Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Ecuador's elite creates 'smokescreen' for FTAA entry

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 his resignation.

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 sedition.

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 institutionalised discrimination.

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.

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