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President Lucio Gutierrez spent 2004 trying, unsuccessfully, to establish his presidency's legitimacy following the rupture the previous year of his ruling coalition and his party's disastrous electoral showing in the October regional and municipal elections. Before the elections, Gutierrez, who had won the presidency on an anticorruption platform, faced serious questions about his commitment to transparency and honest government. Despite the election results, Gutierrez did not accede to pressure to resign and appeared to be trying to outmaneuver his many opponents.
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.
In January 2000, Vice President Gustavo Noboa took over as president after demonstrators had forced his predecessor to step down. The protests by indigenous groups, reportedly manipulated by putschist senior army commanders, were joined by those of significant numbers of mid-level military officers led by Gutierrez, an army colonel. 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.
In the October 2002 legislative elections, the Social Christian Party secured the largest number of seats. Gutierrez, who was inspired by another coup plotter, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, won a surprise first-round victory in the concurrent presidential election, defeating two former presidents who stood as standard-bearers for Ecuador's traditional political parties. He emerged in the hard-fought campaign as a advocate for the elimination of the country's infamous corruption and the alleviation of its extraordinary rural poverty. Gutierrez, who had never held political office, went on to best populist banana magnate Alvaro Noboa in the November 24 runoff, heading a leftist coalition sustained by the country's increasingly empowered Indian groups. Gutierrez was sworn into office on January 15, 2003. His election constituted the first time that Ecuador's chief executive shared the humble background and dark-skinned complexion of the country's majority.
Despite the unprecedented incorporation of indigenous peoples in Gutierrez's government, by the end of 2003, the conflicting demands placed on the country's still fragmented political system by his heterogeneous coalition and the need for economic reform resulted in the withdrawal of key political support by Indian and peasant communities. After initiating a few reforms, such as an overhaul of the corrupt customs service and the introduction of some tough fiscal policies, including increases in bus fares and in oil and electricity prices, the Gutierrez government quickly became mired in internal disputes. Dissent over the fiscal reforms as well as over government plans to encourage private investment in the oil industry and controversial labor reforms boiled over into the streets, as one-time Gutierrez supporters expressed their frustration that the cash-strapped government had not done more to fight poverty.
Despite government successes in fighting inflation and making vast improvements in Ecuador's balance of payments situation, the decision by the powerful indigenous Pachakutik movement to withdraw support for Gutierrez portended serious social tensions. In November 2003, a scandal erupted over the alleged ties of Vice President Alfredo Palacio to a businessman detained on drug-trafficking charges who had contributed $30,000 to the Gutierrez-Palacio campaign.
During the 2004 campaign, Gutierrez met in Panama with self-exiled former president Abdala Bucaram, who was forced from office in 1997 on the grounds of "mental incapacity" amidst rampant corruption scandals. The meeting with Bucaram, whose small political party was considered a key potential ally in the upcoming elections, triggered charges that the president was attempting to interfere with the judicial process; his spokesman denied the charge. The meeting, however, pointed to the virtual absence of support for Gutierrez in parliament, where he was forced to govern by means of temporary alliances. Gutierrez's political standing was also hurt when he dismissed the head of the national tax agency, who had won fame for temporarily closing business tax scofflaws and who had raised the country's tax collection. Another cause for concern was the increasing territorial reach and political influence of drug traffickers from neighboring Colombia.
In the October 2004 regional and municipal elections, Gutierrez's Patriotic Society failed to receive even the 5 percent of the vote required for official recognition as a political party. Following the rout in the polls, the country's largest opposition party and several others across ideological lines pressed for Gutierrez's removal. However, as of November 30, Gutierrez had refused either to resign or to hold early elections and was reported to be looking to change the alignment of political forces by judicial manipulation.
Citizens of Ecuador can change their government democratically. The 2004 regional and municipal elections were generally considered to be free and fair, although the Supreme Electoral Tribunal admitted it was incapable of regulating campaign spending, and questions were raised about the registration of candidates as well as the geographic distribution of elected offices. The 1978 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. 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.
A government report published in 2000 said that corruption costs Ecuador more than $2 billion a year. In July 2003, former president Gustavo Noboa was given asylum in the Dominican Republic, becoming the latest in a long line of politicians, including other former presidents, who opted for exile rather than face corruption charges. Ecuador was ranked 112 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Constitutional guarantees regarding freedom of expression are generally observed, and the media, which are mostly private, are outspoken. However, journalists were the targets of violence during the year. In April, a Quito doctor assaulted two journalists from Ecuavisa who had happened upon two policemen acting as "facilitators" (taking money to speed up the processing of paperwork). Two weeks later, a reporter from El Universo, who was investigating a botched police operation in which both suspects and innocent bystanders were killed, filed a criminal complaint saying that he had been threatened by unidentified persons. The Transparency and Access to Information Law enacted in May 2004 was hailed by journalists' organizations as a step forward in freedom of the press and freedom of expression. By the end of the year, the law, which an increasing number of critics said may be unenforceable, was still awaiting the issuance of implementation regulations by Gutierrez.
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 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that engage in commercial activity. The government allows missionary activity and religious demonstrations by all religions. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
The right to organize political parties, civic groups, and unions is generally respected. Labor unions are well organized and have the right to strike, although the labor code limits public sector strikes. 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.
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. A new criminal justice procedural code that fundamentally changes Ecuador's legal system entered into force in July 2001. The new code empowers prosecutors to investigate and prosecute crimes, and alters the role of the judge to that of neutral arbiter presiding over oral trials. In 2003, an Ecuadoran court initiated a case against ChevronTexaco, alleging that a subsidiary of the California-based multinational oil company polluted the rain forest with billions of gallons of waste from 1971 to 1992.
Torture and ill-treatment of detainees and prisoners remain widespread. Police courts that are neither impartial nor independent continue to try members of security forces accused of human rights violations.
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 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.
Despite their growing political influence, indigenous people continue to suffer discrimination at many levels of society and are the frequent victims of abuse by military officers working in league with large landowners during disputes over land. In the Amazon region, indigenous groups have attempted to win a share of oil revenues and a voice in natural resources and development decisions. Although the government tends to consult indigenous communities on natural resources matters, their wishes are not always granted.
After the 2002 elections, women held 17 of 100 seats in congress, the largest proportion in the country's history. Gutierrez initially named four female cabinet ministers, including the first female minister of foreign affairs. At year's end, there were two female cabinet ministers, following turnover in the cabinet. Violence against women, particularly in indigenous areas where victims are reluctant to speak out against other members of their community, is common.