News Analysis

Ecuador, an impoverished country of 13 million people, is emerging as a major headache for the Bush administration. The people of this oil-rich nation just ousted their third president within seven years and show little sign of accepting the status quo.

In response to a massive outpouring of popular protest, President Lucio Gutierrez fled the presidential palace in a helicopter on April 20. He made a dash to the Brazilian Embassy, where he received political asylum.

Ecuador, located on the northwest coast of South America, is an important supplier of oil to the U.S. market. When we think of oil, we usually think of the Middle East. But many of the strategic oil reserves on which the U.S. economy relies are much closer to home in Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico and Ecuador.

In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez is upholding his nation’s sovereignty and demanding a fair price for its oil, much to Bush’s chagrin. Colombia is gripped in a civil war, with some of the most oil-rich areas smack in the middle of the combat zone. Mexico is in turmoil, and could elect a left-wing government next year. And now comes the upheaval in Ecuador.

It is not clear if Gutierrez’s successor, former Vice President Alfredo Palacio, will be any more successful in meeting popular expectations. But if Palacio follows through with his promises — including to hold a referendum on the Free Trade Area of the Americas pact and to possibly pull out of the U.S.-backed “Plan Colombia” — it seems likely that one more resource-rich Latin American country will be opposing the pro-corporate policies of the U.S. government.

The overthrow of Gutierrez was not surprising. He had betrayed his popular base.

Gutierrez came to power as the result of a movement — originally based in Ecuador’s large indigenous Indian community, but also involving labor, civic organizations and junior-grade military officers — that repudiated neoliberal policies of “free trade,” privatization and austerity. After participating in an interim regime, Gutierrez was elected president in 2002. Almost instantly he moved sharply to the right and lined up with big business interests. Poverty engulfs at least 40 percent of Ecuador’s population.

In December of last year, Gutierrez’s legislative allies removed the Supreme Court and replaced them with judges who ruled that former president Abdala Bucaram, widely perceived as corrupt, be allowed to return from exile and not face prosecution for his crimes. This fanned popular discontent. Subsequent moves by Gutierrez to again tamper with the Supreme Court’s makeup caused the pot to boil over.

In addition to the indigenous Indian and working-class opposition, many “middle class” people and students now poured into the streets. The demand was not only that Gutierrez, but also the members of Congress, “go.” (“Que se vayan todos! Out with all of them!”)

The throngs also demanded the evacuation of a U.S. military base from Ecuador and the restoration of the nation’s currency (the economy runs on the U.S. dollar now), two demands that have yet to be addressed by Palacio.

A good omen for Ecuador’s national sovereignty is the fact that when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for new elections in Ecuador, Palacio’s government told her to back off. There is also talk in the new cabinet of renegotiating Ecuador’s foreign debt and eliminating a law that ties up oil royalties in debt payments.

However, the situation remains very unstable. The forces that pushed Gutierrez out are disparate and not all equally progressive.

Apparently a good portion of the army brass resented having to take orders from Gutierrez, a mestizo and a mere colonel. On the left, the main indigenous Indian group that mobilized to oust Gutierrez’s two immediate predecessors, the Pachakutik Movement for Multinational Unity, has held back from joining the new government because the latter has not yet agreed to some of their demands.

Many Ecuadorians want Gutierrez to be tried for ordering his security forces to fire on the demonstrators, killing two. They are disappointed that Brazil or any other country might give him asylum.

One thing is clear. Unless Palacio moves quickly to meet popular demands and to challenge the pro-U.S. status quo, he, too, will find his days in office numbered.