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Vice President Alfredo Palacio replaced elected President Lucio Gutierrez on April 20, 2005. Following a month of street protests, nearly two-thirds of the National Congress's 100 members meeting in rump session voted to remove Gutierrez, who had sparked widespread opposition to his rule when he dissolved the Supreme Court. Upon taking office, Palacio-Ecuador's seventh president in 10 years-brushed off calls by Brazil and the United States, as well as by protestors at home, for a new election, announcing he would serve out Gutierrez's term. Palacio formed a heterogeneous coalition, ranging from the conservative Social Christian Party to a leftist Andean Indian party.
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 Colonel Lucio 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.
In the October 2002 legislative elections, the Social Christian Party secured the largest number of seats. Gutierrez 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 an advocate for the elimination of the country's infamous corruption and the alleviation of its extraordinary rural poverty. A political novice at the head of a leftist coalition sustained by the country's increasingly empowered Indian groups, Gutierrez went on to best populist banana magnate Alvaro Noboa in the November 2002 runoff. Gutierrez was sworn into office in January 2003. His election marked the first time that Ecuador's chief executive shared the humble background and Indian ethnicity of the country's majority; Indian communities are estimated to represent as many as 40 percent of Ecuador's 13 million people.
Despite the unprecedented incorporation of indigenous peoples in Gutierrez's government, by the end of 2003, the conflicting demands placed on Ecuador'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. Supporters pointed out that Gutierrez's reforms-such as an overhaul of the corrupt customs service and the introduction of some tough fiscal policies, including adhering to a law requiring that part of any oil windfall be used to repay debt as well as increasing bus fares and energy prices-had resulted in successes in fighting inflation and vastly improved Ecuador's balance of payments.
The decision by the powerful indigenous Pachakutik movement-which combines a genuine concern for the rights of native peoples with characteristically left-wing positions on other issues, especially opposition to economic liberalism and "globalization"-to withdraw support for Gutierrez portended serious social tensions. In addition, the Gutierrez government 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 to usher in controversial labor reforms, boiled over into the streets, as one-time Gutierrez supporters expressed their frustration that the government had not done more to fight poverty. In November 2003, a scandal erupted over Palacio's alleged ties to a businessman detained on drug-traffick-ing charges who had contributed $30,000 to the Gutierrez-Palacio campaign.
Gutierrez spent 2004 trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to establish his presidency's legitimacy following the rupture of his ruling coalition and his party's poor electoral showing in the October 2004 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.
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" amid rampant corruption scandals. The meeting with Bucaram, known as "El Loco" (The Madman), 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 Congress, 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 Party failed to receive even the 5 percent of the vote required for official recognition as a political party, despite a 7 percent economic growth rate and a fiscal surplus. Subsequently, the country's largest opposition party and several others pressed for Gutierrez's removal. However, Gutierrez refused either to resign or to hold early elections and looked to change the alignment of political forces by judicial manipulation. In April 2005, Gutierrez dismissed the Supreme Court on grounds of political bias. A newly appointed tribunal, chosen on the basis of loyalty to the president, granted immunity to several exiled politicians accused of corruption, a move that opened the door to the return of Bucaram-and to a possible parliamentary alliance between him and the president. However, when Bucaram returned to Ecuador vowing to lead a "revolution of the poor" in the manner of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, middle-income sectors in Quito, still furious over the former president's misrule, joined the protest movement against Gutierrez. Despite the president's effort to placate the protestors by dismissing the new Supreme Court later in April, Gutierrez's focus on paying down the country's debt, his support for the U.S. military's war against drug trafficking in neighboring Colombia, and allegations of cronyism and corruption all served to spell the end of his presidency. His ouster, which came after the armed forces said that it could no longer support him, marked the third time in nine years that an elected president was thrown out of office by Congress and street protests.
Following Gutierrez's removal, Palacio replaced the armed forces' commanders and reinstated representatives from the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador at the head of several state bodies, the latter part of a balancing act that included a complex web of political and social forces essential to his political survival. The military also announced that one of Gutierrez's reforms-the armed forces' administration of the customs service-would end, as critics charged that efficiency had not improved and that corruption and theft remained rampant. Palacio also reversed Gutierrez's tough fiscal policies, diverting funds to social expenditures.
In August, Palacio declared a state of emergency in two oil-rich northeastern provinces where protests and a strike had brought the oil industry to a halt, giving troops permission to use "maximum force" to protect strategic installations. By late 2005, his early popularity quickly waning, Palacio appeared to seek to bolster his position by demanding that contracts with foreign oil companies investing in Ecuador be renegotiated in a way similar to that undertaken in Bolivia.
Citizens of Ecuador can change their government democratically. However, the 2005 ouster of Gutierrez by an irregular session of the National Congress was evidence of the country's unstable political system. The 2004 regional and municipal elections were generally considered to be free and fair; however, 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 a four-year term. In 1998, the national Constituent Assembly mandated that by the year 2002, a presidential candidate would need to win 40 percent of the votes in first-round balloting and exceed by 10 percent those received by the nearest rival in order to avoid a runoff. The unicameral congress (Congreso Nacional) is composed of 100 members elected on a provincial basis every four years, with the next election to be held in October 2006.
Ecuador's largely personalistic, clientalist, and poorly institutionalized political parties and groupings include the Popular Democracy-Christian Democratic Union (DP-UDC), the Social Christian Party (PSC), the Ecuadorian Roldosista Party (PRE), the Democratic Left (ID), the Pachakutik Movement (MUPP-NP), and the Alfarista Radical Front (FRA).
According to a government report published in 2000, corruption costs Ecuador more than $2 billion a year. Ecuador was ranked 117 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Constitutional guarantees regarding freedom of expression are generally observed, and the media, which are mostly private, are outspoken. Journalists were the targets of violence during the year, and three were abducted by pro-Gutierrez militants. After Palacio replaced Gutierrez, systematic verbal attacks on the press by the executive and the legislative branches came to an end. On another positive note, under Palacio new regulations for implementing the Law on Transparency and Access to Public Information were passed, superseding those approved by Gutierrez, which had been strongly criticized by the press.
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. Academic freedom is not restricted.
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. A new criminal justice procedural code that fundamentally changed Ecuador's legal system entered into force in July 2001. The new code includes the abandonment of the traditional modalities of the Continental (and Latin American) civil law system-investigation by judges, written testimony given in camara, judicially rendered verdicts-and their replacement by certain procedures traditionally associated with the Anglo-American common law system-an adversarial system, with investigation and charging assigned to a prosecutorial corps independent of the judiciary; oral testimony in open court; and verdicts rendered by lay juries. After former president Guiterrez dissolved the Surpeme Court in April 2005, a legislatively mandated commission appointed judges to a new Supreme Court in November.
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. In late 2005, the new defense minister, General Oswaldo Jarrin, announced that the armed forces would be restructured in a way that the military would remain outside the government and politics in general.
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.
An upswing in the number of incursions from both Colombian guerrilla groups and their paramilitary enemies into Ecuadoran territory exacerbated regional concerns 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. 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. Violence against women, particularly in indigenous areas where victims are reluctant to speak out against other members of their community, is common. Abortion is legal only if pregnancy threatens the woman's life or health, and in cases of rape if the victim is mentally retarded or insane. A 1987 law granted women the same rights as men with regard to divorce, property distribution, and inheritance, implementing provisions of the 1979 constitution that require equal rights for both sexes.