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Ecuador’s legislative, judicial, and executive branches clashed repeatedly during 2007, further weakening the country’s already debilitated institutions. President Rafael Correa used his personal popularity to secure an overwhelming victory for his political movement in elections to an assembly charged with drafting a new constitution. The constituent assembly began its work in late November amid opposition concerns that Correa was intent on centralizing power.
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. Midlevel 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 (PSC) secured the largest number of seats. Gutierrez won a surprise victory in that year’s presidential election, pledging to eliminate corruption and ease acute rural poverty. His January 2003 inauguration marked the first time that Ecuador’s head of state shared the humble background and ethnicity of the country’s large indigenous population.
By the end of 2003, the president had been weakened by the conflicting demands of his heterogeneous leftist coalition and the immediate effects of his economic reforms, which included an overhaul of the corrupt customs service, tough fiscal policies, and price increases for energy and transportation. Supporters argued that the changes curbed inflation and improved Ecuador’s balance of payments. The powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) movement soon withdrew support for Gutierrez, and dissent over the fiscal and labor reforms spilled into the streets.
In September 2004, Gutierrez 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 anticorruption credentials were further damaged when he fired the head of the national tax agency, who had cracked down on business-tax scofflaws and boosted collection rates.
In the October 2004 regional and municipal elections, Gutierrez’s Patriotic Society Party (PSP) failed to receive the 5 percent of the vote required for official recognition as a party. Subsequently, the opposition began to press for Gutierrez’s removal. In December, Gutierrez dismissed the Supreme Court for political bias, replacing the panel with loyal judges who granted immunity to several exiled politicians accused of corruption, including Bucaram. 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 joined the protest movement against Gutierrez. The president sought to placate protesters by dismissing the new Supreme Court in April 2005, but his unpopular free-market economic policies, support for U.S. antinarcotics efforts, and allegations of corruption all doomed his administration. His ouster that month, 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, Vice President Alfredo Palacio replaced top military commanders and reinstated CONAIE representatives at the head of several state bodies as part of an elaborate factional balancing act. He also reversed his predecessor’s tough fiscal policies, diverting funds to social expenditures. In late 2005, in an apparent attempt to bolster his waning popularity, Palacio demanded that contracts with foreign oil companies be renegotiated to meet terms more favorable to the state. He also pushed for a referendum to form a constituent assembly, but it was blocked by Congress and the politicized Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE).
Demonstrations against foreign oil companies and a proposed free-trade agreement (FTA) with the United States dominated the first half of 2006, leading to emergency declarations in six provinces in February and March. In May, the government annulled the contract of U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum, accusing the company of violating its terms; the move prompted the United States to suspend FTA talks indefinitely. Meanwhile, relations with Colombia deteriorated as that country’s military and bands of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas crossed the border on several occasions.
Rafael Correa—a charismatic former finance minister who pledged to align Ecuador with Chavez, renegotiate the country’s foreign debt, and end the FTA talks with the United States—unexpectedly finished second to banana magnate Alvaro Noboa in the first round of the presidential election on October 15. Noboa’s Institutional Renewal Party of National Action (PRIAN) led congressional elections the same day, taking 28 out of 100 seats. Gutierrez’s PSP placed second with 24. Correa won the second presidential round in November with some 57 percent of the vote.
Correa soon began pressing Congress to authorize a referendum summoning a constituent assembly. By the end of March 2007, the fight to determine the rules of the prospective assembly had led the congressional opposition to remove the head of the TSE. The TSE subsequently dismissed 57 legislators, many of whom were replaced by alternates more sympathetic to the executive. When the Constitutional Court declared the dismissals to be illegal, the reshaped Congress removed all nine of its judges. According to Human Rights Watch, all of the decisions “were without any credible basis in law.”
Meanwhile, on April 15, some 82 percent of referendum voters approved the call for a constituent assembly with “full powers.” Correa and his Country Alliance Movement took advantage of a dizzied and fragmented opposition and captured 80 of the assembly’s 130 seats in the September 30 delegate elections. One of the new body’s first moves in November was to place Congress in recess and assume legislative powers. Though opposition began to coalesce around Guayaquil mayor Jaime Nebot, at the end of the year Correa appeared to be in firm control of the assembly. To his backers, this meant that Ecuador’s feeble political system could finally be overhauled, while to his detractors, Ecuador’s institutions were falling under the sway of a radical, illiberal leader.
Ecuador is an electoral democracy. However, it suffers from an unstable political system that has brought it eight presidents in the past 12 years. 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 wealthy presidential candidate Alvaro Noboa, were ineffective. Elections to the constituent assembly in 2007 were sanctioned as free and fair by the European Union.
The 1998 constitution provides for a president elected to a four-year term. Currently, presidential candidates must 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. The current constituent assembly is discussing constitutional changes including longer presidential terms and possible consecutive terms.
Ecuador’s largely personality-based, clientelist, and fragile political parties include Noboa’s PRIAN, the PSP, the PSC, the Ecuadorian Roldosista Party (PRE), the Democratic Left (ID), and the Pachakutik Movement (MUPP-NP). President Rafael Correa’s Country Alliance party did not run in 2006 congressional elections but actively contested the 2007 constituent assembly race.
Politics are affected by regionalist tension 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. Indigenous representation 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. The country was ranked 150 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression are generally observed, and the media, which are mostly private, are outspoken. However, relations between the press and President Correa deteriorated rapidly following his inauguration. He frequently accused the media of improper links with private interests, and often referred to journalists as corrupt liars and feral beasts, among other slurs. In May 2007, Correa filed a defamation suit against the editor of the newspaper La Hora for an editorial that accused him of governing with “tumult, sticks and stones.” Following a scandal in which then economy minister Ricardo Patino was taped discussing Ecuadorian debt payments with securities brokers, Correa banned the media from showing video taped without the knowledge of the subjects. The president has requested stricter regulation of the media in the new constitution. Internet access is unrestricted.
The constitution provides freedom of religion, and the authorities respect 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. Missionary activity and religious demonstrations by all sects are permitted. 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. The government cracked down on demonstrations in Orellana department in December 2007, arresting several dozen people in a manner that human rights groups criticized as arbitrary. 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 all state institutions, is headed by the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, and the TSE, all of which were weakened by the political clashes of 2007. After the political crisis of 2005, 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. The Constitutional Court and the TSE, however, are considered to be politicized bodies.
A new criminal code in 2001 replaced the civil law, inquisitorial system with aspects of a common-law, adver sarial system, including jury trials and oral testimony. However, judicial processes remain slow; in late 2007, several thousand inmates reached the time limit for pretrial detention. Congress resolved the issue through a technical fix that kept most inmates in jail. Torture and ill-treatment of detainees and prisoners remain widespread.
Correa’s first defense minister, Guadalupe Larriva, died in a helicopter crash in January 2007, causing controversy throughout the year as her family claimed that the ensuing investigation was insufficient. Her replacement, Lorena Escudero, resigned in August after allegedly clashing with high officials in the armed forces. Separately, Correa vowed that the United States would be forced to leave its base at Manta when the lease expired in 2009. Police courts that are neither impartial nor independent continue to try members of security forces accused of human rights violations.
More frequent cross-border incursions by both Colombian guerrillas and Colombian soldiers in recent years have exacerbated the effects of Colombia’s civil war on public safety in Ecuador. In 2007, in recognition of the poor living conditions of hundreds of thousands of Colombian refugees, Correa presented an ambitious plan to provide greater spending on services to refugees in Ecuador. However, Defense Minister Wellington Sandoval’s claim that Colombia lacked control of its side of the border increased bilateral tensions in November.
Despite their significant political influence, indigenous people continue to suffer discrimination at many levels of society. In the Amazon region, home to much of the country’s natural wealth, 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.
Women hold 45 of 130 seats in the constituent assembly. 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 handicapped or insane. A 1987 law granted women the same rights as men with regard to divorce, property distribution, and inheritance, implementing provisions of the 1978 constitution that require equal rights for both sexes.