Musical chairs in Ecuador Crisis resolved: Constitutional path found out of unconstitutional dilemma.

February 13, 1997

COMIC OPERA is a relatively benign resolution of a constitutional crisis when the alternatives are civil war, anarchy or dictatorship. If there is a hero in Ecuador's crisis, which saw three claimants to the presidency where one was too many, it was the armed forces under Gen. Paco Moncayo, for refusing to take over and for compelling politicians to bargain politically.

Abdala Bucaram is removed for "mental incapacity" from the presidency he won last July with 54 percent of the vote; Vice President Rosalia Arteaga was the country's first woman president, briefly; Congress named its leader, Fabian Alarcon, to succeed as interim president until a fresh election on Aug. 10, 1998. Mr. Bucaram, from abroad, protests.

Mr. Bucaram, who campaigned as a populist champion of the poor, called himself "El Loco" or Madman. He entertained Lorena Bobbit at lunch, hiked running mate Mrs. Arteaga's skirt to show off her legs, shaved off his mustache before a television audience and apologized to Peru for past wars. The zaniest thing he did was implement austerity foisted on Ecuador by international lending institutions, cutting the deficit, privatizing utilities and tripling the cost of cooking gas, electricity and phone service for Ecuadoreans fortunate enough to have them.

Zany, because the people hurt were Mr. Bucaram's own supporters. They responded with rage. A general strike paralyzed the country, accusations of corruption cascaded down and the Congress declared Mr. Bucaram deposed. Mrs. Arteaga, Mr. Alarcon and the embattled Mr. Bucaram all claimed to be president. Fortunately the army made them negotiate constitutional way out of the abyss they had created.

The net result is a smaller setback for democracy than expected. Still, the six-party congress in Quito remains a political arena where strange things may yet happen.

But the good news is no civil war, no coup, nobody jailed, no seizures of media, no sacking and pillaging. It's all too amusing, but civilized compared to the way these matters used to be handled throughout South America.

Pub Date: 2/13/97

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