On January 26, up to 250,000 Ecuadorians marched in Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador. Their demands included an end to rampant corruption and crime, improved health and sanitation services, and the reinstatement of the Supreme Court, which was unceremoniously sacked on December 8 by a narrow majority of the Ecuadorian Congress.
The dismissal of the Supreme Court, a majority of whose presiding
judges were affiliated to the opposition Social-Christian Party (PSC),
was precipitated by Ecuadorian President Lucio Gutierrez accusing it of
favouring a PSC-led impeachment attempt against him last November.
Gutierrez has been under mounting pressure over the last year, as his
ruling alliance has been unravelling and he has been under pressure
from allegations of his involvement with drug-money and misuse of public
funds resurfacing. The action against the Supreme Court is widely
viewed as an unconstitutional power grab.
A former army colonel, Gutierrez came to power in early 2003 riding a
wave of anti-corruption sentiment. Self-styling himself an "Ecuadorian
Chavez", he espoused left-nationalist rhetoric and gained support for
his candidacy from the left: both the indigenous party Pachakutik (the
political wing of the indigenous federation CONAIE) and the Movement for
Popular Democracy (MPD), the front organisation for the Communist Party
of Ecuador (Marxist-Leninist) (PCMLE), backed him over the neoliberal
Alvaro Noboa, Ecuador's richest man.
Unlike Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, however, Gutierrez soon
revealed himself a puppet of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and
Washington. Gutierrez immediately increased military ties with the US,
embroiling Ecuador in "Plan Colombia", the US-inspired escalation of the
Colombian government's 40-year war against the Marxist guerrillas of
the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
In January last year, Ecuadoran and Colombian forces worked together
to capture FARC leader Ricardo Palmera (aka Simon Trinidad) in Quito.
Palmera has been subsequently extradited to the US and charged with
kidnapping and drug trafficking. This, along with the December
kidnapping in Caracas of another FARC leader (without the approval of
the Venezuelan government), has raised fears that Colombia and the US
intend to pursue their war on the FARC throughout Latin America.
Within 10 days of his election, Gutierrez had already visited the US
and pledged his support for the war on Iraq, and had deepened Ecuador's
indebtedness to the IMF by taking out a further US$205 million loan.
Gutierrez's privatisation of basic services has also sent costs
skyrocketing, and left 80% of the population in poverty. His government
is currently negotiating a free trade agreement with the US. Responding
to this right-wing shift, the MPD soon left the ruling alliance and
began calling for his overthrow.
Pachakutik followed when Gutierrez courted the right-wing PSC for
congressional support as his own Patriotic Society Party (PSP) rapidly
dissolved. His popularity has been plummeting ever since, amid
allegations of corruption, the intimidation of opposition figures, and
the violent suppression of media critical of the government, all of
which have increased dramatically.
On January 26, Leon Roldos, a former vice president, was hospitalised
after being beaten unconscious at Quito's Central University. Last
month, Roldos started a campaign to collect the 1.2 million signatures
needed to force a recall vote on Gutierrez, whose term otherwise runs
until January 2007.
Roldos is not the only opponent of Gutierrez to have been terrorised.
Lenin Cali Najera, national youth leader of Pachakutik, was gunned down
in Guayaquil last July, and Leonidas Iza, president of CONAIE, was
attacked upon returning from a conference in Cuba. Also, throughout the
last year, package bombs have been set off in radio and television
stations across Ecuador. The latest, on February 4, was a bomb hurled
into the Macas offices of Radio Canela, a station run by Wilson Cabrera,
a leader of the Citizens' Participation Movement, which is highly
critical of Gutierrez.
With no real political support, and rising discontent, Gutierrez has
begun to rely heavily upon his strong base in the military, sparking
fears that, as a graduate of Washington's notorious
terrorist-training-camp School of the Americas, he might launch a
military coup in order to maintain his grip on power. To entrench his
control of the military, Gutierrez has purged more than 100 officers
from the army.
During the January election of the Congress president, police stopped
some members of opposition parties from entering the legislature,
leading to accusations that Gutierrez is trying to institute a
'constitutional dictatorship', modelled on that of Alberto Fujimori in
Peru during the 1990s. Gutierrez seems to be attempting to develop
support in the traditional right-wing parties, his former opponents.
fired Supreme Court judges were replaced with members of PRIAN, the
party of Gutierrez' 2002 presidential rival Alvaro Noboa, and the
Roldosista Party (PRE), of ex-president Abdala Bucaram, who was fired in
1997 for "mental incapacity" and fled to Panama amidst allegations of
It is rumoured that Bucaram is planning a political comeback, and
that the Supreme Court action is designed to facilitate this. These
suspicions have been heightened by Gutierrez's connection with known
drug traffickers and Bucaram associates Luis and Cesar Fernandez, and
reinforced by a PRE-organised 10,000-strong counter-rally in support of
Gutierrez in Guayaquil on the day of the main march.
The nature of the main rally in Guayaquil reflects the sorry state of
the left in Ecuador. The rally was organised largely by the PSC,
despite the support of the more progressive Pachakutik and the presence
at the rally of more radical parts of society. Similarly, the
centre-left Democratic Left (ID), which along with the PSC dominates the
Congress, is trying to force early elections to get rid of Gutierrez.
By contrast, the MPD, arguably Ecuador's largest far-left party with
around 5% of the vote at the last election, has re-entered the alliance
with Gutierrez's government, and was responsible for introducing the
bill to dismiss the Supreme Court into Congress.
The MPD argues that greater danger lies in a PSC "coup" than in
Gutierrez's ongoing corrupt regime. While the left remains disunited,
and has lost much credibility from its support for Gutierrez's election,
the most effective opposition is coming from the right.
PSC mayor of Guayaquil Jaime Nebot, who led the January 26 march,
made calls for increased autonomy for the city, which is Ecuador's main
financial and banking centre. Playing on the rivalry between Guayaquil
and Quito, Nebot accused Gutierrez of neglecting vital security and
crime prevention services in the city and demanded the creation of a
private security force. However, he argued down the angry calls from the
crowd for Gutierrez's resignation and for full independence for
Nebot is the likely PSC candidate for next year's
presidential elections, and it is not in his interest to encourage
another mass uprising, such as those that overthrew the governments of
Bucaram in February of 1997, and of President Jamil Mahuad in January of
Such an event would inevitably strengthen the left, and may hinder
Nebot's chances of election. The PSC has seized the initiative, gaining
the support of the Catholic Church and preparing another protest on
February 17, alongside Pachakutik and the civil society groups Civic
Convergence and Citizen Participation.
Given that it is to the right of Gutierrez, the PSC will find it hard
to gain support on its policies alone. It is a symptom of how weak
traditional politics are in Ecuador that at the last election, both
leading candidates, including the wealthy businessman Noboa, campaigned
on anti-neoliberal platforms, tapping into the disillusionment of the
Ecuadorian people. For the PSC, or any other party, to topple Gutierrez
will require the support of the working people and indigenous movements,
which currently remain divided, both by ideology and politics.
The best hope, then, for the Ecuadorian people is if the left and
indigenous movements can unite and work together to create a real
alternative to the neoliberal politics of the established parties,
looking particularly to the example being built in Venezuela.
On January 18, Luis Macas, president of CONAIE, reasserted that
organisation's rejection of the US-Ecuador free trade agreement, saying
that the "US wants to turn this part of the continent on a certain kind
of garbage dump, and we will not to allow it".
Macas was equally critical of Gutierrez: "His plans are designed by
the International Monetary Fund and the local oligarchy". He also argued
the need to form a popular-alternative government that represents the
interest of the Ecuadorian people.
CONAIE has declared a "state of alert" regarding the US-Ecuador free
trade agreement, Plan Colombia and the increasing concentration of power
Gutierrez' hands, and has called for an escalation of opposition to the
First published in Green Left Weekly, February 16, 2005.