A Coup in Ecuador

Abril 2005

By Carlos Aguilera

The dust has yet to settle over political events in Ecuador, where a few dozen Congress members voted April 20 to dismiss President Lucio Gutierrez -- as he sat in his office at the presidential palace, issuing statements that he would not resign -- on charges that he "abandoned his post." Vice President Alfredo Palacio Gonzalez took office in his stead.

Despite the legal trappings of the maneuver, a coup has just occurred in Ecuador.

It happened so quickly that the international community has yet to react, and even most Ecuadorians don't realize what took place in Quito. However, the list of suspicious or simply illegal acts that occurred in the ouster is long -- meaning that the Palacio presidency is illegitimate and Ecuador is facing trouble in its international relations.

Gutierrez was hardly a well-liked president. Elected in late 2002, he engaged in a series of controversial acts -- culminating in the dismissal earlier this month of the Supreme Court's bench -- and shifted political alliances frequently. He had become the focus of a number of protests in Quito, where growing numbers of demonstrators had begun calling for his resignation -- among other goals.

Nevertheless, the problems surrounding his dismissal appear to be almost as numerous as those within his presidency. First, he was tossed out of power on the vote of 60 lawmakers -- of the 62 who had gathered in the 100-seat National Assembly on April 20. These officials, it could be added, were scheming to save their own political skins, since the 50,000 protesters clamoring for the president's resignation in Quito also were demanding the dissolution of Congress. The motion to fire the president drew no discussion before a vote was taken. The armed forces Joint Chiefs of Staff promptly endorsed his dismissal and replacement by Palacio -- a "withdrawal" of support for the president that was, to put it mildly, treasonous, under terms of Ecuador's constitution.

Within hours, the nation's attorney-general had issued an arrest warrant -- which was not based on evidence from any criminal investigation -- for Gutierrez, who reportedly had sought to leave the country before taking refuge in the Brazilian Embassy.

This sequence of actions strongly suggests the existence of a coordinated plan to oust the president in which political leaders, senior military officers, the attorney-general and possibly Palacio himself were involved.

The plan likely was patched together in the last seven to ten days, as it became increasingly apparent that Ecuador was edging toward the brink of a violent popular revolt. Threatened with a national uprising that could sweep away not only Gutierrez but other political figures and parties as well, a decision probably was made to remove Gutierrez and hopefully defuse tensions sufficiently to preserve the status quo politically.

This would hardly be the first time Ecuador's political establishment has ousted an unpopular president through a people's revolt or a congressional vote. In 2000, Gutierrez himself -- then a lieutenant-colonel in the army -- and indigenous leaders toppled President Jamil Mahuad; in February 1997, Congress dismissed then-President Abdala Bucaram after voting that he was "mentally incompetent."

In both instances, the ousted presidents never returned to power, and the international community ultimately accepted the legitimacy of the new governments because constitutional proprieties had been respected. However, both of these cases would have been viewed as illegal ousters had they occurred after Sept. 11, 2001 -- when the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS) adopted a new hemispheric Democratic Charter, which commits the region's governments to defending democratically elected governments.

The OAS Democratic Charter and a similar situation in Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez was briefly toppled in April 2002, have changed the geopolitical playing field in ways that likely will be challenged soon, as a result of events in Quito.

For example, during the Venezuelan crisis, the Bush administration quickly endorsed replacement President Pedro Carmona -- leaving itself open to charges by Chavez that the United States had backed an illegal coup. Now it appears to be making the same mistake with Ecuador: Speaking April 21 from Lithuania, where she was attending a NATO summit, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for Palacio to schedule early general elections quickly so that a new government can be elected democratically. This statement could have negative ripple effects for Washington within the region, should other OAS members conclude that Gutierrez, not Palacio, is Ecuador's legitimate president.

It is interesting to note that the attorney-general's arrest warrant for Gutierrez (who, incidentally, reportedly is being allowed to seek refuge in Brazil) accused him of instigating the violent public protests that eventually forced Congress to fire him. It is a curious accusation, considering that Palacio, a week ago, publicly called for a popular revolt to turn Gutierrez out of office.

It is not clear whether Rice simply lacks a clear understanding of the events in Quito or whether she is indirectly endorsing Gutierrez's illegal removal. Whatever the case, it would not be surprising for the governments in Venezuela and other Latin American states, many of which have little love for the Bush administration, to raise objections before the OAS and accuse Washington of backing the coup in Quito.

It also is not certain that Gutierrez could be restored to the presidency, as Chavez was in Caracas in 2002. After all, he lacks the military's support and commanded popularity ratings of only 3.9 percent a week ago, making any mass movement to restore him to power rather unlikely, to say the least. However, if Palacio remains in power, his government has little chance of being internationally recognized as legitimate.

© Copyright 2005 - Strategic Forecasting, Inc.