An article yesterday about the political crisis in Ecuador reported that ousted president Jamil Mahuad had defeated Gustavo Noboa in the 1998 presidential election. Mahuad defeated Alvaro Noboa. (Published 01/24/2000)
Ecuador's vice president was elevated to the presidency today after a three-man junta toppled the president but then stepped down itself under pressure from the United States and other foreign powers.
In a fast-moving crisis triggered by this small South American country's severe economic troubles, Vice President Gustavo Noboa took power with support from the head of the armed forces and Congress.
The previous president, Jamil Mahuad, was ousted on Friday after Indian protesters supported by some junior officers in the armed forces stormed the Congress building. They announced a new government led by a three-man junta initially formed of an army colonel, the head of the movement of indigenous people that organized the protests, and a former president of the Supreme Court.
The colonel was then replaced by Gen. Carlos Mendoza, the armed forces chief. He subsequently dissolved the junta and handed over power to Noboa, a 62-year-old former university professor. Mendoza said he did so after discussions with U.S. officials, who threatened to cut foreign aid and discourage foreign investment in Ecuador if power were not restored to the elected government, the Associated Press reported.
"What we were trying to do was prevent the international isolation of Ecuador," Mendoza said, in part because of U.S. pressure.
In Washington, officials confirmed that American policymakers had spoken to Mendoza and others in Quito warning that aid and other support would be at risk if the junta remained in power. The United Nations and the Organization of American States criticized the overthrow of a civilian government, and South America's Mercosur trade bloc--made up of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay as well as associate members Chile and Bolivia--issued a statement urging Ecuadorans to respect their democratic institutions.
A successful military coup here would have been the first in South America in years and could have encouraged a wave of similar efforts on a continent where several countries are in deep economic crises.
Hundreds of Indians, whose marches and other protests in recent days had led to the weekend's climactic events, fled Quito today. Leaders said they were not happy with Noboa and vowed that they will continue the protests, which were aimed at what they described as Mahuad's corrupt government and detrimental economic policies.
"We don't accept the presidential successor," said Salvador Quishpe, an Indian leader.
Other indigenous leaders said that Indians would refuse to pay their taxes and utility bills as a way of continuing their protests. One leader, who asked not to be identified, said that Indians also might block roads into Quito to prevent food from arriving here.
As in many South American countries, Ecuador has a significant numbers of citizens who are at least part Indian--about 90 percent here. In Ecuador, people of pure or almost entirely of Indian blood have become a particularly strong political force in recent years because of their numbers--4 million--and aggressive political strategies.
They have been especially vocal in attacking Mahuad's policies. Among them was his plan to replace the slumping Ecuadoran currency, the sucre, with the U.S. dollar as a way of restoring confidence in the economy and slowing inflation. Mahuad's critics said that such a move would have made the savings of Ecuadorans worthless and would have hurt the country's poorest people. In this nation of 12 million, 7 million live in poverty, including a large number of Indians.
Noboa is thought to be ideologically similar to Mahuad--and has vowed to pursue "dollarization"--but the two were one-time political rivals; Noboa lost to Mahuad in the 1998 presidential elections. However, Noboa has close ties to industry and may be able to better sell the economic plan than his predecessor.
Despite the political uncertainty left by the tumultuous events today and Friday, the country remained peaceful. In Quito, known as the city of eternal spring because of its mild year-round temperatures and its beautiful mountain vistas, shops opened, traffic appeared normal, children played basketball on local courts, and airports and other essential facilities continued to function.
Noboa's elevation to the presidency came after Mahuad went on television Friday night, vowing that he would not leave his position. Even today, he seemed reluctant to accept his ouster, saying, "A thrown-out president does not resign. He is thrown out."
Yet Mahuad also asked Ecuadorans to support the new government, saying that the country had to put Friday's events behind it as quickly as possible. Noboa was approved as president today by a large majority in Congress.
Mahuad reportedly was offered asylum from Chile, but it remained unclear tonight whether he was going to accept it. Mahuad, who took refuge at an air force base and at a private home Friday night, has suggested that he is inclined to remain in the country.
It also remains unclear what will happen to the Indian leaders and military officers who led Friday's attempt to overthrow the government. Their whereabouts were unknown.
When Mahuad took over as Ecuador's president in August 1998, he vowed to reverse one of the nation's most wrenching economic slumps. Ecuador, about the size of Nevada, is burdened with high unemployment and a 60 percent rate of inflation.
But Mahuad was unable to turn things around, and his decision to "dollarize" the Ecuadoran currency proved to be controversial and divisive.
The indigenous protesters had taken over the Congress building as well as the Supreme Court on Friday after a week of relatively peaceful demonstrations in the capital.
Shortly after the takeovers, a three-man government was formed, initially composed of Col. Lucio Gutierrez, Indian leader Antonio Vargas and former Supreme Court president Carlos Solorzano. But it was never clear Friday whether this group had the backing of the military, or of the Ecuadoran population.
Subsequently, armed forces chief Mendoza replaced Gutierrez in the junta and later broke up the junta so Noboa could become president.
The restoration of civilian rule came about after considerable pressure from U.S. officials in Washington and the American embassy in Quito, according to U.S. officials in Washington. Peter Romero, the assistant secretary of state for Latin America and Western Hemispheric Affairs, warned Mendoza by telephone that "Ecuador will find itself isolated" if the junta did not relinquish power, a State Department official said.
"We did vigorously communicate with military leaders there that we were very concerned with constitutional order and democracy, and we believe that played a role," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Calls also were made by some of the administration's most senior policymakers, including White House national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger and Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering.
Staff writers John Harris and John Lancaster in Washington contributed to this report.