The Next Domino to Fall?

April 24, 2005 11:19 | by Larry Birns and Sarah Schaffer

With a Freshly-Minted President, Ecuador Could be the Next Member of Latin America's New Left Coalition

In a special session on Wednesday, 20th April, Ecuador's congress voted unanimously to remove President Lucio Gutiérrez from office, passing the leadership baton to Vice President Alfredo Palacio, who conceivably will have the proper vision to get the job done. Ecuador could become the next member of the new left movement that is sweeping across South America if the local indigenous communities are allowed to help fill the country's new political vacuum. Such a move could spill over to Mexico in next year's presidential election, further isolating Washington and forcing it to rely increasingly on its Central American Banana Republic servitors. Ecuador represents one more defeat for US Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega's Latin America policy.

Ecuadorian civil society has never had qualms about holding its elected officials directly accountable. In the past decade alone, the population of this small, poor South American country has toppled three presidents for failing to deliver on promises of social justice, economic and political development and increasing employment. In a special session yesterday, following the call by more than 30,000 street protesters demanding President Lucio Gutiérrez's resignation the day before, Ecuador's 100-member congress voted 62-0 to remove him from the presidency. Gutiérrez himself is a former coup leader as well as a retired army colonel and was elected president in 2002. To his own destruction, Gutiérrez left behind a string of broken promises as well as unconstitutional and irresponsible actions that spiraled the country into a series of crises, marked by increasingly violent clashes between protestors, supporters and the police, reportedly leaving two killed.

The Road to Impeachment

In a flagrant assertion of illegal authority over the country's judicial branch of government last December, Gutiérrez, with the vital aid of now returned former president Abdalá Bucaram's Roldosista party, had purged Ecuador's supreme court by a simple majority vote, citing as his reason the court's strong bias against him. Exacerbating the hostile mood of the population, the president then replaced all but two of the 17 justices with pro-Gutiérrez judges in order to block any effort to impeach him. Protesters in Quito forced the by-then besieged President to backtrack on this on Tuesday, announcing that he had decided to dismiss his own hand-picked supreme court. Contrary to Gutiérrez's expectations however, this action only instigated more turmoil for the country and inspired a nationwide demonstration against him. With more than 30,000 protesters taking to the streets in Quito calling for his resignation, and the army refusing to come to his aide, the country's Congress yesterday voted Gutiérrez out of office.

In an act of near desperation, Gutiérrez had looked to former president Bucaram(who was overthrown in 1997 for being "mentally unfit" to govern) for aid. Gutiérrez facilitated "El Loco's" return to Ecuador from his self-exile in Panama by having his loyalist supreme court judges void all corruption charges against the quirky former president. In turn, Bucaram advised Gutiérrez to declare a state of emergency and to dissolve congress so that it could not impeach him. Bucaram's advice and his insistence that Gutiérrez was another Hugo Chávez, however, came a little too late to salvage the already mortally wounded presidency.

Ecuador's Future: Left, Right or What?

With no clear successor, Gutiérrez's ouster has left a gaping hole which his estranged vice president, Alfredo Palacio, will have to fill, at least for now. While it is difficult to predict the future political course of the country, more social reforms may be imminent, with Palacio being prepared to move to the left to consolidate his leadership. Clearly the population is tired of watching the business of government being run as usual.

South American specialist Dr. Heather Williams of Pomona College, California, believes that the country's economy is basically fuelled by foreign direct investment which does not generate the necessary new jobs, and "while the outside world sees steady economic growth, average Ecuadorians have not seen any improvement in their lives." From almost the very beginning of his vice presidency, Palacio criticized Gutiérrez for being too beholden to the IMF and the "Washington Consensus," and attacked him for ignoring issues of social justice that were of vital concern for the 65 percent of the population who live at or below the poverty line.

Ecuador's Hugo Chávez?

Gutiérrez was supposed to be Ecuador's version of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, but his populist platform quickly evaporated after he discarded all plans to bring about change for Ecuadorians by turning to the tactics favoured by neoliberal 'reformers'. While Ecuador's small traditional oligarchy would certainly like to regain control of the country, a number of leftist reformist groups maintain a strong foothold. One of these is Democracia Popular, which advocates a communitarian socialist economic platform and is the nation's largest political party, having won 35 percent of the congressional seats in the 1998 election. The party can be expected to back Palacio until he leaves office in 2007. However, few strong individual party leaders have emerged either from the oligarchy, from traditional political parties or those determined to transform the malfunctioning 'caudillo' system. At the present time, neither Ecuador's legislative factions nor the anti-Gutiérrez protesters have been able to look beyond the president's ouster toward authentic governing alternatives.

If newly installed Alfredo Palacio is able to mend Ecuador's constitution in order to respond adequately to the constellation of political forces to be found in the country today, including dissenting indigenous communities, he would be looked upon as a hero. At the very least, Palacio would be wise to reintegrate the indigenous communities, which were essential to Gutiérrez's coming to power and instrumental in his eventual defeat. One certain loser is Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega whose rightwing policies have alienated the leadership of Latin America, with the region's pro-U.S. faction being reduced to little more than the Central American Banana Republics of Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras. Within living memory, the U.S. has never been as isolated in the region as it is today throughout Latin America.

This analysis was prepared by Council on Hemispheric Affairs Director Larry Birns and COHA Research Associate Sarah Schaffer, additional research provided by COHA Research Associate Alicia Asper. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. For more information, please see our web page at

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