Formula for disaster

International | With economic woe and natural disaster looming, Ecuador plucks a leader from jaws of political defeat

Issue: "Cuban conundrum," Feb. 5, 2000

For more than a year, Ecuadorians have lived in the shadow of economic uncertainty and volcanic distress. Inflation last year ran at 60 percent; Ecuador's currency, the sucre, suffered a series of devaluations and slid to a new low in January, when it was devalued 20 percent. To these, add two recently reignited volcanoes within hailing distance of the tiny South American country's largest population centers. Under the circumstances, political instability was just background noise. That was until Jan. 20, when Indian activists stormed the congressional building and the presidential palace in Quito, and-together with a key military leader and a judge-took over the government. The coup came after days of street demonstrations. Over 10,000 Indians, members of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), occupied central parts of the capital city, demanding the resignation of President Jamil Mahuad because of worsening economic conditions. Ecuador's Indians-long disenfranchised and poverty stricken-enjoyed a euphoric moment of triumph when the nation's top general, Carlos Mendoza, echoed their demand that Mr. Mahuad leave office. Mr. Mahuad says he was forced from office (some reports say he resigned). Gen. Mendoza joined the uprising's ad-hoc ruling committee and briefly ruled the country, but soon the general also resigned. Several reports said he quit under U.S. pressure to maintain the elected government, and a State Department threat to cut off U.S. foreign aid. After the briefest of military regimes, the country returned to civilian rule. On Jan. 22, in emergency session, Ecuador's Congress turned over power to Mr. Mahuad's vice president, Gustavo Noboa. The legislature ruled that the president had abandoned office, and that Mr. Noboa, a 62-year-old college professor, should replace him and serve out the president's term, which ends in 2003. He became Ecuador's fifth president in three years. Ecuador's problems are manifold, ranging from an infrastructure damaged by El Niño floods to Latin America's highest inflation and unemployment rates. Mr. Noboa's negotiating abilities look like what may be needed to unify a nation known for intense regionalism and what some refer to as political cannibalism. Indian activists are calling the maneuver a betrayal. Antonio Vargas, a leader of CONAIE, pledged more protests, claiming that the nation is on the verge of a civil war. Mr. Noboa said he sympathized with the poverty and injustice felt by the Indians, "but in tactics, they erred." A political independent, Mr. Noboa was for 10 years president of Catholic University of Guayaquil. He was also governor of Ecuador's coastal Guayas province. A gifted communicator, he was successful during Mr. Mahuad's 17-month rule in peace negotiations with neighboring Peru, after decades of tension and conflict. "My profound conviction as a Christian permits me to hope that with God's help, Ecuadorians can begin the march toward better days," he told his countrymen soon after taking office. He conceded that the country has many problems and a bad track record, but asked for trust and time. "Who hasn't had problems and gotten ahead," he said. "Why not us?" In a speech after the vote that made him president, Mr. Noboa said he would maintain a state of emergency throughout the country and keep his predecessor's controversial economic program, which includes replacing the local currency with the U.S. dollar. Unions, laborers, and indigenous groups like the Indians oppose the currency replacement. But Mr. Noboa says it is the only way to stabilize the economy and attract foreign investors. Already many Ecuadorians show signs of severe economic stress, even hunger. The situation is "grave," according to Dan Batchelor, a missionary with the International Mission Board of Southern Baptists from Alabama. "Prices are going up on all consumable goods and folks are hurting," he said. A year ago, average monthly wages equalled about $100. With devaluation, it is $23. Unemployment is roughly 70 percent. Many Ecuadorians are out of work because of the yearlong currency slide and the freezing of bank accounts during a bank panic a year ago. Volcanic eruptions (see sidebar) have led to the evacuation of small communities near Quito and the tourist town of Banos. This disruption has meant loss of jobs, destruction of livestock, and abandonment of farmland, bringing further economic problems. Ecuadorian Carmen Reinosa, who works with HCJB radio and Latin American Mission, said members of her church, Inaquito Evangelical Church, one of Quito's largest evangelical congregations, are volunteering with medical attention and job-hunting help for those in need. Other churches are making plans to distribute food, according to Mr. Batchelor, as they anticipate more hardships to come.

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