Ecuador | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2009

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In March 2008, Colombian forces carried out a cross-border bombing raid on rebels based in Ecuador, dramatically raising tensions between the two countries. In September, voters approved a new constitution that granted extensive powers to the executive branch.

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, President Jamil Mahuad was forced to step down after midlevel military officers led by Colonel Lucio Gutierrez joined large protests by indigenous groups. Congress then met in emergency session in the city of Guayaquil to ratify Vice President Gustavo 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 ethnicity and humble background of the country’s large indigenous population.

By the end of 2003, the president had been weakened by conflicts within his leftist coalition and the immediate effects of his tough fiscal policies, which supporters said had 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 fiscal and labor reforms spilled into the streets.

After a dismal showing by Gutierrez’s Patriotic Society Party (PSP) in the October 2004 regional and municipal elections, the opposition began to press for his removal. In December, Gutierrez dismissed the Supreme Court for political bias, replacing the panel with loyal judges who granted immunity to several exiled politicians facing corruption accusations. When one such leader, former president AbdalaBucaram, returned to Ecuador, 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 he was ousted that month on the spurious charge of “abandonment of post.”

Assuming the presidency, Vice President Alfredo Palacio initiated an elaborate factional balancing act and reversed his predecessor’s fiscal policies, diverting funds to social programs. 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.

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 guerrillas with the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) crossed the border on several occasions.

Charismatic former finance minister Rafael Correa—who criticized free-market economic policies and pledged to renegotiate the country’s foreign debt and end the FTA talks with the United States—finished second to banana magnate Alvaro Noboa in the first round of the presidential election in October 2006. Correa went on to win the runoff with 57 percent of the vote, but Noboa’s Institutional Renewal Party of National Action (PRIAN) led congressional elections with 28 out of 100 seats. The PSP placed second with 24.

Correa soon began pressing Congress to authorize a referendum calling for a constituent assembly that would be empowered to write a new constitution. 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 Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). The tribunal subsequently dismissed 57 legislators, many of whom were replaced by alternates more sympathetic to the executive branch. When the Constitutional Court declared the dismissals illegal, the reshaped Congress removed all nine of its judges. According to Human Rights Watch, all of these decisions “were without any credible basis in law.”

In April 2007, some 82 percent of referendum voters approved the call for a constituent assembly with “full powers.” Correa and his Country Alliance Movement, taking advantage of the battered and fragmented opposition, captured 80 of the assembly’s 130 seats in September delegate elections.

Work on the new charter was fitful during the first half of 2008. The most significant interruption came on March 2, when Colombian warplanes bombed a FARC camp on Ecuadorean territory. Ecuador angrily denounced the attack and recalled its ambassador from Bogota. Despite several attempts at reconciliation, the two countries remained at odds for the rest of the year.

In July 2008, the government confiscated the first of what would eventually be over 250 businesses owned by the Grupo Isaias conglomerate. The government said it would sell the seized assets to compensate citizens whose savings were lost in the 1998 crash of an Isaias-owned bank, but critics noted that the two television stations confiscated in the action would be useful to the government during the forthcoming constitutional referendum and subsequent elections.

Meanwhile, the constituent assembly finally approved a draft constitution, composed of 444 articles, in late July. Supporters said it would do away with Ecuador’s ossified party system while guaranteeing an array of rights and services to all citizens. Critics of the document argued that it concentrated both political and economic power in the hands of the president and posited a long list of rights that the state would be hard pressed to uphold.

In a September referendum, the new constitution passed with approximately 64 percent of the vote. A subset of 76 of the 130 constituent assembly members were tasked with fulfilling legislative duties during the transition period, including enactment of an election law that would govern presidential and legislative elections scheduled for April 2009.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Ecuador is an electoral democracy. However, it suffers from an unstable political system that has brought it eight presidents since 1996. The 2006 elections, while generally free and fair, were plagued by technical glitches. Elections to the constituent assembly in 2007 were deemed free and fair by the European Union, as was the September 2008 constitutional referendum.

The 2008 constitution provides for a president elected to a four-year term, with one possible reelection; in practice, this means that President Rafael Correa could serve until 2017. To win without a runoff, presidential candidates must garner 40 percent of the first-round votes and beat their closest rival by at least 10 percentage points. The unicameral National Assembly is elected via party-list proportional representation, with 124 seats up for election in 2009. The president has the authority to dissolve the legislature once in his term, which triggers new elections for both the assembly and the presidency; the assembly can likewise dismiss the president, though under more stringent rules.

For decades, Ecuador’s parties have been largely personality-based, clientelist, and fragile. Correa’s Country Alliance party, though not fully ideologically coherent, is currently dominant; its competitors include PRIAN, the PSP, the PSC, and the Ethics and Democracy Network (RED).

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. Despite Correa’s roots in Guayaquil, the country’s largest city and commercial center, opposition to his administration is concentrated there. Indigenous representation has increased greatly over the past 15 years; the CONAIE indigenous movement is one of the better-organized and more vocal social groups 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. In 2008, the sports minister was forced to resign when evidence of substantial graft within his ministry emerged. The country was ranked 151 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression are generally observed, and the media, most of which are privately owned, are outspoken. However, relations between the press and Correa are poor. He has frequently accused the media of improper links with private interests and often refers 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;” the case was closed in 2008. Separately, two reporters received jail sentences for defamation in 2008. The two television stations seized by the authorities in July as part of the Grupo Isaias case subsequently softened their editorial line toward the government. Separately, press watchdog groups warned that several vague articles in the new constitution opened the door to potentially abusive new forms of regulation. Internet access is unrestricted.

The constitution provides freedom of religion, and the authorities respect this right in practice, though tensions between the government and the Catholic Church increased during the run-up to the constitutional referendum. 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. Human rights groups loudly protested repression by security forces and the large volume of arrests during protests related to the draftmining law being debated in late 2008. The country’s labor unions have the right to strike, though the labor code limits public-sector strikes. A mere 1 percent of the workforce, which is concentrated in the informal sector, is unionized.

The judiciary, broadly undermined by the corruption afflicting all government institutions, remained in a state of crisis following the political turmoil of 2005 and the struggle between the executive and legislative branches in 2007. The highest judicial bodies under the new constitution are the nine-member Constitutional Court and the 21-member National Court of Justice (CNJ). Following approval of the new charter, the majority of previous Supreme Court members selected to serve on the CNJ refused to take their seats. A standoff of several months ended with an agreement in which former alternate Supreme Court judges occupied a majority of the new court’s positions.

A new criminal code in 2001 replaced the existing civil law–based, inquisitorial system with aspects of a common-law, adver­sarial system. However, judicial processes remain slow; many inmates reach the time limit for pretrial detention while their cases are still under investigation.The number of inmates in the country’s overcrowded prisons is more than double the intended capacity, and torture and ill-treatment of detainees and prisoners remain widespread. In late 2008 the Ministry of Justice began to prepare an overhaul of the criminal justice system, including the drafting of a new criminal procedure code.

Civil-military tensions increased in 2008 following the cross-border raid by Colombian forces. After it emerged that military officials had provided information to their Colombian counterparts that had not been provided to Correa, Defense Minister Wellington Sandoval and several senior commanders were dismissed.

In 2007, Correa presented a plan to increase spending on services for the hundreds of thousands of Colombian refugees in Ecuador. The country continued efforts to grant residency status to the refugees in 2008.

Despite their significant 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. Indigenous activists frequently report threats and violence against them by state and private security forces. In 2008, a new draft mining law led to conflict between the government and indigenous groups, including several violent protests. Debate on the law in the transitional assembly continued at year’s end.

Women held 45 of 130 seats in the constituent assembly, and the new constitution calls for significant female presence throughout the public sphere. Violence against women is common, as is employment discrimination. Trafficking in persons, generally women and children, remains a problem.