Ecuador | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2007

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Large-scale antigovernment protests early in the year led to the declaration of a state of emergency in several provinces. The protests contributed to the May cancellation of a public contract with U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum, which resulted in a suspension of free-trade talks with the United States. Left-wing economist Rafael Correa was elected president on November 26 after an acrimonious runoff contest against banana magnate Alvaro Noboa. At year’s end it appeared that Correa’s inauguration would quickly lead to confrontation with the Congress elected in October, in which Noboa’s party gained the largest share of seats.

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 forced his predecessor to step down. Significant numbers of mid-level military officers led by Colonel Lucio Gutierrez joined the main protests by indigenous groups, which were reportedly manipulated by putschist senior army commanders. Despite the protesters’ acclamation of a three-person “junta” that included Gutierrez, Congress met in emergency session in the city of Guayaquil to ratify Noboa, who did not belong to any political party, as the new constitutional president.

In October 2002 legislative elections, the Social Christian Party secured the largest number of seats. Gutierrez won a surprise victory in the first round of the concurrent presidential election, defeating a large field that included 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 indigenous 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 head of state shared the humble background and indigenous ethnicity of the country’s majority; native communities make up an estimated 40 percent of Ecuador’s population.

Despite the unprecedented inclusion of indigenous people in Gutierrez’s government, indigenous and peasant communities had largely withdrawn their vital political support by the end of 2003. The president was weakened by the conflicting demands of his heterogeneous coalition and the immediate effects of his economic reforms. Supporters of those measures—which included an overhaul of the corrupt customs service, the introduction of some tough fiscal policies, and price increases for energy and transportation—argued that they succeeded in fighting inflation and vastly improved Ecuador’s balance of payments.

The decision by the powerful indigenous Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) movement and its associated Pachukutik party to withdraw support for Gutierrez portended serious social tensions. Dissent over the fiscal and labor reforms spilled into the streets, as one-time Gutierrez backers expressed their frustration that the government had not done more to fight poverty. In November 2003, a scandal erupted over Vice-President Alfredo Palacio’s alleged ties to a businessman detained on drug-trafficking charges who had contributed $30,000 to the Gutierrez-Palacio campaign.

In 2004, Gutierrez, having won the presidency on an anticorruption platform, faced serious questions about his commitment to transparency and honest government. In September 2004, he met in Panama with self-exiled former president Abdala Bucaram, who was forced from office in 1997 on grounds of “mental incapacity” amid rampant corruption scandals. Bucaram, known as “El Loco” (The Madman), controlled a small political party that was considered a key potential ally in the upcoming elections. Gutierrez’s decision to hold the meeting highlighted his lack of support in Congress, where he had been forced to govern by means of temporary alliances. His political standing was also hurt when he dismissed the head of the national tax agency, who had won fame for cracking down on business-tax scofflaws and boosting the country’s collection rates.

In the October 2004 regional and municipal elections, Gutierrez’s Patriotic Society Party (PSP) 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 budget surplus. Subsequently, the country’s largest opposition party and several other factions began to press for Gutierrez’s removal. However, he refused to resign or hold early elections, and sought to change the alignment of political forces through judicial manipulation.

In April 2005, Gutierrez dismissed the Supreme Court on grounds of political bias. A new panel of judges, 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 Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, middle-income groups in Quito, still furious over the former president’s misrule, joined the protest movement against Gutierrez. Despite the president’s effort to placate the protesters by dismissing the new Supreme Court later in April, his unpopular free-market economic policies, support for U.S. antinarcotics efforts, and allegations of cronyism and corruption all served to spell the end of his administration. His ouster, which was technically based on a spurious charge of “abandonment of post,” marked the third time in nine years that an elected president was thrown out of office by Congress and street protests.

Assuming the presidency after Gutierrez’s removal, Palacio replaced the armed forces’ commanders and reinstated CONAIE representatives at the head of several state bodies as part of an elaborate factional balancing act that was essential to his political survival. Palacio also reversed his predecessor’s tough fiscal policies, diverting funds to social expenditures. In August, he 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. In late 2005, in an apparent attempt to bolster his rapidly waning popularity, Palacio demanded that public contracts with foreign oil companies be renegotiated to meet terms more favorable to the state. He also pushed for a referendum on the formation of a constituent assembly, but the proposal was blocked by both the Congress and the politicized Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE).

Much of 2006 was shaped by preparations for the October congressional and presidential elections and the ongoing struggles with social protests. Demonstrations against foreign oil companies and a proposed free-trade agreement (FTA) with the United States dominated the first half of the year. Protests in February and March led to the declaration of a state of emergency in six provinces, though Palacio was able to contain the protests in some areas through promises of increased social spending. Under the threat of a CONAIE-led uprising in May, the government decided to annul the contract of U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum, accusing the company of violating the terms of the agreement. That prompted the United States to suspend FTA talks indefinitely, threatening several important Ecuadorean export industries that stood to benefit from the proposed deal. The Palacio administration also continued to be racked by ministerial changes, with more than 50 individual alterations occurring during the president’s 18 months in office at year’s end. Meanwhile, relations with Colombia deteriorated as that country’s military and bands of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas crossed into Ecuadorean territory on several occasions.

The presidential contest featured a number of moderately well-known figures, including Ecuador’s richest man, Alvaro Noboa; Leon Roldos, the brother of former president Jaime Roldos; and Gilmar Gutierrez, the brother of and stand-in for Lucio Gutierrez. The run-up was also marked by the emergence of Rafael Correa, a charismatic former finance minister who pledged to align Ecuador with Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution,” renegotiate Ecuador’s foreign debt, and end the FTA talks with the United States. However, he unexpectedly finished second to Noboa in the first round of voting on October 15. Congressional elections the same day resulted in the largest share of seats, 28 out of 100, going to Noboa’s Institutional Renewal Party of National Action, followed by Gutierrez’s PSP with 24.

In the second round, held on November 26, Correa swept to victory with approximately 57 percent of the vote after six weeks of bitter campaigning. Noboa had led for much of the runoff campaign, but was hurt by accusations of exploitative labor practices as well as a messianic populist style that was off-putting to many Ecuadoreans. Even before his January inauguration, Correa moved toward confrontation with the incoming Congress due to his call for a constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Ecuador is an electoral democracy. However, it suffers from an unstable political system that has brought it eight presidents in the past 11 years. In the latest executive upset, President Lucio Gutierrez in 2005 was ousted by an irregular session of the National Congress. The 2006 elections, while generally free and fair, were plagued by technical glitches that delayed first-round results for several days. In the second round, attempts to contain campaign spending, especially by the wealthy Noboa, were ineffective.

The 1978 constitution provides for a president elected to a four-year term. In 1998, the national Constituent Assembly mandated that as of 2002, a presidential candidate would need to win 40 percent of the votes in first-round balloting, and beat his or her closest rival by at least 10 percentage points, in order to avoid a runoff. The unicameral National Congress is composed of 100 members elected on a provincial basis every four years.

Ecuador’s largely personalistic, clientelist, 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). Correa, whose major promise was the convocation of a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, ran as the sole candidate of the Country Alliance Party.

A high degree of regionalism increases tensions in Ecuadorean politics. The major distinction is between the coast, which is the base of both the economic elite and the Afro-Ecuadorean minority, and the interior (both the Andean mountain region and the Amazon River basin), where indigenous groups are centered. The representation level of indigenous groups has increased greatly over the past 15 years; the CONAIE indigenous movement is the most vocal, if not the most powerful, social group in the country.

Ecuador is racked by corruption; numerous politicians and functionaries have been investigated for graft, and the public perceives corruption to be present in nearly every social sphere. Ecuador was ranked 138 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Constitutional guarantees regarding freedom of expression are generally observed, and the media, which are mostly private, are outspoken. Several journalists reported receiving threats in 2006, and two were killed in February, though in both cases the motive was unclear. On a positive note, President Palacio vetoed a bill on December 30, 2005, that would have exposed journalists to the possibility of prison sentences for publishing telephone conversations without the consent of the participants.

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government 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 sects. Academic freedom is not restricted.

The right to organize political parties, civic groups, and unions is upheld by the authorities. Ecuador has numerous human rights organizations, and despite occasional acts of intimidation, they report openly on arbitrary arrests and instances of police brutality and military misconduct. Repeated police violence against protestors led to at least one death and several serious injuries in 2006, and human rights organizations denounced a perceived “militarization” of the police. The country’s labor unions are well organized and have the right to strike, though the labor code limits public sector strikes.

The judiciary, broadly undermined by the corruption afflicting the entire political system, is headed by a Supreme Court that, until the Court itself was placed in charge of appointments in 1997, was appointed by the legislature and thus subject to political influence. After the 2005 political crisis that led to Gutierrez’s ouster, a special commission mandated by the legislature began appointing Supreme Court judges according to a merit-based system. The new arrangement was considered relatively effective. Separately, a new criminal procedural code that fundamentally changed Ecuador’s legal system came into force in July 2001. The code abandoned the modalities of the civil-law system—investigation by judges, written testi mony given in camera, judicially rendered verdicts—and replaced them with certain pro cedures associated with the common-law tradition—an adver sarial 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.

Torture and ill-treatment of detainees and prisoners remain widespread. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission has singled out pretrial detention as an area of particular concern. Police courts that are neither impartial nor independent continue to try members of security forces accused of human rights violations. However, under Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrin, in office from August 2005 until August 2006, the military worked to formulate a doctrine that emphasizes the subordination of the military to civilian authorities.

Ecuador is a money laundering haven as well as a transshipment point for cocaine passing from neighboring Colombia to the United States. Widespread corruption in Ecuador’s customs service led the government to privatize it in May 1999. The adoption of the U.S. dollar as the Ecuadorean currency in 2000 appears to have had the unintended effect of making the country more attractive for money laundering and other criminal financial activity.

An increase in the number of incursions by both Colombian guerrilla groups and Colombian soldiers into Ecuadorean territory in 2006 exacerbated concerns about the extent to which Colombia’s civil war would affect public safety and the survival of democratic institutions in Ecuador. Meanwhile, rising rates of violent crime have 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, where much of the country’s natural wealth is located, 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. Indigenous activists frequently report threats and violence against them by police, soldiers, and private security forces.

After the 2006 elections, women held 25 of 100 seats in Congress. Violence against women is common, particularly in indigenous areas, where victims are reluctant to speak out against other members of their community. 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.