The New York Times
April 17, 2005

Ecuador's President Revokes Protest Curbs

BOGOTÁ, Colombia, April 16 - Hours after declaring a state of emergency to quell anti-government protests, President Lucio Gutiérrez of Ecuador revoked the measure on Saturday. The embattled president had faced thousands of furious protesters who had taken to the streets of Quito, defying the decree, which was limited to the capital, and demanding that he resign.

The president, though, said he would stick with his decision to dissolve the Supreme Court. Late Friday in a televised announcement, President Gutiérrez, with stern-looking military officers standing behind him, told Ecuadoreans that he was instituting a state of emergency and removing the Supreme Court.

The announcement did little to thwart protesters, who took to the streets, banging pots and pans and honking car horns. Though the state of emergency permitted the government to curb civil liberties, like the right to public assembly, the military and police did not take action against the protesters, raising questions about the loyalty of commanders to Mr. Gutiérrez.

With the United Nations, the United States and other countries raising concerns about Mr. Gutiérrez's measures, the president reversed course. "In an environment of brotherhood," he told the nation, "we look for the best solutions to the grave problems that the republic still has."

The president's decision did not seem to placate his determined opponents, who saw the state of emergency and the firing of the court as anti-democratic measures, even though it was opposition to the pro-government court that had prompted much of the unrest in the first place.

This is the second time the court has been removed in four months. On Dec. 8, angry that the court had sided with opposition politicians in a failed effort to impeach him on corruption charges, Mr. Gutiérrez was able to summon 52 lawmakers in the 100-member Congress to remove 27 of the court's 31 judges. He contended that the measure restored independence to a court that had been closely aligned with the opposition Social Christian Party.

But the move plunged the chronically unstable country into uncertainty, with political foes and indigenous groups accusing Mr. Gutiérrez of having begun an institutional coup to consolidate power. Congress also replaced judges on the Electoral and Constitutional Courts, stacking them with government allies.

Opposition politicians and protesters have been demanding that the members of the new Supreme Court be removed, calling the appointments unconstitutional. In March, Mr. Gutiérrez proposed a change in the judiciary to create a new court amenable to the opposition, but the Congress remained deadlocked.

The protests gathered strength this week after the Supreme Court ruled it would not try two former presidents on corruption charges, Abdalá Bucaram and Gustavo Noboa. Government foes say that Mr. Gutiérrez, in facing down congressional opponents who wanted to impeach him in November, received crucial support from Mr. Bucaram's Roldosista political party.

The president's opponents say that in return, the government permitted Mr. Bucaram, who was removed from power in 1997 after being declared mentally unfit to govern, to return to Ecuador from a self-imposed exile in Panama. Mr. Bucaram promptly called on Mr. Gutiérrez to dissolve Congress and declare a state of emergency.

The machinations involving the president and Mr. Bucaram only further enraged Ecuadoreans disgusted with the corrupt political system.

"It's ominous because there have been growing protests and the rejection of the whole political class, not just Gutiérrez and his cronies, but all political parties," said Michael Shifter, who tracks Ecuador for the Washington policy group Inter-American Dialogue.

"Gutiérrez just doesn't know how to get out of the crisis," Mr. Shifter said. "He is digging the hole deeper and adding fuel to the fire."

Hoping to ease the protests in recent days, estimated by some news media outlets at 10,000 people, Mr. Gutiérrez dissolved the court, saying the controversy over its appointment was "generating national commotion." In his speech on Friday, he reminded Ecuadoreans that the court appointments were temporary, awaiting reforms that would lead to a permanent court. But Mr. Gutiérrez's adversaries, though opposing those very appointments, saw the move as yet another unconstitutional act by a president eager to tighten his grip on power.

"He's taking us into a dictatorship, and we're going to stop him by supporting demonstrations in Quito," said Xavier Sandoval of the Social Christian Party, Reuters reported.

It remained unclear whether the military had offered complete support for the state of emergency. The head of the armed forces, Adm. Victor Hugo Rosero, had said the emergency measure was needed to bring order. But General Luis Aguas, the Army chief, did not accompany Mr. Gutiérrez, as did other leading commanders, when the president announced the state of emergency.