Comparing Ecuador and Venezuela: Similar Opposition, Very Different Governments

While there are some superficial similarities between Venezuela's Chavez and Ecuador's Gutierrez, they are quite different. As a result, the situation in Venezuela in April 2002 and in Ecuador in April 2005 had very different consequences, despite similar starting points.

The political situation in Ecuador is murky at best.  Being in the country does not make it a lot easier to understand it but at least I can go out and find the word from the people that, as you can imagine, is not expressed in the media.  With this essay I hope to shed some light on the process that is happening and discuss possible relationships it might have with Venezuela and repercussions of the Ecuadorian situation with the Venezuelan process.

The similarities between Chávez and Lucio Gutierrez

There has been a lot of talk about the similarities between Lucio and Chavez.  There are indeed some things in common, as much as a table is similar to a cow: Both have four legs, a horizontal surface and they may or not have milk.  That is about the extent on how Gutierrez resembles Chávez.

As you probably know, Lucio won the elections in Ecuador in a very much Chavez-like agenda.  He was a mid ranking officer in the military when he led a failed coup against a corrupt president and went to jail for a while.  Later he ran for office on a pro-people agenda and won the elections with a good margin.  Until then, they resembled each other.  Upon taking office Gutierrez, unlike Chavez, forgot all his promises and turned to neoliberalism.  In the very acceptance speech, after meeting with the recently appointed George W. Bush, he showed his real colors and intentions.  His actions were clearly against the poor people, imposing the IMF packages, failing the trust that he received from the majority of poor people, being a servant to the US in just about every aspect. 

There was, though, another important similarity between Chavez and Gutierrez that transcends their actions and policies: both were the first non-white president in a country where the great majority is not white.  For decades a minority of wealthier, whiter people (in Latin America white can be quite relative) have been running the country forming a very vicious oligarchy.  

Lucio’s problems

From the beginning Lucio turned against his left-leaning constituency, the poor majority of the country (in this essay “the people” will be used to refer to that social class as it constitutes the largest demographic).  The Ecuadorian people responded with the ancestral patience of the Inca: yet another lying president.  They were disappointed but did not see Lucio as being worse than many others. 

The upper and middle classes never felt happy with a half-indigenous president but they bought the trick of the lower inflation.  After the dollarization, the inflation dropped in relative terms.  It was not the astronomic number that it had been in former governments, but being in dollars, a 20 some percent of inflation was still the highest of the continent in absolute terms. 

All the insults to the Ecuadorian people inflicted by Lucio had been very much ignored until December 2004 when Gutierrez, with a rigged supreme court, in early April 2005 acquitted former president Abdala Bucaram who had been removed from office for corruption eight years before (an Ecuadorian Carlos Andres if you will). Once acquitted, Bucaram comes back to Ecuador talking about running for office again, to add insult to injury.  That angered the Ecuadorian people in general and gives grounds for one side of the right to play politics against the president (other side of the same right).

They called a strike against the president and the supreme court on Wednesday April 13th (of all dates!!). It was a top-down strike without any power of convoking the masses.  However, there was a real issue that was hurting the Ecuadorian people, and thinking of demonstrations, the middle class started to think of it in a more spontaneous manner.  After that day there were public gatherings and demonstrations that increasingly gathered more people. At first it was mostly upper middle class but as the days progressed the country warmed up and then there were more people from the middle class joining the opposition.  On the 19th of April there was a big gathering going to the congress. There were about 30 to 40 thousand people (you might have heard a lot more from the media but it was only that many) that marched peacefully towards the congress. The demonstration got around the presidential palace where it was stopped by the guards with tear-gas, if you know how these things tend to develop.

It is true that tear-gas at 9000 feet of elevation is a lot more… er…should I say fun than in lower altitudes but I need to make clear that the level of repression that the public forces showed were not especially extreme compared to similar situations.  They were no worse than the repression that the US security forces showed in the Democratic or Republican conventions, and certainly no worse than the repression shown during the WTO gathering in Seattle.

As the country kept warming up, there was a very heavy media campaign led by a radio station, Radio La Luna.  It was clear that they would not relent until they accomplished something. At first it was the dismissal of the corrupt supreme court. They accomplished it, but the anger for Lucio’s bringing back Bucaram was too much and by then they wanted Lucio to resign. Now let me make clear that this movement was strictly from the middle class. Even in the large demonstration of April 19th there wasn’t any representation from the lower economic or ethnic groups. That the movement is from the middle class means two things. One, that it is demographically unimportant. The middle class comprises only some 20% of the Ecuadorian people. If they went into a strike and paralyzed the country economically they could choke the economy and get Lucio to resign but by bulk of people they are limited in what they can do. The other consequence of that being a middle class movement is that it is fundamentally, and above all, a peaceful movement. So, there would not be any violent movement to force Lucio out of office.

Straight out of the Handbook

Nobody wants unrest in the country (certainly not the people that are in the business of placing and replacing governments in Latin America).  The strategy was set up from the old handbook of the coup d’état that we have seen working so many times and works surprisingly well every time. The president and the vice-president play good cop bad cop games. Lucio cancels the civil rights, and the vice-president, Alfredo Palacios, condemns the action.  Lucio represses the people and send hordes to produce violence and the vice-president condemns it as well. The media plays along to demonize Lucio (which is not hard to do) and the Vice-president uses the spotlight of the media to champion the cause of righteousness and civil rights. The president resigns or is removed from office and the Vice-president takes the well-deserved job after his performance. He rallies the people against Lucio and when he is uncharged everybody wins. The people are happy because they accomplished their goal and go back home happy as happy can be because they succeeded in their cause

This formula has been used many times. It happened in Ecuador in 1997 when they removed Abdala Bucaram, it happened in 2000 when they removed Jamil Mahuad, and it was used also in Bolivia in 2004. The people had rallied to the streets to protest against the privatization of natural gas and water. President Sanchez Lozada repressed the demonstration and the vice-President condemned it. They had a week or so stand-off, while the people fought in the streets against the security forces. Then the president resigned and Carlos Mesa (the vice-president) took office as the hero of the country. The people went back home only to see the new president continue with the privatization of the natural gas and water just as the former president was doing but the people were demobilized already.

Was it a coup or constitutional succession?

We know Lucio was removed from office and by now most everybody knows the answer: It was a coup.  The congress gathered on the 20th in the afternoon and voted to remove Lucio for “abandono del cargo” (abandonment of his job).  After that announcement, Lucio goes on national media reading his last decree as president where he appoints a new head of the police among other changes.  In other words Lucio was removed from office for abandoning his post while he was still exercising it!!!  A phony reason.  Furthermore, the constitution dictates that the congress needs 2/3 of the vote to remove the president.  In a congress of 100 members that is 66 votes.  The emergency congress that met had only 62 members, only 60 of which voted to remove Lucio from office.  In other words, they were 6 votes short of the constitutional requirement to remove a president.  The removal of Lucio, as the military withdrew their support is, thus, unconstitutional: a coup d’état.

The plot

Why was Lucio removed from power if there was no real popular uprising against him?  Why did he relinquish power at 14:28 on the 20th after saying on the night of the 19th that he would not resign and played tough?  The answer might be in the fact that early on the 20th he was visited by the ambassador of the US!!  Why would the US want anything to do with it?  Lucio counted on the support of the US from the beginning and Condoleezza Rice backed him up, but only so long as the country was calm.  Once unrest set-in, Lucio was no longer the person the US wanted here. 

For starters, the position of Ecuador is a critical back up for Plan Colombia and their plans in South America.  Should Ecuador turn into a truly sovereign state, it would isolate their operation in Colombia.  Second, the US has a gigantic military base in the city of Manta at the pacific shore (as well as another five smaller military bases scattered around the country).  This base not only helps Plan Colombia in Colombia but also helps keep military presence in all of southern Central America (recall that Central America bends south in Panama).  Third, Ecuador has a large and undeveloped oil potential in the Ecuadorian Amazon and we know how Washington feels about oil.  Fourth, Ecuador is, as I type this, negotiating the Tratado de Libre Comercio (Free Trade Agreement, TLC) with all the Andean countries (Ecuador being one of the most stable of them) and any political problem here could reflect in problems in the result of the negotiation.  And last but not least, Ecuador was one of the 17 votes for the directorship of the OAS that opposed the US candidate, Derbez, that led to the tie with the Chilean candidate. 

The trick of replacing the president with the Vice-president (or castling as you would say if you were playing chess) worked like a charm to demobilize the middle class.  They are happy as happy can be for the successful removal of Lucio.  With a good media campaign chasing Lucio and friends, the media claims success and the victory of democracy over authoritarianism.  Even though the people that demonstrated were the middle class of Quito exclusively, and Lucio was elected by the mandate of the majority of the Ecuadorian people.

The people of Ecuador

The lower classes and indigenous movements did not say a word on April the 19th on behalf of or against Lucio and they are the meaningful demographic in the country. The truth is that most Ecuadorian people were disappointed, to say the least, with Lucio and he is not about to be brought back by a popular uprising.  However, the way Lucio was deposed, with the corrupt congress and the military ganging up against him, and his running mate, the Vice-president, stabbing him on the back, has produced some sympathy of that lower class that brought him to office. 

The descendants of ancient Incas, the poor people of Ecuador, know that they are not going to get any better treatment from this new government composed exclusively of white people from the same old schemes of power and old political parties.  They also feel that, although Lucio betrayed them, he was still one of them and they see the unfair plot against him as yet another attack on their people and there is a growing movement of solidarity with Lucio.  By the third day after the removal of Lucio (on the 23rd), there were demonstrations with signs saying: “OEA, los pobres de Ecuador no sacamos a Lucio, fueron los Ricos” (OAS, the poor people of Ecuador did not depose Lucio, it was the rich ones).  The daily demonstrations around the presidential palace were surrounded by massive military presence, but among the soldiers there were some soldiers giving concealed thumbs up to the demonstrators!!

Similarities between Caracas, April 11th 2002 and Quito April 19th 2005.

Having had the dubious fortune of being in both events, I have to say that the similarities were astonishing, and for me, frankly, they were sickening.  Both were strongly supported by some influential media operation.  In Caracas 2002 all media was locked in on the agenda for the coup.  That did not happen in Quito 2005 but several radio operations did the job that the major TV networks did in Venezuela of convoking the people to rally against the president; in what was presented to be “a spontaneous movement of the people.”

The people mobilized were strictly middle class in both movements (North Quito = East of Caracas and The tribune of Shyris Av = Plaza Altamira). Even the nature of the protest was taken in a similar manner:  Escualido= Forajido, the media over-represented the size of the crowd, and in both places the supporters of the president were presented as a violent crowd that came to assault the peaceful middle class people (who in turn were being manipulated by the system to assault the democracy in the country).  The military in both events decided “to remove the support from the president,” supposedly due to the atrocities that the president ordered.  Now, these were military commanders that have been in their posts for more than 20-and-some years of service.  During their service in the Ecuadorian army they no doubt both ordered and committed worse or, at least comparable actions against unarmed demonstrators many times in the past.  To see them using the standard level of repression used on the 19th as a reason to remove the support from a constitutional president simply felt like a prepared manipulation much too similar to April 11th 2002.

Please do not get me wrong.  I am not supporting Lucio.  Should these military (or the congress for that matter) have revealed or decided to remove Lucio from office after he appointed a rigged supreme court in December 2004, I would have nothing to say and I would not be questioning their motives; in fact I would be happy about it.  But after allowing all those atrocities and constitutional violations to come and then pretend that “the people” of Quito had requested Lucio to be removed by popular mandate, it is more than I can accept. The military, as well as the congress, knew, as well as I do, that the bulk of the people of Quito, and certainly the bulk of the Ecuadorian population, did not raise their voice that night.  Yet they chose to play that charade for the removal of the president.  This is a complicity that can only be compared with the performance of the high-ranking militaries of Venezuela on the night of April 11th 2002.

Amending the handbook

The de facto president, Palacio, addressed the nation with a strong and opinionated speech about the human rights patriotism and freedoms.  On the last four days he has shown a remarkable performance of strong will, good intentions, and nationalistic interest.  He has said he would ask the Manta base to be returned to Ecuador, stop payment of the debt to use the money in social programs in the country, and even when Condoleezza Rice asked him to call elections as soon as possible, he stopped short of telling her to shove it.  Nice try, Mr. President. 

While Palacio talks about all the moves and actions he will take for the Ecuadorian people to fortify the nation in the future, there is a very important move that needs action right now and he is doing nothing about. The TLC is being discussed in Peru among all the Andean countries and the US.  Ecuador has a delegate there that is STILL working his assignment!!!  While Palacio talks about opposing the neoliberal agenda for the crowds, he is signing up for it right now!  He has every excuse needed not to.  Granted, turning away from the TLC has to be backed up by a comprehensive alternative strategy (like the ALBA, ALternativa Bolivariana para las Americas), and coming to power so recently he might not have it worked out just yet.  But he has the perfect reason to pull out, at least, temporarily due to political unrest in the country and the fact that he is just brand new in power.  Yet, he is going along with it committing the country into a treaty that the country can only regret in the future, only to say tomorrow: sorry we have an international commitment!

There is no doubt Palacio was campaigning against his former running mate for weeks before the coup.  It is also clear that the downfall of Lucio was linked to the mysterious visit of the ambassador of the US in the morning of the 20th, which would make Palacio nothing short of a US appointee.  Who would buy that anti-US performance that is not backed up with actions?  It is clearly a consequence that the lower classes are upset, and a bit mobilized about the unfair removal of Lucio, one of their kind. 

When Chavez was deposed the US and their servants (Aznar, Uribe, etc) were quick to accept the coup and went public to say that.  Now they are being a lot more careful.  This is the reason that no government at all has acknowledged the legitimacy of Palacio’s government as there are clear and, dare I say, well founded suspicions that Palacio might be a US-appointed puppet.  Sure, even the CIA can learn a lesson.

After the coup of April 2002 in Caracas, Carmona Estanga went off on a rampage against human rights, Venezuelan nationalism, and even common sense.  He turned back the constitution, ordered the arrest of all elected officials, posted PDVSA for a cheap sale to the US, and even cancelled all the social programs that the Chávez administration had going.  This sent a clear message to anybody that was listening that the only hope of a decent life, the only hope for a future was to bring Chávez back.  If anybody had any doubt, they knew now that there was no future than to get Carmona out and Chávez back into power.  That was in part what brought the crowds to the streets.  While the Ecuadorian poor are not about to rally to the streets the way we did on the 12 and 13th of April, the moves of Palacio seem to be aimed to avoid any replay of Caracas, April the 13th. 

After the total defeat by the Venezuela people, it is no wonder that the CIA might have updated their handbook for a Coup d’état to avoid it in the future. They have instructed their appointee to be tough, nationalist, anti-US and so on.  In short, everything that Carmona was not.  However, the truth comes out when the time comes to sign, or not, an international agreement to mortgage out the country to international lenders, such as the TLC. 

The Ecuadorian people and the Venezuelan people are joined at the hip with a common array of culture, idiosyncrasy, and traditions.  Not to mention long history of similar political and social telluric phenomena.  Gutierrez is no Chávez and the people did not react the same way.  We saw the same people reacting to two different presidents.  The people of Ecuador deserve a free and sovereign government. Will they have it?  The sort of Ecuador is tightly linked to that of Venezuela.  Simon Bolívar knew that Venezuela (or then Caracas) would never be free so long as Ecuador was a colony of Spain and thus it was imperative for him to liberate it as well, if he wanted freedom for Venezuela.  Can the Bolivarian Revolution succeed without the freedom of Ecuador? Now more than ever we need to remember the glorious lyric of our national Anthem: 

Unida con lazos que el cielo formó
La America toda existe en nación
Y si el despotismo levanta la voz
Seguid el ejemplo que Caracas dió

United with bonds that Heaven created
America as a whole exists as a nation
And should despotism raise it voice again
Follow the example that Caracas gave