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Coup parade

Ecuador | Middle-class protesters broaden the base of Ecuador's discontent

Issue: "John Bolton: Take cover!," May 7, 2005

Ecuadorian presidents are learning to tread softly or risk ouster. Lucio Gutierrez became the latest casualty two weeks ago, the third president kicked out since 1997. With seven presidents altogether in the last nine years, Ecuadorians are returning to long-held skepticism about their oft-corrupt government.

"The mood now returns to what it was before-very low confidence in public institutions," said Ralph Kurtenbach, a journalist with HCJB Radio in Ecuador. "I know this from talking with taxi drivers who say of the politicians, 'Each one is a bigger thief than the last one.'"

Discontent with Mr. Gutierrez went up last November when he seized too much power. He survived an impeachment attempt with the help of a previously exiled president, Abdala Bucaram. In return, Mr. Gutierrez helped Mr. Bucaram-also known as El Loco, or "the Madman"-escape corruption charges by packing the Supreme Court with his own justices.

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In mid-April Mr. Gutierrez tried to placate growing anger by dismissing that court altogether. He declared a state of emergency to stop demonstrations. That only fueled protester fury as tens of thousands defied the ban and thronged the streets in Quito and the coastal city of Guayaquil, banging pots, honking horns, and chanting "Lucio out!"

After eight days of protests, Congress removed Mr. Gutierrez from the presidency on April 20. Brazil granted him asylum on April 24, and he hunkered for days in its Quito embassy compound. Protesters blocked the exit blowing whistles, waving flags, and even toilet-papering trees.

Despite demands that he be brought to trial, Ecuador finally let Mr. Gutierrez flee to Brazil. There ended the tenure of a political survivor but longtime outsider: Indigenous Indian and poor supporters helped him into office in 2003, but he alienated them while never winning the political elite.

Public cynicism is making a cautious leader of newly installed president Alfredo Palacio, a cardiologist. Reforms pressed by one of Ecuador's main lenders, the International Monetary Fund, have led to disenchantment among the country's poor. Mr. Palacio said the nation's "social debt"-such as doctors' salaries-must now be paid before its foreign debt. He has also promised that concessions to international oil companies will end.

"Because of Ecuador's poor, populism thrives here," Mr. Kurtenbach said. Power usually ends up in the hands of the elites, said Mr. Kurtenbach, a longtime U.S. resident in Quito, but "there are the powerful exceptions because political promises still mean something to desperate people. In many ways, Lucio Gutierrez was not left enough for Ecuador's poor . . . his successor is acutely aware of that."

While Mr. Palacio has made moves toward the left, the need to reassure investors and businesses might make him more prudent. The perennial problem, says local analyst Dora Ampuero, is little rule of law, which fosters corruption. "We have taken such a hard road. It seems like when you start doing this kind of thing you do it over and over," said Ms. Ampuero, director of the Ecuadorian Institute for Political Economy.

Climbing out of the rut will not be easy when all three branches of Ecuador's government are compromised. "What we're facing now is really the fault of many years of the same thing," Ms. Ampuero said. "It really takes time to educate people on the role of government and the role of individuals."

One hopeful sign in the most recent ouster is that the ordinary middle class dominated the demonstrations. In the past, leftists have directed such protests. A radio station called La Luna served as the crucial forum for months as citizens called in and brainstormed about ways to protest. The result was a show of people power that was largely civil.

For now Ms. Ampuero hopes the new president will last at least until next year's election. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made Ecuador a priority during her first tour of Latin America last month. With democracy at the top of Washington's foreign policy list, Ecuadorians like Ms. Ampuero say now is the time for the United States to press harder for honest government.

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