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Ecuador received a downward trend arrow due to increasing reports of the training of Ecuadoran nationals by Colombian paramilitary forces and the growing militarization of northern border areas made insecure by the presence of both the paramilitaries and their guerrilla foes from Colombia.
In 2001, President Gustavo Noboa won plaudits for leading Ecuador out of its worst recession in 70 years, although the economic growth remained sluggish. Ecuador's political turmoil appeared unabated: the country's elite remained highly fractionalized, political party discipline was weak, and coalitions were largely ever-changing alliances at the mercy of charismatic leaders as well as current events. In January and February of 2001, mass protests by indigenous peoples demanding alleviation of poverty, respect for their lands and natural resources, the equitable administration of justice, and an end to official corruption rocked much of the country, including the capital. Demonstrators clashed with police, occupying buildings and blocking highways. For most of 2001, Noboa, whose term lasts until January 2003, faced ongoing grassroots rebellion against his proposed fiscal reforms. Meanwhile, both rural and urban crime rates--traditionally low--soared, and a feared spillover effect from neighboring Colombia's civil and drug wars appeared to be becoming a reality.
Established in 1830 after achieving independence from Spain in 1822, the Republic of Ecuador has endured many interrupted presidencies and military governments. The last military regime gave way to civilian rule when a new constitution was approved by referendum in 1978.
The constitution provides for a president elected for four years, with a runoff between two front-runners if no candidate wins a majority in the first round. The 77-member unicameral congress (National Chamber of Deputies) is composed of 65 members elected on a provincial basis every two years, and 12 elected nationally every four years.
The 1992 national elections were won overwhelming by Sixto Duran Ballen, whose Republican Union Party nonetheless earned only 13 of 77 legislative seats. Duran Ballen's term was marked by general strikes against his economic austerity measures, allegations of corruption, indigenous protests against business-backed land reform, and the impeachment of cabinet ministers by an opposition-controlled congress.
In the 1996 elections, Abdala Bucaram Ortiz, the flamboyant former mayor of Guayaquil known as "El Loco" (the Crazy Man), won 54 percent of the vote in runoff elections, carrying 20 of Ecuador's 21 provinces. Once in office, Bucaram, who had previously fled the country twice under threat of prosecution for corruption, applied a stringent, market-oriented austerity program. The authoritarian flavor and frenetic corruption of his government sparked mass protests. In February 1997, a 48-hour general strike led by Indians and students prompted congress to depose Bucaram on grounds of "mental incapacity." Congressional speaker Fabian Alarco was selected as his replacement after the military high command jettisoned its support for Bucaram's vice president and constitutionally mandated successor, Rosalia Arteaga.
In July 1997 Alarco, himself accused of employing more than 1,000 no-show employees while speaker, dismissed the supreme court, ostensibly to carry out the "depoliticization" of the justice system mandated by the referendum, but in effect removing the chief judge, who was pressing to have the interim president investigated. Despite his efforts to be allowed to finish out Bucaram's four-year term, Alarco was met with strong political and civic opposition.
In May 1998, Jamil Mahuad, the mayor of Quito, posted a first-place finish in presidential elections in which the runner-up was Alvaro Noboa, who, despite being the candidate of Bucaram's Partido Roldosista Ecuatoriano (PRE), promised that neither the party nor the former president would play any part in his campaign. Mahuad, a Harvard-educated lawyer, bested Noboa, a banana tycoon, 51 to 49 percent in the July 12 runoff election.
Mahuad faced Ecuador's worst economic crisis in decades. The government was torn by savage infighting and fallout from regional tensions, and often faced violent protests from students, transport workers, and rural Indians. After partially defaulting on its foreign debt in September, the government sought to restructure its external and internal debt through talks with creditors. In November the army high command denounced what it called irresponsible conduct by "certain leaders" that, it said, was threatening the existence of the country's democratic institutions. Citing jurisdictional issues, Mahuad refused to testify on charges he and various aides had kept $3.1 million in campaign contributions for themselves.
Vice President Gustavo Noboa took over as president in January 2000 after demonstrators forced the unpopular Mahuad to step down. Protests by indigenous groups, reportedly manipulated by putschist senior army commanders, were joined by significant numbers of midlevel military officers, and Mahuad's fate was sealed when police refused to obey government commands to restore order. The junior officers, many of Native American ancestry, concerned that Mahuad's government was spending more and more money bailing out local banks while it reduced the armed forces budget, made common cause with indigenous leaders representing as many as four million of some of the country's poorest inhabitants in the effort to overthrow Mahuad. However, despite the protestors' acclamation of a three-person "junta" that included one senior military officer, congress met in emergency session in Guayaquil to ratify Noboa, who did not belong to any political party, as the new constitutional president.
In February, Gustavo Noboa, Ecuador's fifth president in three years, decorated the putschist General Carlos Mendoza for "professional excellence," in an apparent attempt to heal the schisms opened within the armed forces by the partially successful action against civilian rule. Official adoption by Ecuador of the U.S. dollar as its national currency--it was the first South American country to do so--was intended to put a break on a wild inflationary spiral and a further depreciation of the currency. However, the dollarization gambit also made Ecuador more attractive to international money launderers and was the subject of continued protests by Indians and leftist-led labor unions throughout 2000, who claimed the move hurt the poor by causing prices to rise to international levels, while eliminating critical subsidies for basic food and services.
For most of August, the Ecuadoran congress split into two separate entities in a dispute over the privatization of 18 electricity companies and the state-owned oil company. In September 2000 Transparency International ranked Ecuador as Latin America's most corrupt nation. In late 2000, the Ecuadoran government sought to cope with tens of thousands of Colombian refugees seeking refuge from escalating warfare between guerrilla, paramilitary, and army forces in their own country.
Security along the border with Colombia, a major transit area for drugs, chemicals, arms, and munitions, continued to deteriorate throughout 2001. Because of the cocaine eradication program of the Colombian government's Plan Colombia targets Putumayo department, which lies to the north of Ecuador's Sucumbios province, Colombian drug traffickers, coca farmers, and leftist guerrillas who work in the drug trade were forced to seek refuge in Ecuador. Right-wing paramilitary groups, seeking to destroy real and suspected guerrillas' links to local residents, also infiltrated northern Ecuador to target locals there who they believed might be cooperating with the guerillas. In response, the government moved more than 10,000 troops to the northern border provinces. In June 2001 it was reported that residents in the troubled region were forming self-defense groups to protect themselves from the Colombians. That same month, the government announced that it would add 24,000 new officers to the National Police force by 2006. In September, Luis Maldonado became the first Native American ever to hold a major cabinet post--that of social welfare minister.
Citizens can change their government through elections, although the January 2000 coup attempt represented a clear reversal of democratic trends in Ecuador. The 1998 campaign had seemed to mark a return to electoral means, rather than armed force, as a way of resolving political differences. Jamil Mahuad's presidential victory came after Alvaro Noboa ran what is believed to be the most expensive national campaign in Ecuadoran history. In 1998, the national constituent assembly decided to retain Ecuador's presidential system. It also mandated that in the year 2002, a presidential candidate will need to win 40 percent of valid votes in first-round balloting and exceed by 10 percent those received by the nearest rival in order to avoid a runoff.
Constitutional guarantees regarding freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and the right to organize political parties are generally respected. However, for several years Ecuador appeared to be virtually ungovernable as a result of near constant gridlock among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, particularly through the use, by congress, of easy and sometimes frivolous votes of censure and impeachment in order to block executive initiatives. In August 2001, President Gustavo Noboa unveiled a series of political reforms he said would modernize the country's political system in the run-up to the October 2002 elections.
The judiciary, generally undermined by the corruption afflicting the entire political system, is headed by a supreme court that, until 1997, was appointed by the legislature and thus subject to political influence. In reforms approved by referendum in May 1997, power to appoint judges was given over to the supreme court, with congress given a final chance to choose that 31-member body based on recommendations made by a special selection commission. In a positive development, in July 2001, a new criminal justice procedural code entered into force that fundamentally changes Ecuador's legal system. The new code empowers prosecutors (fiscales) to investigate and prosecute crimes and alters the role of judges to neutral arbiters presiding over oral trials.
Evidence suggests that drug traffickers have penetrated the political system through campaign financing, and sectors of the police and military through bribery. Ecuador is a transshipment point for cocaine passing from neighboring Colombia to the United States and a money laundering haven. Widespread corruption in Ecuador's customs service led the government to privatize it in May 1999. New streamlined cargo-clearance procedures were implemented, and customs has also been increasingly cooperative with law enforcement agencies in exchanging information on inbound and outbound shipments. In 2000 the U.S. government terminated technical assistance to the chief prosecutor's office (fiscalia general) because of concerns about high-level corruption in cases involving politically powerful individuals accused of banking fraud and embezzlement. The dollarization of the Ecuadoran economy appears to have had the unintended effect of making the country more attractive for money laundering and other financial criminal activity. Although drug-money laundering is illegal under the 1990 narcotics law, the Ecuadorian government has no effective means of investigating or prosecuting such crimes.
In 1999, incursions from both Colombian guerrilla groups and their paramilitary enemies into Ecuadoran territory added to regional concern about the extent to which the neighboring country's civil war would affect public safety and the survival of democratic institutions. Violent crime has undermined public faith in the police to maintain order. In recent years a sharp increase was reported in the number of handgun licenses issued by the military. The military is responsible for a significant percentage of abuses, particularly when it is deployed during states of emergency. Abuses, including torture, are committed with relative impunity, with police and military personnel tried in military rather than civilian courts. Experts say that the confusion between military and police roles, justified as needed to confront the current situation of lawlessness facing the country, is unlikely to promote healthy professional relations between the two forces, will tend to demoralize the police, and will work against strategies to effectively involve the community in the fight against crime.
Ecuador has numerous human rights organizations, and despite occasional acts of intimidation, they report on arbitrary arrests and instances of police brutality and military misconduct, although in 2001 intimidation of rights monitors from a variety of sources was reported to be increasing.
Indigenous peoples are the frequent victims of abuse by military officers working in league with large landowners during disputes over land. A consequence of the continuing lack of access of Native Americans to effective systems of justice emerged in 1998, when Ecuadoran Indians held several U.S. oil company employees against their will, in support of a demand that the firm pay royalties to, and contribute to health care, education, and housing for, Indians. Vigilante acts committed in Native American communities also appear to be on the upswing in recent years. On a positive note, although Ecuador's large Native American communities had traditionally shunned participation in the national political system, their political involvement has increased dramatically in the last decade.
The media are mostly private and outspoken. The government controls radio frequencies. Labor unions are well organized and have the right to strike, although the labor code limits public sector strikes. Workers in the country's booming flower industry are routinely exposed to harmful pesticides.
Violence against women is common in Ecuador and frequently occurs on holidays, when alcohol is consumed in large quantities. The problem is particularly acute in Indian areas, where women often do not report abuse to the authorities in part because they are afraid of harming their community's reputation. Homosexuals are also often the victims of police brutality and harassment. Sixty-seven percent of Ecuadoran live in poverty, according to official statistics.