Citing fears of a "social uprising," the Ecuadoran army called on President Jamil Mahuad to resign today after Indian protesters occupied the Congress building in Quito and proclaimed a "government of national salvation" led by a three-man council.
Protesters surrounded the national palace, where the president works and lives, after Mahuad had fled in an ambulance for refuge at a nearby air force base vowing to remain in office.
The day's tumult resulted in a standoff, at least for the time being, and no violence was reported in the capital. Thousands of people streamed onto the plaza in front of the national palace tonight, mingling with soldiers in combat gear and celebrating, the Associated Press reported.
The protests plunged Ecuador further into chaos after months of economic crisis that the Harvard-educated Mahuad had struggled to end--first by delaying payment on a massive foreign debt last August and, only two weeks ago, by adopting the U.S. dollar as the official currency.
"He is not going to resign; he is staying with the air force," said Ivonne Abdel Baki, the Ecuadoran ambassador in Washington who spoke with Mahuad by telephone. "He told me that he will not resign, that the people elected him. It is a very critical and important time for Ecuador, and we cannot let a small group of people ruin everything."
The State Department in Washington condemned the move against Mahuad and referred to the Indian protesters and their army backers as those who are "seeking to establish an unconstitutional regime." The Ecuadoran military and police, the statement added, "have a responsibility to maintain public order and defend the constitutional process."
Peter F. Romero, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said in a telephone interview with Radio Quito that the United States will reconsider its support for vital International Monetary Fund loans to Ecuador if the army does not back down. Romero also spoke with Mahuad by telephone during the day's fast-paced and often confusing developments, Abdel Baki said.
Ecuador, a country of 12 million people in northwestern South America, has been overwhelmed by economic pressures and social unrest for 18 months, with 60 percent inflation and a 7 percent shrinkage of the economy in 1999. Mahuad, a lawyer and former mayor of Quito, the capital, was elected in July 1998 on a pledge to modernize the economy with market-oriented reforms that he said would help create 900,000 jobs, promote 5 percent annual growth and keep inflation below 10 percent.
His disappointing performance has been the object of months of mounting protests. And today's events capped a week of protests by thousands of Indians who have swarmed into the capital to voice anger at their economic plight. In particular, Mahuad's decision last week to replace the Ecuadoran currency with the dollar served as fuel for the recent demonstrations.
Shortly after the takeover of the empty Congress building, it became apparent that army troops guarding the building had allowed the protesters to enter. "We let them in because we did not want to have a confrontation with the people," Gen. Carlos Moncayo, the army official in charge of Congress security told news service reporters.
Then at least two top military officials, including the armed forces chief, Gen. Carlos Mendoza, urged Mahuad to step aside in favor of a new government. But in a television address in which he pointed at the camera and shouted, Mahuad insisted that he would not resign. Mahuad, in his office 20 blocks away from the government buildings, said he would not leave the presidency unless he was pulled out. Soon afterward, he was seen leaving in an ambulance escorted by security agents, and Abdel Baki said he went to an air force base commanded by loyal officers.
After a meeting in the national palace late this evening, Mendoza announced a three-man governing council made up of Carlos Solorzano, a former Supreme Court president; Antonio Vargas, president of the National Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador; and Mendoza himself, according to Reuters.
The protesters who pushed into Quito over the past week are said to be part of the confederation, which says it represents the 4 million Indians in Ecuador.
The protests began with the Indians taking to the streets with rocks and clubs, bringing traffic to a halt throughout Quito. Then they took over the Congress, which was not in session, before going across the street to invade the Supreme Court building.
Despite Mendoza's call for Mahuad's resignation, it was unclear whether military support for the attempted coup was widespread. Mahuad's supporters insisted only a small, marginal faction within the military bolstered the uprising. But the protesters and some senior military officers suggested the Indians have strong backing from the army.
The extent of Mahuad's support among the population and within his government remained unclear. Several cabinet ministers voiced support for him today, but there was no immediate indication whether the general population would stand behind him.
Staff writers Nora Boustany and John Lancaster in Washington contributed to this report.