Ecuador: People Drive Out President
by Duroyan Fertl
Green Left Weekly
ZNet, April 25, 2005
After four months of mounting political
pressure and constitutional crisis, the people of Ecuador have
driven President Lucio Gutierrez from office. In the face of unstoppable
mass protest, and growing calls for the dissolution of Congress
and establishment of popular assemblies, Ecuador's right-wing
Congress abandoned Gutierrez, leaving vice-president Alfredo Palacio
to assume the role.
Gutierrez was overwhelmingly elected
in late 2002, on a campaign supported by the left. Styling himself
an "Ecuadorian Chavez", he promised to destroy corruption
in Ecuador, remove the contentious United States military presence
at the Eloy Alfaro Air Base, and free the country from neoliberalism.
Gutierrez had supported the 2000 uprising, led by indigenous groups,
that overthrew a corrupt president.
Like most Latin Americans, Ecuadorians
have been hit hard by neoliberal economic policies pushed by the
US and international financial institutions, including privatisation
of basic services that has led to increases in the cost of living;
and increased debt that imposes crippling repayments. These policies
have increased the economic and political subordination of the
country to the US, which has strengthened support for left-nationalism.
Upon his election, however, Gutierrez
quickly revealed himself as another US puppet, increasing US military
ties; embroiling Ecuador in Plan Colombia (the Washington-Bogota-led
war on Colombian left-wing insurgents); increasing Ecuador's IMF
debt; supporting the war on Iraq; privatising basic services;
agreeing to negotiate a free trade agreement with the US; and
approving oil exploration in indigenous and environmentally protected
As his popularity plummeted, and his
attempts to replace fleeing left-wing allies with right-wing ones
were largely unsuccessful, Gutierrez began to act increasingly
The current crisis was sparked by his
sacking of the Supreme Court in December, using a slim Congress
majority. The old court was dominated by opposition parties -
notably the right-wing Social Christian Party (PSC) and centre-left
Democratic Left (ID).
The new president of the court that Gutierrez
appointed, Guillermo Castro, then cleared former president, and
Gutierrez's ally, Abdala Bucaram, of corruption charges, allowing
him to return on April 2 from eight years of exile in Panama.
Bucaraum's populist Roldosista Party (PRE) then provided Gutierrez
with support in Congress.
A country fed up On April 13, a general
strike called by Quito mayor and ID leader Paco Moncayo condemned
the Supreme Court sacking, and called for Gutierrez's resignation.
Although poorly attended, the protests were violently dispersed
early in the day by police.
As the news of the police repression
spread, an independent Quito radio station, La Luna, invited listeners
to speak their mind on air. A spontaneous outpouring of mostly
young, middle-class Ecuadorians hit the airwaves, frustrated by
decades of political corruption and nepotism. Callers condemned
not only Gutierrez - who had called the protesters forajidos (outlaws)
- but the political system as whole, and called on the people
of Quito to protest.
By that evening, 5000 people gathered
together, banging pots and pans. This was followed nightly by
ever larger demonstrations, calling for Gutierrez's resignation
and the dissolution of the whole Congress, which one banner described
as a "nest of rats". Adopting the president's slur as
a badge, protesters produced numbered "forajido certificates",
as well as placards, T-shirts and posters.
La Luna and a few other radio stations,
rather than political parties, became rallying points as young
people, families and pensioners used them to incite their neighbours
to join the protests.
Attempting to calm things down with a
carrot and a stick, Gutierrez dissolved the new Supreme Court
on April 15 and declared a state of emergency in Quito, suspending
civil rights and mobilising the armed forces.
To many it seemed Gutierrez was assuming
dictatorial powers. Gutierrez was forced to lift the state of
emergency the following day, as protests swelled, and spread to
the city of Cuenca. Students from Cuenca University commandeered
buses to blockade roads and highways and threw rocks and Molotov
cocktails at police and tanks.
Sections of the Confederation of Indigenous
Nations of Ecuador (CONAIE) organised road blockades in other
areas in Ecuador, and its national president Luis Macas called
for a national mobilisation, blockading the roads in many areas,
and bringing out demonstrators in several small cities. While
CONAIE led the 2000 uprising, it's popularity has since suffered
because of its earlier support for Gutierrez.
When former CONAIE president Antonio
Vargas, a veteran of the 2000 uprising, declared his support for
Gutierrez, he was expelled from CONAIE. Threatening to set up
a rival indigenous organisation, he claimed he would bring busloads
of armed Gutierrez supporters to Quito to combat the demonstrations.
In Quito, the situation was deteriorating
rapidly. Police tear-gassed protesters, badly injuring dozens.
On April 19, Chilean-born journalist Julio Garcia died from asphyxiation
after being tear-gassed.
That night, the protests escalated. Up
to 30,000 people engaged in street battles with the police until
3am. Thousands of riot police, with armoured vehicles, dogs, horses
and tear-gas were used to disperse the demonstrators, some of
whom managed to break through the encirclement of troops and razor-wire
that surrounded the presidential palace. More than 100 people
were wounded, and dozens arrested.
The next afternoon, led by 30,000 high
school and university students, 100,000 Ecuadorians descended
on the presidential palace chanting "Lucio out" and
"They all must go!". Police attacked the protesters
as Gutierrez moved to fortify the building with razor-wire and
a brigade of Special Forces. In other parts of the city, Gutierrez
supporters clashed with the protesters.
Several thousand paid government supporters
were brought to Quito, where they occupied the social welfare
ministry, shooting at the crowds and killing two students. In
response, the building was ransacked and set ablaze by the angry
As protesters prevented them from entering
the Congress building, 62 opposition legislators from the 100-strong
Congress held an emergency session that afternoon in the CIESPAL
building. After deposing the speaker, a PRE member, and appointing
a member of the right-wing PSC to the post, the meeting voted
60-0 with two abstentions to fire Gutierrez for "abandoning
his post" and replace him with Palacio, a long-time critic
of the president.
The Congress invoked constitutional article
167, which was used to fire Bucaram for "mental incapacity"
in 1997. Many of the absent members of Congress labelled the decision
unconstitutional. Gutierrez refused to accept the decision, arguing
that a two-thirds majority of Congress members had to vote for
it for it to be valid. He refused to resign, even as the army
deserted him, and the Quito chief of police resigned rather than
be responsible for the police repression.
Finally, surrounded by tens of thousands
of angry protesters, the disgraced leader fled from the roof of
the palace in a military helicopter, and headed to the international
airport. However, his plane was unable to leave, because 3000
protesters charged out onto the tarmac.
Forced back into his helicopter, Gutierrez
headed to the Brazilian embassy. By now, an arrest warrant had
been issued against him for "major offences", and Brazil
had offered asylum. There he has remained, with the new government
unable to secure him passage out of the country.
Popular assemblies? Meanwhile, Palacio
went to address the hundreds picketing the CIESPAL building. Calling
for the nation to be "refounded" with a referendum to
create a new constitution, he refused to call new elections before
those scheduled for the end of 2006.
The crowd responded by drowning him out
with chants of, "Popular assemblies!", "Thieves!
Dissolve the congress!", and "They all must go!".
While Palacio is regarded as a left-wing
opponent to Gutierrez, and has been promising to move away from
neoliberalism, the Congress as a whole is generally regarded as
even more corrupt than Gutierrez, and is certainly more right-wing.
The protesters prevented Palacio from
leaving, demanding the resignation of the congress and the new
president, yelling that they would not be fooled. They stormed
the building, chasing the legislators out the side entrances,
injuring several, and occupied the building. They then convened
a"popular assembly" to debate solutions to Ecuador's
legal and political crisis. Resolving to create similar assemblies
across the country in the lead-up to a national assembly, they
demanded the government break with Plan Colombia, declare a 10-year
moratorium on repayment of foreign debt, and expel US marines
from the Manta air base.
International reaction The response by
Latin American governments to the events was initially cautious
- not surprising given the number of them that are afraid of being
overthrown, either by a left-wing uprising or by a right-wing
Cuba was one of the first to respond,
President Fidel Castro commenting on February 19 that it was "not
unexpected" that Gutierrez had fallen, given his support
for imperialism. Cuban newspaper Granma International pointed
out on February 21 that the protesters demands for dissolving
the Congress had not been met. Cuba's Prensa Latina news service
added on the same day that Palacio could also be "ousted
by the people" if he did not "pass the governability
On February 20, Venezuelan foreign minister
Nicolas Madure said that Venezuela viewed the overthrow "with
sadness", but that it was a "consequence of the pact
that [Gutierrez] did with the international financial elite".
The Bolivian Movement for Socialism has also welcomed the change
On February 22, the Brazilian foreign
minister told the media that the offer of asylum to Gutierrez
was motivated by a desire for "stability", not by "sympathy".
Washington, which had supported Gutierrez
right until the Congress decision, has refused to recognise the
new government. On February 21, secretary of state Condoleezza
Rice called for "a constitutional process to lead to elections".
International economic markets went wobbly
on February 20, when Palacio appointed a known anti-neoliberal
as finance minister, and others reputedly hostile to Washington
to cabinet posts, but Palacio was quick to reassure international
capital. On April 22, he told reporters that he would keep paying
the nation's debts while investing more in education, health and
the oil industry, and would also negotiate a free trade agreement
with the US.
Meanwhile, smaller scale protests continue.
On April 22, thousands of forajidos marched peacefully to demand
"dignity and sovereignty", in a reference to fears that
there would be attempts to reinstate Gutierrez from outside Ecuador.
The Brazilian embassy has had protesters outside it demanding
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