|President Chavez during a press conference with Chile's PResident Lagos|
Caracas, Venezuela, April 21, 2005—At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon during the visit of Chilean president Ricardo Lagos, Venezuela's president Hugo Chávez responded to recent turmoil in Ecuador, describing the events as “unfortunate.” Ecuadoran President Lucio Gutiérrez was stripped of his post by congress, yesterday, in a stunning turn of events after a week of sometimes violent protests that had paralyzed the Andean nation. Though he noted that it was too early for an official declaration while the situation in Ecuador continues to develop, Chávez noted that Ecuador is “a sister country, to whom we are deeply committed,” and described events as “unfortunate, whatever the causes.”
The government of Lucio Gutierrez has been shaky almost from the start. Gutierrez, a former-colonel, led an unsuccessful military coup in 2000 in support of an indigenous uprising demanding the resignation of then-president Jamil Mahuad. Though the coup failed, Mahuad was successfully removed, to be replaced by his vice president, businessman Gustavo Noboa.
Gutierrez has been replaced by his vice president Alfredo Palacio, a 66 year-old cardiologist. Palacio is the third non-elected president charged with completing a presidential term in the past 8 years, a telling insight into Ecuador’s heavily tarnished political system.
When asked if Venezuela would provide political asylum to Gutiérrez at yesterday’s press conference, Chávez responded “it’s very early to be answering these questions. The situation is still very confused,….and unfortunate. I don’t want to make an pronouncement at this time with respect to any hypothesis.”
Also speaking yesterday afternoon, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Alí Rodriguez Araque also responded to rumours that Gutiérrez had requested asylum in Venezuela, noting that Venezuela has no problem in receiving Gutiérrez, but he has yet to request it. “The principle of asylum is consecrated in international law and in treaties between many countries, but we have yet to receive any solicitation by [Gutiérrez] whatsoever.”
Earlier today it was confirmed that Gutiérrez has sought and been granted political asylum in Brazil. Though it remains unclear whether ex-president Gutiérrez is still in Ecuador, or if he has arrived in Brazil.
A Long Time Coming
The Ecuadoran government has been unstable since a return to democracy in 1979, after an eight-year dictatorship. The last elected President to complete his term was Sixto Duran Ballen, elected in 1992. All three elected Presidents to follow were thrown out midway through their mandate on charges of corruption, misappropriation of funds, and abuse of power.
Protests against Gutiérrez intensified over the past week after he illegally dismissed the supreme court, according to opponents. The first business of the new court was to drop pending charges against former-presidents Abdala Bucaram (1998-2000) and Gustavo Noboa (2000-2002). Bucaram was removed from office after only 6 months on charges of corruption. He was declared “mentally unfit” by congress and went into exile in Panama and the Dominican Republic. Noboa was also charged with corruption and misuse of public funds, leading to his exile in the Dominican Republic.
The Supreme Court’s decision to drop charges, allowing both men to return to Ecuador, provoked outrage among many Ecuadorans who see Gutiérrez’ cooperation with the old guard as an indication of his own moral bankruptcy.
On April 15th, Gutiérrez dissolved the Supreme Court and declared a State of Emergency in the capital, Quito. The measure provoked moderate opposition leaders—until that time limiting their opposition to the questionable legality of the dissolution of the courts—to join the “Lucio Fuera” (Lucio Out) demonstrations, already in the streets for the third consecutive night. According to Sally Burch, reporting from Quito for the Latin American Information Agency (ALAI), that includes Paco Moncayo, Mayor of Quito, and Ramiro González, Prefect of Pichincha province (where the capital is located), both members of the Democratic Left party (ID). Moncayo and González have been attempting to place themselves at the forefront of the Quito resistance to Gutierrez.
In the wake of Gutierrez’ defeat, deputy for the indigenous Patchakutik movement Ricardo Ulcuango has demanded that the provisional government pull-out of bilateral Free-Trade negotiations with the United States. Ulcuango argued that the agreement was being negotiated by a government without a popular mandate, adding that a majority of Ecuadorians strongly oppose the Free Trade Agreement (TLC).
At the time of Gutiérrez’ election in 2003, analysts called repeated attention to remarkable similarities between his political career and that of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. In countries where the mainly white economic elite had long-dominated politics both Gutiérrez and Chávez came from outside that tradition (the military) and both are mestizo. Both attempted coups, served jail time (a few months in the case of Gutiérrez, 2 years in the case of Chávez), before launching their political careers.
Both presidential campaigns turned on the rejection of traditional corrupt politics, promising a break with the past, and qualitative change for the country’s poor.Yet, while Chávez has continued to be a hero for the country’s poor, Gutiérrez has largely been perceived to have switched camps, instituting a structural adjustment program that removed subsidies on basic necessities and reduced social spending; promoting a Free Trade Agreement with the US; and supporting Plan Colombia, the US counter-terrorism initiative in Ecuador’s northern neighbor, which has seen over US$2 billion in mostly military aid to Colombia over the past three years.