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27 January 2000 Edition

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Indigenous coup attempt in Ecuador

Ecuador is a very small and nearly unknown country in the north of South America. It is enduring, like its neighbouring countries, the effects of an acute economic crisis, the consequence of years of government mismanagement, aggravated by international debt and the effects of Hurricane Mitch.

Following the pattern of the rest of Latin America, Ecuador's indigenous population, which makes up 30% of the total population, has been largely ignored by the successive governments. Last week, however, these people decided to stand up for their rights.

Ecuador is one of the poorest countries in South America. The country's president, Jamil Mahuad, decided on 10 January that the only solution to the current economic debacle was the ``dollarisation'' of the economy by replacing the country's currency, the sucre, with the US dollar. This presidential decision was the last straw for indigenous people. Under the leadership of Antonio Vargas, they marched to the capital city, Quito. Their demands transcended, for the first time, purely social, ethnic or cultural issues to focus on the creation of a platform to lead the country.

Until now, indigenous insurrections had a social character. In the 1990s, their demands were for water and land, and they got them. In 1992, the Indians marched for the ownership of their land, and now the Amazonia belongs to them. Two years later, they rejected a land reform proposal drafted to favour big landowners. They won again. In 1999, they protested against the increase of petrol prices, with limited success.

Their intentions now, however, are political and they wanted, and still want, a `people's government'.

The events of last week have focused international attention on Ecuador. On 19 January, more than 25,000 indigenous people gathered in Quito. They demanded the resignation of President Mahuad. The next day, thousands of Indians stormed into the country's congressional building. The army did not intervene. The demonstrators, led by Antonio Vargas, the president of the Indigenous Nationalities Federation, accompanied by a hundred low ranking officers under the command of Colonel Lucio Gutierrez, proclaimed the dissolution of Parliament, Government and Courts.

Lucio Gutierrez was an unknown figure two weeks ago, but his decision to take arms in favour of the poorest of the poor, the Indians, has turned him into a mythical figure. Some want to compare him with Hugo Chaves, the elected president of Venezuela. There is a new trend among army officers in Latin America, called ``populismo''. This entails embracing indigenous heritage and patriotic values and supporting an end to US military influence in South America. The Pentagon is losing its grasp on the region, especially on those army officers who have direct contact with their soldiers.

A `junta' to run the country was created, headed by Vargas, Gutierrez and Carlos Solórzano, the former president of the country's Constitutional Tribunal. They wanted to overthrown Mahuad, who they thought to be the responsible for the economic crisis in Ecuador. It was at this point that General Carlos Mendoza, the minister of Defence in Mahuad's government, decided to back the new Junta. Mendoza came in to substitute Gutierrez, and he was only too happy to share the reigns of power. But only three hours later, after a meeting with the US ambassador in Ecuador, Mendoza resigned and forced the end of the power-sharing executive.

The military and the Congress decided against reinstalling Mahuad, opting instead yo install his vice-president, a 61-year-old lawyer called Gustavo Noboa, who has pledged to fight corruption while implementing exactly the same economic plan that caused the indigenous rebellion.

Today, Vargas is on the run and Colonel Lucio Gutierrez has been put in an army prison. Vargas said that one of the reasons for the failure of the indigenous rebellion was ``the lack of an armed organisation to defend our struggle''. He warned that this is not the end of the Indians' fight for their rights and needs. ``We will see social unrest, a civil war, if there is no change in government policy,'' he warned.


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