The New York Times
April 21, 2005

Brazil Grants Asylum to Former President of Ecuador

QUITO, Ecuador, April 21 - Brazil has granted asylum to former President Lucio Gutiérrez of Ecuador, who fled to the Brazilian Embassy here on Wednesday after being removed from office by Congress in a special session.

The ousted president will be flown to Brazil "as soon as possible," the Brazilian ambassador, Sergio Florencia, told Radio Caracól in Bogotá, Colombia, today."

"We are taking the necessary steps with the Ecuadorean Foreign Ministry to finalize procedures to obtain his safe conduct and his transfer to Brazil," Mr. Florencia added.

On Wednesday, Congress swore in Vice President Alfredo Palacio, a 66-year-old cardiologist, to replace Mr. Gutiérrez, 48, a former army colonel who had faced mounting street protests against what critics called an illegal overhaul of the Supreme Court.

Mr. Gutiérrez, who took office in January 2003, became the third president since 1997 to be ousted from power in the small but oil-rich Andean country, which has close economic ties to the United States. In 1997, Abdalá Bucaram was declared mentally unfit to govern and fled into exile. In 2000, President Jamil Mahuad was ousted in a coup supported by Mr. Gutiérrez, then an army colonel.

Ecuadorean protesters accused all three of corruption, mismanagement and a strong-arm governing style.

"Today, the dictatorship, the immorality, the arrogance and the fear have ended," Dr. Palacio said in a speech broadcast on Colombia's Caracól radio network. "From today, we will restore a republic with a government of the people."

Dr. Palacio did not say whether he would call new elections. It was also not clear if the majority of Congress and the Ecuadorean public would support him as he tries to steer the country out of paralysis. Ecuador does not have a Supreme Court - the Congress disbanded it on Sunday - and its myriad political parties are bitterly divided.

"Logic would have it that Palacio would stay the year and a half that remains, organize elections and construct the judicial system," said Adrián Bonilla, a political analyst in Quito, the capital.

Mr. Gutiérrez fled the presidential palace in a military helicopter, infuriating protesters who assumed he would flee the country, as have other former leaders. Demonstrators then closed down Quito's international airport to prevent his escape, while the attorney general's office announced that a warrant had been issued for his arrest for having ordered troops to use violence to put down anti-government demonstrations.

Mr. Gutiérrez, who had run for president as a populist friend of the poor, lost much of his public support almost as soon as he took office. Ecuadoreans were increasingly dissatisfied with his austere economic policies, which had produced a 6 percent growth rate in 2004 but also hardships for ordinary citizens.

But it was Mr. Gutiérrez's role in twice dismissing the Supreme Court, most recently last Friday, that helped create a firestorm he could not survive. An interim court installed by Mr. Gutiérrez's allies had cleared former President Bucaram of corruption charges, permitting his return to Quito earlier this month.

Protests picked up momentum on April 13, with demonstrators accusing Mr. Gutiérrez of a power grab. In Quito, where the protests began, a small FM radio station, La Luna, marshaled people for daily anti-government rallies. "I feel like we lit a fuse and that there was so much repressed anger that it just kept burning," said Ramiro Pozo, the news director at La Luna.

On Wednesday, anti-government lawmakers voted to end Mr. Gutiérrez's term based on a vague article in the Constitution that permits a president's removal for "abandonment of the post." The congressmen said that by disbanding the Supreme Court and calling for a state of emergency on Friday the president had violated the Constitution.

The president had insisted to reporters that he would not resign, but on Wednesday his political situation became untenable after the military withdrew its support. At a news conference, Gen. Víctor Hugo Rosero, head of the armed forces, said the military could not "remain indifferent before the pronouncements of the Ecuadorean people." Then the head of the national police force, Gen. Jorge Poveda, also resigned, saying, "I cannot continue to be a witness to the confrontation with the Ecuadorean people."

The police chief was referring to protests that turned violent Tuesday night as tens of thousands of protesters clashed with security forces, who used tear gas and high-pressure water hoses to disperse them. International radio reports said that two people had been killed, including a foreign news photographer.

Opposition members of Congress had been trying to oust Mr. Gutiérrez since late last year, accusing him of corruption and nepotism. In November, they failed to muster enough votes to impeach him. Mr. Gutiérrez had bested his opponents with the support of the Roldosista party, led by Mr. Bucaram, who had been in exile avoiding corruption charges since his ouster.

In return for Roldosista support, government opponents said, Mr. Gutiérrez's allies in Congress disbanded the Supreme Court and named a new one that, in March, cleared Mr. Bucaram. Mr. Bucaram was also being sought Wednesday night.

Carla D'Nan Bass in Quito and Mónica Trujillo in Bogotá contributed reporting for this article.