Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Ecuador: Mass protests drive president from power

After four months of mounting political pressure and constitutional crisis, the people of Ecuador have driven President Lucio Gutierrez from office. In the face of unstoppable mass protest, and growing calls for the dissolution of Congress and establishment of popular assemblies, Ecuador's right-wing Congress abandoned Gutierrez, leaving vice-president Alfredo Palacio to assume the role.

Gutierrez was overwhelmingly elected in late 2002, on a campaign supported by the left. Styling himself an "Ecuadorian Chavez", he promised to destroy corruption in Ecuador, remove the contentious United States military presence at the Eloy Alfaro Air Base, and free the country from neoliberalism. Gutierrez had supported the 2000 uprising, led by indigenous groups, that overthrew a corrupt president.

Like most Latin Americans, Ecuadorians have been hit hard by neoliberal economic policies pushed by the US and international financial institutions, including privatisation of basic services that has led to increases in the cost of living; and increased debt that imposes crippling repayments. These policies have increased the economic and political subordination of the country to the US, which has strengthened support for left-nationalism.

Upon his election, however, Gutierrez quickly revealed himself as another US puppet, increasing US military ties; embroiling Ecuador in Plan Colombia (the Washington-Bogota-led war on Colombian left-wing insurgents); increasing Ecuador's IMF debt; supporting the war on Iraq; privatising basic services; agreeing to negotiate a free trade agreement with the US; and approving oil exploration in indigenous and environmentally protected areas.

 
As his popularity plummeted, and his attempts to replace fleeing left-wing allies with right-wing ones were largely unsuccessful, Gutierrez began to act increasingly autocratically.

The current crisis was sparked by his sacking of the Supreme Court in December, using a slim Congress majority. The old court was dominated by opposition parties — notably the right-wing Social Christian Party (PSC) and centre-left Democratic Left (ID).

The new president of the court that Gutierrez appointed, Guillermo Castro, then cleared former president, and Gutierrez's ally, Abdala Bucaram, of corruption charges, allowing him to return on April 2 from eight years of exile in Panama. Bucaraum's populist Roldosista Party (PRE) then provided Gutierrez with support in Congress. 

A country fed up

On April 13, a general strike called by Quito mayor and ID leader Paco Moncayo condemned the Supreme Court sacking, and called for Gutierrez's resignation. Although poorly attended, the protests were violently dispersed early in the day by police.

As the news of the police repression spread, an independent Quito radio station, La Luna, invited listeners to speak their mind on air. A spontaneous outpouring of mostly young, middle-class Ecuadorians hit the airwaves, frustrated by decades of political corruption and nepotism. Callers condemned not only Gutierrez — who had called the protesters forajidos (outlaws) — but the political system as whole, and called on the people of Quito to protest.

By that evening, 5000 people gathered together, banging pots and pans. This was followed nightly by ever larger demonstrations, calling for Gutierrez's resignation and the dissolution of the whole Congress, which one banner described as a "nest of rats". Adopting the president's slur as a badge, protesters produced numbered "forajido certificates", as well as placards, T-shirts and posters.

La Luna and a few other radio stations, rather than political parties, became rallying points as young people, families and pensioners used them to incite their neighbours to join the protests.

Attempting to calm things down with a carrot and a stick, Gutierrez dissolved the new Supreme Court on April 15 and declared a state of emergency in Quito, suspending civil rights and mobilising the armed forces.

To many it seemed Gutierrez was assuming dictatorial powers. Gutierrez was forced to lift the state of emergency the following day, as protests swelled, and spread to the city of Cuenca. Students from Cuenca University commandeered buses to blockade roads and highways and threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at police and tanks.

Sections of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador (CONAIE) organised road blockades in other areas in Ecuador, and its national president Luis Macas called for a national mobilisation, blockading the roads in many areas, and bringing out demonstrators in several small cities. While CONAIE led the 2000 uprising, it's popularity has since suffered because of its earlier support for Gutierrez.

When former CONAIE president Antonio Vargas, a veteran of the 2000 uprising, declared his support for Gutierrez, he was expelled from CONAIE. Threatening to set up a rival indigenous organisation, he claimed he would bring busloads of armed Gutierrez supporters to Quito to combat the demonstrations.

In Quito, the situation was deteriorating rapidly. Police tear-gassed protesters, badly injuring dozens. On April 19, Chilean-born journalist Julio Garcia died from asphyxiation after being tear-gassed.

That night, the protests escalated. Up to 30,000 people engaged in street battles with the police until 3am. Thousands of riot police, with armoured vehicles, dogs, horses and tear-gas were used to disperse the demonstrators, some of whom managed to break through the encirclement of troops and razor-wire that surrounded the presidential palace. More than 100 people were wounded, and dozens arrested.

The next afternoon, led by 30,000 high school and university students, 100,000 Ecuadorians descended on the presidential palace chanting "Lucio out" and "They all must go!". Police attacked the protesters as Gutierrez moved to fortify the building with razor-wire and a brigade of Special Forces. In other parts of the city, Gutierrez supporters clashed with the protesters.

Several thousand paid government supporters were brought to Quito, where they occupied the social welfare ministry, shooting at the crowds and killing two students. In response, the building was ransacked and set ablaze by the angry crowd.

As protesters prevented them from entering the Congress building, 62 opposition legislators from the 100-strong Congress held an emergency session that afternoon in the CIESPAL building. After deposing the speaker, a PRE member, and appointing a member of the right-wing PSC to the post, the meeting voted 60-0 with two abstentions to fire Gutierrez for "abandoning his post" and replace him with Palacio, a long-time critic of the president.

The Congress invoked constitutional article 167, which was used to fire Bucaram for "mental incapacity" in 1997. Many of the absent members of Congress labelled the decision unconstitutional. Gutierrez refused to accept the decision, arguing that a two-thirds majority of Congress members had to vote for it for it to be valid. He refused to resign, even as the army deserted him, and the Quito chief of police resigned rather than be responsible for the police repression.

Finally, surrounded by tens of thousands of angry protesters, the disgraced leader fled from the roof of the palace in a military helicopter, and headed to the international airport. However, his plane was unable to leave, because 3000 protesters charged out onto the tarmac.

Forced back into his helicopter, Gutierrez headed to the Brazilian embassy. By now, an arrest warrant had been issued against him for "major offences", and Brazil had offered asylum. There he has remained, with the new government unable to secure him passage out of the country. 

Popular assemblies?

Meanwhile, Palacio went to address the hundreds picketing the CIESPAL building. Calling for the nation to be "refounded" with a referendum to create a new constitution, he refused to call new elections before those scheduled for the end of 2006.

The crowd responded by drowning him out with chants of, "Popular assemblies!", "Thieves! Dissolve the congress!", and "They all must go!".

While Palacio is regarded as a left-wing opponent to Gutierrez, and has been promising to move away from neoliberalism, the Congress as a whole is generally regarded as even more corrupt than Gutierrez, and is certainly more right-wing.

The protesters prevented Palacio from leaving, demanding the resignation of the congress and the new president, yelling that they would not be fooled. They stormed the building, chasing the legislators out the side entrances, injuring several, and occupied the building. 

They then convened a"popular assembly" to debate solutions to Ecuador's legal and political crisis. Resolving to create similar assemblies across the country in the lead-up to a national assembly, they demanded the government break with Plan Colombia, declare a 10-year moratorium on repayment of foreign debt, and expel US marines from the Manta air base. 

International reaction

The response by Latin American governments to the events was initially cautious — not surprising given the number of them that are afraid of being overthrown, either by a left-wing uprising or by a right-wing US-backed coup.

Cuba was one of the first to respond, President Fidel Castro commenting on April 19 that it was "not unexpected" that Gutierrez had fallen, given his support for imperialism. Cuban newspaper Granma International pointed out on February 21 that the protesters demands for dissolving the Congress had not been met. Cuba's Prensa Latina news service added on the same day that Palacio could also be "ousted by the people" if he did not "pass the governability test".

On April 20, Venezuelan foreign minister Nicolas Madure said that Venezuela viewed the overthrow "with sadness", but that it was a "consequence of the pact that [Gutierrez] did with the international financial elite". The Bolivian Movement for Socialism has also welcomed the change of government.

On April 22, the Brazilian foreign minister told the media that the offer of asylum to Gutierrez was motivated by a desire for "stability", not by "sympathy".

Washington, which had supported Gutierrez right until the Congress decision, has refused to recognise the new government. On April 21, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice called for "a constitutional process to lead to elections".

International economic markets went wobbly on April 20, when Palacio appointed a known anti-neoliberal as finance minister, and others reputedly hostile to Washington to cabinet posts, but Palacio was quick to reassure international capital. On April 22, he told reporters that he would keep paying the nation's debts while investing more in education, health and the oil industry, and would also negotiate a free trade agreement with the US.

Meanwhile, smaller scale protests continue. On April 22, thousands of forajidos marched peacefully to demand "dignity and sovereignty", in a reference to fears that there would be attempts to reinstate Gutierrez from outside Ecuador. The Brazilian embassy has had small numbers of protesters outside it demanding Gutierrez's arrest.


First published in Green Left Weekly, April 27, 2005.

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