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“Loco” in the Andes — Ecuador, Democracy and Globalization

Can democratization in Latin America prevent the reemergence of dictatorship?

April 20, 2005

Can democratization in Latin America prevent the reemergence of dictatorship?

A national decree to suspend the constitution? A dictator in office? A former president in exile in Panama for corruption returned for 10 days and exiled again? Tens of thousands of protestors with banners reading “Fuera (Out)!” and pots and pans clanging in the streets for four days ending in the ouster of yet another president?

This may sound like the makings of a popular Latin American telenovela (soap opera), but it is politics as usual in the Andean nation of Ecuador.

There, the now ex-President Lucio Gutierrez, who was overthrown in a golpe de estado, called a state of emergency, dissolved the Supreme Court, suspended individual rights of assembly and free speech – and placed the military in charge of public order. In response to his marshal law decrees, thousands of Ecuadorians protested against him in the streets of Quito, overturning yet another presidential administration.

While globalization has been billed as a democratizing force throughout the world, the current crisis in Ecuador highlights the challenges of democracy in a multi-ethnic, less developed country that is beholden to the pressures of globalization.

Ecuador’s crisis also sheds light on the often-conflicting efforts of outside institutions seeking to help Ecuador. Their efforts may even be working in opposite directions.

Struggling with globalization

While permanent change and positive improvement is the long-term goal of these international institutions, their lack of coordination leads to specific stresses over short and medium term benefits.

On the one hand, while international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international inter-governmental organizations (IGOs) have provided funding and support to social organizations, particularly indigenous communities (which are 40% of the Ecuadorian population) – thus empowering them in the democratic system.

NGOs and Indians – A boomerang effect?

On the other hand, structural adjustment policies suggested by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) pressure government elites to implement socially unpopular policies, such as decreasing natural gas subsidies.

Ecuador’s current crisis is indicative of the struggles of the global populace within the process of globalization.

NGOs have been a powerful source of funding for indigenous communities in Ecuador. While these once resource-poor groups were invisible in national politics until a decade ago, they currently lead the opposition to President Gutierrez – in conjunction with left and right political parties.

Their representatives have held positions as high as the ministry level since the height of their international mobilization in the early and mid-1990s.

Oxfam America, Amazon Alliance, Rainforest Action Network (RAN), Earthrights International, the Inter-American Foundation and the UN Development Program’s Global Environmental Fund, in addition to IBIS Denmark, have all contributed to a plethora of programs in the Sierra and the Amazon.

Funding indigenous communities

The funds have been directed to both the local indigenous organizations and Ecuador’s national indigenous organization (CONAIE). These funds have ranged from $20,000.00 for a protest march of 10,000 Amazonian Indians to the capital city of Quito in 1992 to $1 million for bilingual education and cultural programs. Earthrights International even organizes an Amazon School for Human Rights and the Environment.

The transnational networks of NGO activists and indigenous leaders have empowered indigenous peoples within Ecuador’s democratic institutions, including the creation of their own political party (Pachakutik) in 1996, which by 2001 won 15% of the national vote.

The exile of Abdalà Bucaram

Under the leadership of the CONAIE in January and February 1997, thousands of citizens all over the country took to the streets protesting the alleged corrupt activities of then-President – Abdalá Bucaram.

Bucaram was charged for embezzlement of government funds and deemed mentally unfit to govern the country by the Congress in 1997. The recently ousted President, Lucio Gutierrez – and former head of security for Bucaram – meanwhile engaged in some peculiar shenanigans of his own.

Gutierrez, working in conjunction with the PRE (Roldosista Party), the second-largest political party in the Ecuadorian Congress, removed 27 of 31 Supreme Court judges. He replaced them with political and personal allies in order to facilitate a smooth homecoming for their friend and political ally.

A politically neutered Supreme Court

Obediently, the new Supreme Court annulled the corruption charges against Mr. Bucaram, paving the way for the charismatic PRE-leader to return to his patria and his city of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city and economic trading port. This ruling from a politically neutered Supreme Court ignited massive opposition to the Gutierrez regime.

The opposition to Gutierrez (which originally included some 10,000 protesters in the streets of Quito) argued that this new Supreme Court was unconstitutional and – that the president cannot change the rule of law to suit his fancy.

Gone Loco

However, responding to the outpouring of protest and international dissatisfaction with his Supreme Court replacement, former President Gutierrez dissolved the court entirely – which heightened the already unruly situation in this country.

“El Loco” is the nickname for former President Bucaram (now allegedly exiled in Venezuela after the overthrow of Gutierrez), who is known for his antics that range from singing on television to claiming that the Pope waited for him to return to Guayaquil before he died.

However, the word “loco” (crazy) befits this Andean country’s political dilemma – a combination of an exiled former president, a current president who led a coup in 2000, a vanishing Supreme Court, masses of civil protests in its streets, and now a government overthrow with an uncertain Supreme Court.

The current administration of Alfredo Palacio, former vice president under Lucio Gutierrez, has announced that it will review the Supreme Court and has issued prison orders for Lucio Gutierrez, Abala Bucaram, and other members of the Gutierrez administration.

Financial pressures and the democratic deficit

While the Supreme Court debacle angered the opposition, political tensions also derive from financial pressures on an indebted country.

For example, in 2000, former President Jamil Mahuad was overthrown by mass protests – led by indigenous organizations – against his proposed dollarization policy and the IMF-suggested structural reforms.

IMF policies

Mahuad had been caught in the torrent of pressure from above (the IMF and private investors) and from below (civil society, led by the indigenous rights movement).

IMF policies call for privatizing Ecuador’s social security system as well as structural reforms of the oil, electricity and financial sectors to encourage foreign investment.

Private companies, such as Citigroup, have added to this external pressure, by threatening to pull their investments from the country – noting a risky business environment and political instability.

While such reforms have been devised by the IMF and the Ecuadorian government, they failed to take into account the nearly 60% of its population that lives in poverty.

Civil Disobedience and government responsibility

While IMF experts and government elites seek a positive economic environment for growth within the country, they lack representation in their decision-making process of the diverse societal groups, which are directly affected by such adjustment policies.

The current outcry of massive civil disobedience illustrates the population’s response not only to the political maneuvers of the Gutierrez regime. They also underscore their call for inclusion within a global and national political process that they perceive as unrepresentative.

Calls from the global community

The global community – including the United Nations, the Organization of American States, Amnesty International, Transparency International and the U.S. government – called upon President Gutierrez to resume the rule of law and stabilize Ecuador’s democratic institutions. The OAS is currently reviewing the Ecuadorian crisis, in light of its new administration.

These pressures demonstrate the global nature of democratization, in which activists and institutions from outside Ecuador can impact its national policies and create political and social change. In fact, President Gutierrez, citing international pressures, revoked his state of emergency decree only hours after its inception. However, it was too late to calm the anger of the thousands of protesters who ousted him.

Are these opposing pressures new to democratization? No. However, the increase in NGO and IGO pressure, combined with the private authority of the financial sectors, has changed the dynamics of democratization for the lesser developed world.

Globalization of democracy?

Globalization may not be impeding the institutionalization of democracy in Ecuador.

But the current political crisis is a sign of the explosive pressures that make democracy in the age of globalization a challenge for both elites and the global pueblo – those peoples both inside and outside Ecuador who seek representation and justice within this tumultuous process.

Author’s note: Many thanks to Martin Acosta, professor of international relations at La Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador, for his insights on this article.