said that Gutiérrez had "ignored the constitution" and interfered with other state powers, violating their independence.

Final straw

The final straw was Gutiérrez's decision to dismiss 30 judges of the Supreme Justice Court, as he believed they were linked to the opposition. He nominated the new judges to take over the positions, all of them supporters of the government, a clear violation of the independence of the judiciary.

After four months of discussion around the legality of this action, on 15 April Gutiérrez went ahead with the dismissal of the judges. Two days later, Parliament reversed the decision and took upon itself to reform the judicial system through independent and transparent methods, free from political intervention. However, despite the MPs' good intentions, the solution to the crisis has proved elusive, and the delay annoyed the citizens.

Citizens and political opposition questioned the legality of the decisions taken by the judges nominated by Gutiérrez, especially in relation to the cancellation of the trial against former Ecuadorian president Abdalá Bucaram, who was in power between 1996 and 1997, and who then returned to Ecuador after eight years of exile in Panama. Bucaram is a personal friend of Guillermo Castro, president of the tribunal that decided to cancel all judicial processes against the former president, who was charged with corruption. Citizens and opposition blamed Gutiérrez for the return of Bucaram to Ecuador.

At first, the civil protests asking for the resignation of the president took place outside the Supreme Court of Justice. Later, they took over the north and south of the city, spreading to the north and south of the country. The "rebellion of the bandits", as it was described by Gutiérrez, was led by the words of the community radio station Radio la Luna (Moon Radio), and as the protestors' anger grew, their criticism broadened to include those responsible for judicial, legislative and executive powers.

"All should go" was the slogan at the time, as it was in year 2001 in Argentina during the collapse of its neo-liberal economy. And Lucio went, as many of his predecessors in the Ecuadorian Presidency were forced to do before him.

Ecuador has had five presidents in the last eight years.

After the parliament voted to dismiss the president, members of Gutiérrez's government did not initially accept the decision, but the army's withdrawal of support for the administration signalled the beginning of the end for the disgraced president.

As soon as the Defence Minister, General Herrera, announced the decision to withdraw support to the government, soldiers abandoned their checkpoints everywhere, including the Presidential Palace.

Exiled

Initially, Gutiérrez tried to make his way to Panama. He left the presidential palace by helicopter, to the applause of those who were demonstrating outside the building, and arrived at Quito's Airport. However, the presence of demonstrators made it impossible for Gutiérrez to board a plane, and he was forced to make his way back by car into the city, where he applied for political asylum in the Brazilian Embassy, which was finally granted on Saturday 23 April. He arrived in Brazil on Sunday.


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