The Change of Power in Ecuador

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, July 2000 | Go to article overview

The Change of Power in Ecuador


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


THERE was an outbreak of democracy in the 1990s and so that was a bad decade for military rule worldwide. But the new millennium began abruptly in Ecuador, with the overthrow of President Jamil Mahuad in January. This was the first military coup in Latin America since the 1991 coup in Haiti (see article on Latin America in this issue of Contemporary Review).

Ecuador, which is on the north-west coast of Latin America, is the smallest of the Andean countries. It has a population of about 12 million people, of whom almost five million are Indians. About one third of the country is Amazon jungle. Despite that military action, it is a safe and pleasant country in which to travel. The beautiful capital city, Quito, is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Also part of Ecuador are the 40 islands and islets of the Galapagos Islands. They have never been connected to any mainland and so their species developed separately. About half of the species are endemic to these islands and are found nowhere else on Earth. They played an important role in Charles Darwin's research into the theory of evolution. Most species have no natural predators and so do not fear humans. The islands became a national park in 1959 and there are strict rules for tourists.

The dismissal of Mahuad and his replacement by his Vice President Gustavo Noboa has seven issues worth examining.

The Latin American Spring

Latin America used to be notorious for military rule. But gradually those dictatorships have given way to civilian rule. There has been a feeling that the outbreak of democracy represented a Latin American 'spring', with the countries now becoming accustomed to democracy and smooth handovers of power. Ecuador's coup may have ended that pattern. It is not clear whether the January coup was the beginning of a frost that will kill the spring blossoms.

Some optimism that the Latin American spring will continue comes from the way in which the military did not try to hold onto power. They removed one president without bloodshed, installed another (later ratified by the Ecuadorian Congress) and then left the stage (where they wait in the wings). They probably recognized that they were not up to the task of running a modern state.

Military Cannot Rule a Modern State

When the belly is full, the brain starts to think. The end of military rule in Latin America (and in other regions) has come partly because the military cannot run a modern industrial state. Their forceful measures may work in a basic agricultural society. But they do no work so well in a society which has a white-collar middle class and where there is a need for the free flow of people and ideas (as we have seen in South Korea, the Philippines and Indonesia).

Once people have a reasonable standard of living so that they do not have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, they start to think about how their country is being governed. They expect to have democracy.

Additionally, in the post-Cold War era, the US has to be more selective about its allies. In the Cold War era, the US would support dictators if they were pro-US and anti-Soviet. Now the allies are examined on their own merits and not in the context of the higher politics of the Cold War. There is also an active international human rights movement monitoring the foreign policy of the US (and of other major countries). This is a new era of transparency.

In short, the US Government now has to be more careful about supporting military regimes. Domestic US expectations have changed. Indeed, expectations have also changed in many other countries, with even some attempts to put military dictators on trial to hold them accountable for the actions committed in office.

Charisma is Not Enough

The speed with which President Mahuad was removed is a warning of just how fragile a president's hold on power can be. I met President Mahuad in November 1998, during a trip to Ecuador. …

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