Latin America is watching another of its popular presidents, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, lead his country into the 21st century. The fact that he enjoys such high esteem among the population reflects a string of artful campaign strategies and a largely successful attempt to remove the political constraints to his strategic goals. Not alone in his ambition to grant himself unrestricted power, he joins the ranks of regional leaders like Hugo Chávez, who have embarked on a radical and nationalist leadership effort. Correa has pledged economic relief to the poor, renewed political sovereignty to the indigenous, and regional integration. However, in doing so, civil liberties have at times been treated as privileges rather than guaranteed rights. Correa may appeal to the masses, but after fears of haphazard attempts to experiment with democracy in Ecuador, the country lingers in a political limbo, with many unsure as to which direction it will ultimately go.
In comparison to a number of other Latin American countries, Ecuador boasts a relatively stable, mostly-tranquil history that has been free of Pinochet-like military dictatorships, Batista-like presidential coups, and Salvadoran-like civil wars. However, such comparative stability cannot hide the formidable obstacles that face Ecuador today. In the most recent Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), which rates countries on a ten-point scale (10 being the least corrupt) according to civilian perceptions, Ecuador received a low 2.2, denoting “rampant corruption.” Furthermore, in recent months under the rule of democratically-elected President Rafael Correa, Ecuador has been accused of harboring terrorists operating against Colombia, threatening to shut down the independent TV station Teleamazonas, and seizing oil fields owned by the Anglo-French company Perenco Corp. Whether or not these actions will directly effect the future of Ecuador’s democratic institutions remains to be seen; however, President Correa’s continuous drift to the left is sure to ignite significant instability, both domestically and in the Andean region.
The Road to Democracy
Ecuador has a long history of democratic governments, though they have failed to be consistent. Interrupted by military juntas and authoritarian dictators (although almost unobtrusive compared to the turmoil witnessed elsewhere in the region), democracy has since periodically surged and abated. Beginning in the 1940s, Ecuador started to enjoy relative political and economic stability under four successive democratically-elected presidents (Carlos Alberto Arroyo del Río, José María Velasco Ibarra, C.J. Arosemena Tola, and Galo Plaza). The validity of the system however, remained questionable as the country’s political process tended to be class-exclusive, and continuously failed to incorporate the traditionally subordinate-middle and working classes, most of whom came from Ecuador’s mestizo and indigenous populations making up 77% and 6% of the total population respectively. Fragmented by ethnic, linguistic and cultural cleavages, the emergence of class organizations and mass political parties was largely stunted. This lack of a robust civil society, which is fundamental in promoting the trust, organization, and cooperation necessary for a democratic structure to flourish, resulted in an unsatisfactory level of democratic involvement in Ecuador.
The 1960s marked the beginning of the tumultuous years to come. A thriving market in banana exportation and the increased production of oil boosted the economy, while simultaneously the fledgling democratic nature of government began its precipitous decline. In this scenario, state institutions lost their legitimacy as military coups, mass revolts, and interim governments developed in the wake of the failures of the old regime. The military proved unable to co-exist with the country’s emerging democratic institutions, and, defying its constitutional limits, established authoritarian rule in Ecuador in 1972.
The military regime that ruled until 1979 focused on economic modernization as its primary ambition while in power. According to one Latin American scholar, unlike the highly repressive and violent regimes in Argentina and Chile that were ruling at the same time, Ecuador’s military was one of the “least iron-fisted in Latin America.” It was more of a dictablanda (soft dictatorship) than a dictadura (dictatorship). Undertaking much-needed economic reforms that previous Ecuadorean governments had failed to implement, the regime proved highly successful in stimulating national growth. Policies to expand the state sector, develop basic infrastructure, and promote economic diversification resulted in Ecuador boasting one of the highest economic growth rates in Latin America by 1979. These changes however, did not necessarily improve the organizational and mobilization capacity of the lower classes, nor was the military in anyway successful in undermining the economic superiority of the country’s powerful elites. Ecuador may have experienced vigorous economic growth, laying the foundation for potential democracy, yet all the while many socio-economic and political structures remained stagnant.
The 1970s provided a potential transition for a return to democracy. As the economy grew so did public and private sector employment, thus expanding the ranks of the middle class. Many believe a powerful middle class is one of the most important components of a successful democracy. According to this view, Ecuador’s shifting economic structure reflected a significant step towards democratization. However, according to Latin American scholar Catherine Conaghan, this new economic growth and the anticipated boost in the strength of civil society proved minimal, as “a relatively organized and politically disaffected bourgeoisie (operating in the absence of organized and mobilized lower classes) was enough to undermine even the modest reforms proposed by military and civilian technocrats.” The rise of Ecuador’s middle class alone proved insufficient to bring about regime change at the turn of the decade, as economic elites proved effective in maintaining whichever government was most likely to uphold the status quo.
Another Attempt at Democracy
Jaime Roldós Aguilera was the first democratically-elected president of Ecuador after the dictatorships ended in 1979. Still, this transition to democracy was monitored and tightly controlled by the armed forces. Scholar Simon Pachano argues that the continued political pressure of the military resulted in a ‘“handed down’ democracy [that] did not inspire the sense of commitment that could have existed if the political parties and civil society had played a greater role in wresting it from the military.” Conversely, others assert the importance of the pacted agreement between the military regime and the democratically elected administration. It is argued that the support of the military and its acceptance of the new democratic government was crucial for a smooth transition, provided that the military play a role of observers, resisting any significant further intervention. This was largely the case as Ecuador’s military maintained a passive role and allowed for democratic elections to take place. Unfortunately a legitimate democracy ‘of, by, and for’ the people was far from realized.
Roldós’ election affected a significant expansion of civil liberties. For the first time in Ecuadorean history, under the newly ratified 1979 Constitution that eliminated a literacy requirement for participation that had long been employed as a tool to disenfranchise the masses, the indigenous population was allowed to vote. This would have signified an important democratic turn for Ecuador had its political leaders maintained fidelity to their electoral platforms of social and economic reforms and increased representation for the lower classes. Faced with a business sector that was prepared to support democratic governance, but only under conditions that were favorable to their interests (conditions that effectively contained the economic power of the labor force), the elected politicians were easily swayed. The masses, unable to successfully counterbalance the economic elites and the aims of big business, were once again left with empty promises from their elected leaders.
However, the upper classes were not the only force that silenced the political voice of the masses. Unorganized and underrepresented, the working class was also limited by its own internal divisions. Attempts to form inclusive civic organizations and grassroots movements were hindered by a lack of integration under an umbrella of broader political goals. Some might argue that a homogenous society is necessary for the proper function of democratic institutions, and Ecuador has always been far from that. Home to one of the largest indigenous populations in Latin America, thousands of Ecuadoreans were hesitant to compromise their traditional values and attitudes for political gain. With all of these factors in mind, Ecuador seemed unprepared for its renewed attempt to establish a viable democracy.
The strength and transparency of political institutions is another important guidepost on the path to democratization. They are necessary, firstly to ensure basic rights and guarantee the durability of denominated liberties, and secondly, to be accountable to the people and to afford a clear view into the country’s political life. Yet, Ecuador’s government upheld few of these constitutional provisions. The weak nature of this institutional foundation is evident in the country’s political sphere which, when under pressure from elites based on clientelism and personalism, abandoned its promises and commitments to reform and undermined efforts to improve accountability. With Ecuadorean political parties grown in an environment hostile to strong popular movements, crippled by a dominant oligarchy and the continued intervention of the military into the political process, genuine representation of the masses seemed a near impossibility. History has proven that the role of state institutions is vital in the development of a healthy democracy, and their weakness in Ecuador poses a challenging feat.
As one can see, Ecuador’s chronic political instability was far from ebbing. Turmoil and political stress in the 1980s, which would ultimately affect all of Latin America, accompanied the democratic transition taking root. Faced with economic setbacks due to a slump in international oil prices and the eruption of the foreign debt crisis, Ecuadoreans remained unconvinced that democracy was the best way forward. During this time one could even detect a bit of nostalgia for the previous period of military rule. With hits to its national wealth and an unfavorable international climate (the Latin American debt crisis and Cold War dominated the international scene), democracy seemed a formidable prize.
Another factor that weakened faith in democracy was the unique role that the military still played in Ecuador’s political scene. According to General Paco Moncavo, chairman of Ecuador’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military was seen as “largely assuring order and security while Congress work[ed] to fill in the ‘legal vacuums’ of a poorly written constitution that contained no clear rules for presidential succession.” In a divided country and government, the military naturally remained a prominent factor in maintaining stability. Given Latin America’s history with military regimes and egregious human rights abuses, this power-sharing system has been particularly unnerving for Ecuadorean students, who have traditionally served as critics of the excess of power.
Ecuador in the 1990's
Inconsistencies and political unrest continued throughout the 1990s. A decade of “presidencies interrupted,” in which an elected president was quickly ousted by popular movements, prevented democracy from stabilizing, but also paved the way for the entrance of new and radical populist leaders into Latin America. Elections in 2001, 2004, and 2006 allowed a weak democracy to stagger on, but revealed the public’s continued alienation from the political process, as well as its lack of confidence in the “central nucleus” of the political system: the executive branch, the legislative branch and the political parties.
President Lucio Gutierrez brought Ecuador’s fledgling democracy to a low point just after the turn of the century. During his presidency, the country fell to a ranking of 87th in an annual democratic analysis report issued in the U.S. in 2008. Although technically democratically elected, the Gutierrez government abused civil liberties and violated democratic traditions. Known for censuring the press, threatening organizations critical of the government, and allowing police brutality and the periodic disappearances of subversives to go unpunished, Gutierrez was a corrupt leader with no redeeming qualities to note. Using the country’s fragmented political system and weak coalitions to his benefit, he disabled nearly all checks and balances on his regime, thereby allowing himself near-total domination of all three branches of government. However, Gutierrez has not been the only president accused of dismantling the system, as Ecuador’s leaders are notorious for violating the constitutional separation of powers. According to a 2008 Freedom House report, “Judicial independence and judicial review have been systematically violated by political factions in both the government and the opposition.” Due to his many abuses of power, Gutierrez was ousted in 2005 after less than two years in office, in what became known as the “Rebelion de los Forajidos,” a middle class uprising in Quito.
Where Does Ecuador Stand Today?
In an effort to explain why Ecuador has yet to achieve a reliable or stable democratic transition, some cite the persistent economic gap that lies between advanced capitalist democracies and the aging technology of some of the industrialized countries of Latin America. A strong middle class, and a job-producing stabilized economy are believed to be necessary to successfully achieve democracy, however Ecuador attempted to transition to democracy amidst adverse socio-economic conditions. Its political history is scarred by the extreme disorganization of society: elites have dominated exclusionary political regimes in which the people have been suppressed with reformist middle and working classes weak or altogether absent. Although the masses insist on persevering in their attempts to democratize the political system, the elites continue to erect barriers that prevent Ecuador from becoming a fully democratic society.
Author Alan Riding argues that, if Ecuador’s democracy is to succeed, the country must halt the Latin American trend in which “government elections on platforms of social change must share power with entrenched bureaucracies, vigilant armed forces and conservative elites that invariably prefer preservation of the status quo.” Democracy requires certain freedoms that have not yet been granted to Ecuadoreans, and in light of the current presidency it appears they will not be granted anytime soon. The widespread lack of accountability that the government and legislators have exhibited to the Ecuadorean people will need to be addressed before trust can be established and a compromise reached.
Ecuador exists on the threshold of democracy, but according to sociologist Leon Zamosc, it is “still plagued by the flaws of its democratic institutions, the dubiousness of its politicians’ allegiance to the rules of democracy, and the shallowness of its citizens’ democratic political culture.” Whoever the leader will be, whether Correa or his successor, steps must be taken in order to prove the legitimacy of the government and demonstrate a willingness to create a united, democratic country that is responsive to the needs of ordinary and wealthy Ecuadoreans alike. The prospects remain high, as Ecuador’s now passive military and long history of semi-democracy will provide the momentum necessary to take that final step. Unlike Chile and Argentina, where problems of forgiving, forgetting, and moving on will seemingly forever darken the horizon, Ecuador does not share a similarly grim past, and perhaps it will eventually join the ranks of stable democracies like those in Germany, Costa Rica, and the United States. The only question that remains is whether this stability can be extended on a consistent and reliable basis.