Full circle in Ecuador: new leader, old crisis

Democracy trembles: People's revolution, military coup, stumble while economic distress remains.

January 25, 2000

SOUTH America's evolution from military juntas to electoral democracy began 21 years ago in Ecuador, when the army declared free elections. Few people want to see the trend reversed there.

It is too soon to tell whether that has happened. Events last week, following authoritarian tendencies in the elected presidents of Peru and Venezuela, cause grave concern. It was revolution in the mathematical sense: drastic change, moving in a complete circle, ending where it began.

Despite oil and banana exports, Ecuador, a country of 12.4 million, has been in the grip of depression, inflation and bank failure, its GNP shrinking and its people getting poorer.

The vacillation of the elected president, Jamil Mahuad, and resistance of congress to his economic program made matters worse. This triggered mass protests among the poor Indian half of the population.

To save his skin by changing the subject, President Mahuad proposed replacing the sucre with the U.S. dollar as legal currency. (Coincidentally, East Timor, having seceded from Indonesia, did that under United Nations tutelage yesterday.)

This is probably a good idea. But a radical Indian leader, Antonio Vargas, marched on the capital where underpaid troops joined his followers in occupying government buildings and declaring a junta.

The army chief, Gen. Carlos Mendoza, repudiated the coup, ordered Mr. Mahuad to step down and appointed a new junta with himself in charge. In the face of international and military rejection, he called it off.

Vice President Gustavo Noboa constitutionally ascended to the presidency. General Mendoza, saying he never wanted to be a strong man, retired to civilian life.

President Noboa swears by the policies of former President Mahuad, including introduction of the dollar as the official currency. The economic distress is no better, the government no stronger. A colonel was arrested. Mr. Vargas vowed, from hiding, to continue the fight.

The issues of military privilege, cultural revolution and economic competence were confused in this melodrama. But the support for democracy from the international community shone through.

For President Noboa, economic and political success can only go together. The confidence of the people is prerequisite to his reform program, including dollarization.

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