On April 13, thousands of Ecuadorians protesting in the capital Quito were violently attacked by riot police with tear gas. The protesters, led by unionists and students, blocked roads with burning tyres and shut down the centre of the city, demanding the resignation of President Lucio Gutierrez and the reinstatement of the Supreme Court judges sacked by the president last December.
Quito Mayor Paco Moncayo, leader of the opposition Democratic Left Party (ID) and an organiser of the protest, ordered the closure of public transport, municipal offices and schools, as protesters shouted â€œLucio out! Democracy, yes! Dictatorship, no!â€
About 800 fully armed police and soldiers occupied the two blocks around the presidential palace, erecting metal barriers and barbed wire fencing across roadways.
This is just the latest in a wave of protests. On April 11, a group of about 100 protesters from various social movements occupied the nearby Metropolitan Cathedral. Despite being denied food and water, they are refusing to leave until the former Supreme Court is reinstated.
The prefect for Pichincha province, which covers Quito, ID member Ramiro Gonzalez, declared an indefinite strike from April 12, closing roads â€” including the Pan-American Highway â€” businesses and the local airport.
Roads were also blocked by demonstrations in the regions of Imbabura, Cotopaxi, Tungurahua, Loja, Azuay and Canar, and the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador (CONAIE) occupied the education ministry building in Quito.
Several union leaders were arrested in the demonstrations in Quito and dozens were injured by police and asphyxiating tear gas in this latest episode of Ecuador's rapidly deepening political crisis.
Misuse of power
In the aftermath of two enormous protests earlier this year, Ecuador's volatile political landscape took an explosive turn on April 2, with the return of â€œflamboyantâ€ ex-president Abdala Bucaram from an eight-year exile in Panama.
Bucaram, known as â€œEl Locoâ€ (â€œthe crazy oneâ€), fled Ecuador in 1997 â€” after only seven months in office â€” amidst accusations of corruption, after the National Congress had deposed him on the grounds of â€œmental incapacityâ€.
Bucaram's return has been long expected. Gutierrez, who was military attache during Bucaram's presidency, visited him in Panama in September. Then late last year, Bucaram's Roldosista Party of Ecuador (PRE) helped block an impeachment attempt against Gutierrez led by the ID and the right-wing Social Christian Party (PSC).
In December, Gutierrez used a temporary majority in the Congress to fire the Supreme Court and appoint new judges affiliated to parties supportive of the president â€” mostly PRE and PRIAN, the party of Alvaro Noboa, Ecuador's richest man and previous presidential candidate. The majority of the sacked judges were associated with the PSC. Gutierrez appointed Guillermo Castro, a long-time associate of Bucaram, as president of the Supreme Court.
Finally, on March 31, Castro cleared Bucaram, as well as former vice-president Alberto Dahik, and ex-President Gustavo Noboa, of corruption charges, paving the way for their safe return to the country and to politics.
The changes to the Supreme Court are widely believed to be unconstitutional, a view supported by the United Nations in an April 4 United Nations Human Rights Commission report. The report also suggested that the appointments to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the Constitutional Court â€œshow signs of illegalityâ€, and urges a restructure of the legal system.
Gutierrez's attempts at legal reform have all failed to pass Congress. The parliamentary opposition is instead calling for the reinstatement of the previous judges and Gutierrez's resignation. On April 5, several thousand people demonstrated outside the National Congress against Bucaram's return and the abuse of the legal system, but were dispersed with tear gas and police violence.
A revolution of the poor?
Bucaram's return has already had a resounding impact on Ecuadorian politics. PRIAN, worried that a resurgent PRE would cut into its base, declared it would no longer support Gutierrez in the National Congress. PRIAN and PRE are both based in the coastal city of Guayaquil, making them direct competitors.
Despite PRE's support, however, the government recently suffered an overwhelming defeat in the vote on an economic reform bill supported by the International Monetary Fund. Sixty-eight of the seventy-one members of congress present voted against the bill, which advocated the privatising of oil, water and the pensions sector.
Upon his return to Ecuador, Bucaram addressed a 20,000-strong rally of supporters in Guayaquil. He highlighted the level of corruption and poverty in Ecuador, declaring; â€œI come to Ecuador to copy Chavez's style with a great Bolivarian revolutionâ€, referring to the leftist Venezuelan president's movement, whose reforms include using some of that country's oil wealth to fund massive social reforms, such as literacy and health.
Ecuador, like Venezuela, has large oil reserves, but government revenue is lost in the endemic corruption that plagues the country, making such a policy a likely vote winner at the elections due for late next year. The economy has long been a basket case, despite it's oil resources and tourism industry. Approximately 50% of the annual GDP goes towards repaying foreign loans. Unemployment is officially at 10%, but close to 50% of the population lives in poverty.
Bucaram also voiced his opposition to a free trade agreement with the US, and decried â€œthe imposition of military basesâ€ on Ecuador, a reference to the illegal use by the US Air Force of the air base at Manta (the only official US military base in South America) for surveillance and spraying of lethal herbicides over southern Colombia.
However fine sounding, this rhetoric is not new to Ecuador. Gutierrez came to power styling himself as an â€œEcuadorian Chavezâ€, and immediately set about breaking all his left-wing promises. He allowed the creation of US military camps in the border region with Colombia as part of Plan Patriota (the extension of Plan Colombia â€” the US-backed war against Colombia's Marxist guerrillas), signed a new IMF loan, and began negotiating a free trade agreement with the US.
Subsequently, Gutierrez has lost most of his support. Only five representatives of his Patriotic Society Party are now in Congress. A poll cited in the April 12 Mercopress showed his credibility at only 7%, with 58% of respondents saying his immediate resignation was the way to resolve the crisis. He has been linked with drug-money, and accused of misuse of public funds and of using violence to intimidate political opponents.
While he is still making political alliances, Gutierrez's key support comes from the military. A former colonel, Gutierrez has recently reconsolidated his base in the army. When Moncayo, who was head of the armed forces before he was Quito mayor, called upon the military not to recognise Gutierrez's â€œcorrupt and unconstitutionalâ€ government, the armed forces responded with a warning that they would not tolerate â€œanarchyâ€ in the country and that â€œcalls to rebellion are illegalâ€.
Despite Gutierrez's unpopularity, the opposition groups have been unable to offer a well-supported alternative. Moncayo has tried unsuccessfully to play this role, but his party's support is limited to the highland regions â€” although there are indications that the PSC, based in Guayaquil on the coast, may be lending Moncayo, a celebrated war hero, it's support for the next elections.
An alternative to neoliberalism
In contrast, CONAIE and other social movements appear to be moving further away from an electoral focus, instead rebuilding the mass movements.
Much to investorsâ€™ dismay, the current crisis has awakened memories of unrest that led to the ousting of elected presidents in 1997 and 2000, when workers and indigenous people overthrew the government by force, and a similar perspective is returning.
CONAIE president Luis Macas has called for the Ecuadorian people to come out and fight every day until â€œa true democracyâ€ has been obtained, and has started organising strikes, blockades and other protests against the Gutierrez regime.
Macas makes it clear, however, that CONAIE will not associate with any of the mainstream political parties, but intends to build a civic alternative to the corruption of Ecuador's politics and it's neoliberal agenda.
On April 4, CONAIE convened an assembly of delegates from more than 60 groups, including Pachakutik, the Popular Front and the Ecuadorian Revolutionary Youth. This assembly resolved to create an â€œAutonomous Poleâ€, an alliance of non-party political groups, to overthrow the corrupt oligarchy and to construct a â€œtrue democratic government that will represent all Ecuadoriansâ€.
The popular movement in Ecuador has taken up the slogan used by the piquetero unemployed workers' movement in Argentina, â€œThey all must go!â€, but it is also looking to the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela for inspiration, and as a warning of the struggles ahead.