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ECUADOR
A survivor in power
12/2/2004
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Like a good military strategist, Gutiérrez has learned how to ride out repeated moves to destroy him.

President Lucio Gutiérrez, as in 2003 when he took power, has spent a good part of the year looking for ways to survive, making periodic deals with several political tendencies and breaking with them to ally with forces on the other side. This style of managing power has converted him into "a president for rent," according to analyst Alberto Acosta.

Gutiérrez reached power by allying himself with the main emerging social force, the indigenous movement; once he won the elections he structured a discourse in which he offered himself "to the highest bidder," Acosta said. After six months in the job, the president had lost the support of the indigenous groups which felt betrayed by him.

Since then, Gutiérrez has dedicated himself to giving services to those who offer to keep him in power, with the main beneficiary being the US Embassy. The only thing clear in the government’s policy is its unswerving alignment with US policy, marked by the imposition of Plan Colombia and the Free Trade Agreement.

As 2004 draws to an end, Gutiérrez is showing signs not only of his ability to survive in the tangle of Ecuadoran politics, which he entered as a novice, but also of having mastered the skills of the old caudillos.

Incapacity to govern

Indeed, the Ecuadoran president has had to face several requests to remove him from power, first led by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and then one brought by the Democratic Left (ID) headed by former President Rodrigo Borja (1988-1992), who asked for Gutiérrez’s resignation based on his "incapacity to govern".

To confront his political adversaries, Gutiérrez looked for backing from the rightist Social Christian Party (PSC) and managed to get its leader, former President León Febres Cordero (1984-88), to confront Borja, destroying the ID’s attempt to remove him from office. Borja was accused of "favoring a coup" and Febres Cordero strengthened his grip on the Supreme Electoral Council of Justice, the Constitutional Tribunal and the Ombudsman’s Office, among the various institutions controlled by the PSC over the last 20 years of democracy in Ecuador.

Gutiérrez did his part by fragmenting the indigenous movement through the assignment of resources and distribution of public positions; thus he aligned himself with the Federation of Evangelical Indigenous People of Ecuador (FEINE) and divided the CONAIE by winning the formal support of the branches on the coast and the Amazon. His biggest achievement was the appointment, on May 22, of Antonio Vargas, former CONAIE president, as minister of Social Welfare.

The attempts by the indigenous groups to retake the political initiative have been frustrated, as shown by the failure of two protests aimed at destroying Gutiérrez this year. The movilizations did not even come close to having the strength of the earlier ones in spite of the optimism with which they were announced.

The alliance with the PSC began to fall apart in the run-up to Oct. 17 local elections in which the ruling party, Patriotic Society, suffered a spectacular defeat. Faced with the elections, Febres Cordero began to distance himself from the government in light of Gutiérrez’s scant popular approval. "The office of president should be declared vacant," Febres Cordero said during the electoral campaign.

New alliance

In light of the reiterated comments against the government, Gutiérrez opted to approach the strongest political enemy of the Social Christian leader, former President Abdalá Bucaram (1996-97), leader of the Ecuadoran Roldosista Party. Thus, he forged a new alliance and decided to pressure his former ally on Oct. 28, by ordering the Agency of Deposit Guarantees (AGO) — the institution charged with collecting debts from banks that closed during the 2000 banking crisis — to declare past due the debts held by the Febres Cordero Group with the AGD for more than US$38 million and that it start a coercive process to collect the money.

Febres Cordero, meanwhile, responded by preparing a political trial to remove the president, accusing him of embezzlement. Drawing on the backing of the Supreme Court that his party controls, Febres Cordero had previously brought similar trials to get rid of his political enemies. He first used this approach during the administration of Sixto Durán Ballén (1992-1996), provoking the exile of vice president Alberto Dahik; then in the governments of Bucaram and Jamil Mahuad (1998-2000), contributing to the removal of these two former presidents, and finally sending former president Gustavo Noboa (2000-2003) into exile.

Everything indicated that Febres Cordero’s tactic would succeed again, since the ID, the Popular Democratic Movement and Pachakutik joined the request for a political trial, forming an uncomfortable alliance joined only by the desire to remove Gutiérrez from power once and for all.

When the scene seemed set for his destitution, this time unaccompanied by street protests, the president surprised everyone by obtaining the resignation of five deputies of the PSC, ID and Pachakutik, with which the opposition could not even manage to make up a legislative commission to evaluate whether the political trial should proceed or not.

So the trial was forgotten and Gutiérrez managed not only to outwit the movement to oust him but also obtained a new majority in the National Congress which now is seeking to reduce the PSC’s power in government institutions.


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President Lucio Gutiérrez. (Photo: www.interet-general.info)
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