Freedom in the World
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A former coup leader and retired army colonel who pledged to fight corruption and poverty was elected president in November 2002, beating two former presidents who stood as standard-bearers for the country's traditional political parties. Lucio Gutierrez's victory at the head of a leftist coalition in this chronically unstable country was supported by the country's increasingly empowered Indian groups, and constituted the first time Ecuador's chief executive shared the humble background and dark-skinned complexion of the country's majority. Gutierrez, a civil engineer who had never held political office, faced the task of bringing foreign investment to the economically moribund country, and in an early sign of moderation, promised to pay the foreign debt resulting from a 1999 default.
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.
Vice President Gustavo Noboa took over as president in January 2000 after demonstrators had forced his predecessor to step down. The protests by indigenous groups, reportedly manipulated by putschist senior army commanders, were joined by significant numbers of mid-level military officers led by Gutierrez. Despite the protestors' acclamation of a three-person "junta" that included Gutierrez, congress met in emergency session in Guayaquil to ratify Noboa, who did not belong to any political party, as the new constitutional president.
Gutierrez, inspired by another coup plotter, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, won a surprise first-round victory in the October 20, 2002, presidential election and went on to best the banana magnate Alvaro Noboa, a populist, in the November 24 runoff. On a positive note, the appointment of Nina Pacari by Gutierrez as foreign minister marked two firsts in Ecuadoran history: she is the first woman and first Native American to occupy the prestigious foreign policy position.
Citizens can change their government through elections, and the 2002 elections were generally considered to be free and fair. In 1998, the national Constituent Assembly decided to retain Ecuador's presidential system. It also mandated that in the year 2002, a presidential candidate would 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. 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 turned over to the Supreme Court, with congress given a final chance to choose that 31-member body on the basis of recommendations made by a special selection commission. In a positive development, in July 2001, a new criminal justice procedural code that fundamentally changes Ecuador's legal system entered into force. The new code empowers prosecutors (fiscales) to investigate and prosecute crimes, and alters the role of judges to that of neutral arbiter presiding over oral trials.
Ecuador is a transshipment point for cocaine passing from neighboring Colombia to the United States, as well as a money-laundering haven. Widespread corruption in Ecuador's customs service led the government to privatize it in May 1999. 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.
A growing number of incursions from both Colombian guerrilla groups and their paramilitary enemies into Ecuadoran territory added to regional concern (including worries in Panama, Venezuela, Brazil and Peru) 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. 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. Indigenous peoples are the frequent victims of abuse by military officers working in league with large landowners during disputes over land.
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. Violence against women, particularly in indigenous areas where victims are reluctant to speak out against other members of their community, is common.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respects this right in practice. The government does not require religious groups to be licensed or registered unless they form NGOs that engage in commercial activity. The government allows missionary activity and religious demonstrations by all religions.