On April 13, thousands of Ecuadorians protesting in the capital Quito were violently attacked by riot police with tear gas. The protesters, led by unionists and students, blocked roads with burning tyres and shut down the centre of the city, demanding the resignation of President Lucio Gutierrez and the reinstatement of the Supreme Court judges sacked by the president last December.
Quito Mayor Paco Moncayo, leader of the opposition Democratic Left
Party (ID) and an organiser of the protest, ordered the closure of
public transport, municipal offices and schools, as protesters shouted
"Lucio out! Democracy, yes! Dictatorship, no!"
About 800 fully armed police and soldiers occupied the two blocks
around the presidential palace, erecting metal barriers and barbed wire
fencing across roadways.
This is just the latest in a wave of protests. On April 11, a group
of about 100 protesters from various social movements occupied the
nearby Metropolitan Cathedral. Despite being denied food and water, they
are refusing to leave until the former Supreme Court is reinstated.
The prefect for Pichincha province, which covers Quito, ID member
Ramiro Gonzalez, declared an indefinite strike from April 12, closing
roads — including the Pan-American Highway — businesses and the local
Roads were also blocked by demonstrations in the regions of Imbabura,
Cotopaxi, Tungurahua, Loja, Azuay and Canar, and the Confederation of
Indigenous Nations of Ecuador (CONAIE) occupied the education ministry
building in Quito.
Several union leaders were arrested in the demonstrations in Quito
and dozens were injured by police and asphyxiating tear gas in this
latest episode of Ecuador's rapidly deepening political crisis.
Misuse of power
In the aftermath of two enormous protests earlier this year,
Ecuador's volatile political landscape took an explosive turn on April
2, with the return of "flamboyant" ex-president Abdala Bucaram from an
eight-year exile in Panama.
Bucaram, known as "El Loco" ("the crazy one"), fled Ecuador in 1997 —
after only seven months in office — amidst accusations of corruption,
after the National Congress had deposed him on the grounds of "mental
Bucaram's return has been long expected. Gutierrez, who was military
attache during Bucaram's presidency, visited him in Panama in September.
Then late last year, Bucaram's Roldosista Party of Ecuador (PRE) helped
block an impeachment attempt against Gutierrez led by the ID and the
right-wing Social Christian Party (PSC).
In December, Gutierrez used a temporary majority in the Congress to
fire the Supreme Court and appoint new judges affiliated to parties
supportive of the president — mostly PRE and PRIAN, the party of Alvaro
Noboa, Ecuador's richest man and previous presidential candidate. The
majority of the sacked judges were associated with the PSC. Gutierrez
appointed Guillermo Castro, a long-time associate of Bucaram, as
president of the Supreme Court.
Finally, on March 31, Castro cleared Bucaram, as well as former
vice-president Alberto Dahik, and ex-President Gustavo Noboa, of
corruption charges, paving the way for their safe return to the country
and to politics.
The changes to the Supreme Court are widely believed to be
unconstitutional, a view supported by the United Nations in an April 4
United Nations Human Rights Commission report. The report also suggested
that the appointments to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the
Constitutional Court "show signs of illegality", and urges a restructure
of the legal system.
Gutierrez's attempts at legal reform have all failed to pass
Congress. The parliamentary opposition is instead calling for the
reinstatement of the previous judges and Gutierrez's resignation. On
April 5, several thousand people demonstrated outside the National
Congress against Bucaram's return and the abuse of the legal system, but
were dispersed with tear gas and police violence.
A revolution of the poor?
Bucaram's return has already had a resounding impact on Ecuadorian
politics. PRIAN, worried that a resurgent PRE would cut into its base,
declared it would no longer support Gutierrez in the National Congress.
PRIAN and PRE are both based in the coastal city of Guayaquil, making
them direct competitors.
Despite PRE's support, however, the government recently suffered an
overwhelming defeat in the vote on an economic reform bill supported by
the International Monetary Fund. Sixty-eight of the seventy-one members
of congress present voted against the bill, which advocated the
privatising of oil, water and the pensions sector.
Upon his return to Ecuador, Bucaram addressed a 20,000-strong rally
of supporters in Guayaquil. He highlighted the level of corruption and
poverty in Ecuador, declaring; "I come to Ecuador to copy Chavez's style
with a great Bolivarian revolution", referring to the leftist
Venezuelan president's movement, whose reforms include using some of
that country's oil wealth to fund massive social reforms, such as
literacy and health.
Ecuador, like Venezuela, has large oil reserves, but government
revenue is lost in the endemic corruption that plagues the country,
making such a policy a likely vote winner at the elections due for late
next year. The economy has long been a basket case, despite it's oil
resources and tourism industry. Approximately 50% of the annual GDP goes
towards repaying foreign loans. Unemployment is officially at 10%, but
close to 50% of the population lives in poverty.
Bucaram also voiced his opposition to a free trade agreement with the
US, and decried "the imposition of military bases" on Ecuador, a
reference to the illegal use by the US Air Force of the air base at
Manta (the only official US military base in South America) for
surveillance and spraying of lethal herbicides over southern Colombia.
However fine sounding, this rhetoric is not new to Ecuador. Gutierrez
came to power styling himself as an "Ecuadorian Chavez", and
immediately set about breaking all his left-wing promises. He allowed
the creation of US military camps in the border region with Colombia as
part of Plan Patriota (the extension of Plan Colombia — the US-backed
war against Colombia's Marxist guerrillas), signed a new IMF loan, and
began negotiating a free trade agreement with the US.
Subsequently, Gutierrez has lost most of his support. Only five
representatives of his Patriotic Society Party are now in Congress. A
poll cited in the April 12 Mercopress showed his credibility at
only 7%, with 58% of respondents saying his immediate resignation was
the way to resolve the crisis. He has been linked with drug-money, and
accused of misuse of public funds and of using violence to intimidate
While he is still making political alliances, Gutierrez's key support
comes from the military. A former colonel, Gutierrez has recently
reconsolidated his base in the army. When Moncayo, who was head of the
armed forces before he was Quito mayor, called upon the military not to
recognise Gutierrez's "corrupt and unconstitutional" government, the
armed forces responded with a warning that they would not tolerate
"anarchy" in the country and that "calls to rebellion are illegal".
Despite Gutierrez's unpopularity, the opposition groups have been
unable to offer a well-supported alternative. Moncayo has tried
unsuccessfully to play this role, but his party's support is limited to
the highland regions — although there are indications that the PSC,
based in Guayaquil on the coast, may be lending Moncayo, a celebrated
war hero, it's support for the next elections.
An alternative to neoliberalism
In contrast, CONAIE and other social movements appear to be moving
further away from an electoral focus, instead rebuilding the mass
Much to investors' dismay, the current crisis has awakened memories
of unrest that led to the ousting of elected presidents in 1997 and
2000, when workers and indigenous people overthrew the government by
force, and a similar perspective is returning.
CONAIE president Luis Macas has called for the Ecuadorian people to
come out and fight every day until "a true democracy" has been obtained,
and has started organising strikes, blockades and other protests
against the Gutierrez regime.
Macas makes it clear, however, that CONAIE will not associate with
any of the mainstream political parties, but intends to build a civic
alternative to the corruption of Ecuador's politics and it's neoliberal
On April 4, CONAIE convened an assembly of delegates from more than
60 groups, including Pachakutik, the Popular Front and the Ecuadorian
Revolutionary Youth. This assembly resolved to create an "Autonomous
Pole", an alliance of non-party political groups, to overthrow the
corrupt oligarchy and to construct a "true democratic government that
will represent all Ecuadorians".
The popular movement in Ecuador has taken up the slogan used by the piquetero
unemployed workers' movement in Argentina, "They all must go!", but it
is also looking to the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela for
inspiration, and as a warning of the struggles ahead.
First published in Green Left Weekly, April 20, 2005.