In the last couple of weeks, Ecuador's fragile democracy has threatened once again to come apart at the seams. On October 20, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) ruled that President Alfredo Palacio's call to hold a referendum in December to elect a constituent assembly to amend the country's constitution was illegal.
However, responding to massive public opposition to the ruling,
Palacio has insisted on going ahead with both the referendum and
constituent assembly, sparking calls from the hostile legislature for
According to Prensa Latina news agency, on October 22 Palacio refused
to back down, telling a meeting with representatives of popular
organisations that the "proposed assembly is irreversible, inevitable,
necessary and perfectible".
The convening of a constituent assembly was one of the demands that
Palacio, a retired cardiologist and former vice-president, promised to
carry out in the wake of the mass protests that led the Congress in
April to remove from office President Lucio Gutierrez and replace him
with then vice-president Palacio.
However, like promised referenda on the presence of US troops at the
Eloy Alfaro Air Base at Manta, and a looming free trade agreement with
the US, Palacio's commitment to the constituent assembly has, until now,
been largely rhetorical.
Without a real power base, he has been constrained by the country's
crippling foreign debt — servicing of which absorbed 22% of Ecuador's
export earnings last year — and a Congress controlled by the traditional
parties, all of whom are implicated in the endemic corruption of
Ecuadorian capitalist politics.
Palacio's inability to bring about the changes sought by the majority
of Ecuadorians, 60% of whom live below the official poverty line,
combined with multiple resignations from his cabinet, many resulting
from accusations of corruption, have caused his popularity to plummet.
One spark for his newly declared resolve may have been the return
from Colombia of former president Lucio Gutierrez on October 15. He
refused to recognise the legitimacy of Palacio's government and demanded
that he be reinstated as president, and was immediately arrested for
Gutierrez, who once described himself both as a "dictocrat" and
Washington's "best friend" in the region, has just published a book,
titled The Coup, in which he tries to blame his overthrow on Cuban President Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Gutierrez is an enthusiastic supporter of the US rulers and the
Colombian elite in their 40-year war against the Colombian left-wing
guerrillas and, like Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, has been accused
of having of ties with drug cartels.
While Gutierrez was elected on left-wing policies, he betrayed them
almost immediately after taking office in order to gain the backing of
the US and the corrupt Ecuadorian business elite.
Part of the reason for the popular revolt that led to his ousting was
Gutierrez' declaration of a state of emergency, during which his
government forcibly dissolved the country's Supreme Court.
Many groups, particularly those representing Ecuador's indigenous
Amerindians, who make up 40% of the country's 13 million inhabitants,
view the proposal to elect a constituent assembly to redraft the
country's constitution as an opportunity to overcome centuries of
On October 27, Luis Macas, the president of the Confederation of
Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), issued a media statement
denouncing the decision of the TSE, which is also dominated by the
traditional parties of the elite.
Macas said the decision was part of a secret pact between these
parties and Palacio to create a "smokescreen" to divert public attention
away from Ecuador's joining of the US-backed Free Trade Area of the
Americas (FTAA), due to be signed on November 22.
The CONAIE has opposed Ecuador's entry into the FTAA, arguing it will
further entrench the country's economic domination by US corporations
and its political subservience to Washington.
First published in Green Left Weekly, November 2, 2005.