April 26, 2005

April 26, 2005 | WebMemo on Latin America

Ecuador's No. 1 Problem

Over the past decade, Ecuadoran politicians have become notorious for disregarding rules. Well-meaning when elected, they soon turn into creatures of the corrupt political establishment. When reformers replace them and repeat their mistakes, the cycle continues. In years past, the United States could have helped Ecuador enhance the rule of law to keep impunity in check. Now we are starting over with new leaders and agendas. Ecuador's instability is a cautionary tale that shows why the United States must focus on democratic principles and sound institutions.

Ecuador's latest casualty is former president Lucio Gutierrez, fired by a simple majority of legislators on April 20 after dismissing two supreme courts in a row. Opponents claimed he abandoned his office by breaking the law, allowing congress to remove him without an impeachment trial or public debate.

No one should feel sorry for Gutierrez. He had plenty of bad examples. In 1996, he served as military aide to president Adbalá Bucarám, known as El Loco (The Madman), who complained of thieving oligarchs and then put cronies into government who allegedly robbed the treasury. When he tried to impose austerity measures, lawmakers kicked him out.

As an army colonel, Gutierrez joined labor leaders and clannish special interest groups in ousting President Jamil Mahuad, who was trying to dollarize the economy. Mahuad's vice president and successor Gustavo Noboa dollarized it anyway, to stem rampant inflation, before his own administration ended in a bond scandal.

In 2002, voters elected a contrite Gutierrez. He surrounded himself with competent advisers and, helped by high oil prices, kept the economy growing with fiscal restraint. He assured foreign leaders he would not follow the populist example of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez. But his leftist base abandoned him and opponents blocked his agenda. So he replied in-kind with increasingly arbitrary decisions.

In November 2004, when lawmakers tried to impeach Gutierrez, Bucarám loyalists helped rescue him. Repaying the favor, he called on his new congressional majority to fire the Supreme Court just as judges were reviewing charges against the exiled leader. However, legislators cannot vote out judges directly, and only the court can name its successors.

In March, the new bench annulled corruption charges against presidents Bucarám and Noboa. Returning from exile, Bucarám told supporters he would run again for president and lead "a great Bolivarian revolution," like President Chávez in Venezuela. When Ecuadorans heard that, many took to the streets in protest. Gutierrez declared a state of emergency and dissolved the new tribunal.As protests intensified, lawmakers voted 60 to 2 to remove President Gutierrez, marking the third time since Bucarám that an elected head-of-state has been thrown out.

Complicating matters, 52 lawmakers "abandoned" the constitution back in December by helping Gutierrez dismiss the first supreme court. Then, there is the problem of the current supreme court-or lack of one. Congress fired the pre-existing tribunal, and Gutierrez dismissed its successor. It is unlikely that the interim government of former vice president Alfredo Palacio can calm these waters without the substantial involvement of outside organizations like the Organization of American States.

To get back on firm ground, Ecuadoran politicians must curb impunity and open government to broader public participation. Dr. Edgar Terán, who runs a local foundation called Toward Security and the Rule of Law, says the congress must simplify Ecuador's legal codes and throw out thousands of contradictory "junk" laws that facilitate corruption through arbitrary interpretation. It should amend constitutional articles to impose checks and balances on judicial nominations and place limits on presidential removals to insure due deliberation.

Because government belongs to the people, he says, laws should permit open primary elections so that anyone can run for office, not just friends of party leaders-or "party owners," as they are sometimes called. A national leadership school might help candidates understand how government is supposed to work before landing in office.

And while the United States did a good job encouraging Gutierrez to back free trade, abstain from joining the International Criminal Court (ICC), and consent to U.S. use of Ecuadoran military facilities for drug interdiction, promoting responsible governance and effective institutions was a secondary goal. Now, some new cabinet ministers say Ecuador should back out of prior commitments.

Time is limited. Leftist parties want to distance Ecuador from the United States. Colombia's FARC guerrillas are present in northern Sucumbíos province. Ecuador's security forces need more professional training. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez has activists building support for his populist agenda there. Some businessmen, aligned with local bankers, want to roll back dollarization so they can be the only ones to have bank accounts in a stable currency.

The United States cannot step back from engagement, but neither can it rely on a new set of reformers to save the day. Instead, it must boost support for democratic principles and sound institutions that will serve ordinary citizens, not Ecuador's contentious political elites.

Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Stephen Johnson Senior Policy Analyst
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy