Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Ecuador: 250,000 march against corruption

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. 

The 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 corruption.

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.

Disunited left

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 Guayaquil. 

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 2000.
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 government.

First published in Green Left Weekly, February 16, 2005.

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