The Washington Post
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page A14

Ecuadoran Congress Ousts President

After Massive Protests, Vice President Is Appointed to Replace Embattled Leader

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service

QUITO, Ecuador, April 20 -- Lawmakers voted to oust President Lucio Gutierrez Wednesday morning after a week of protests and appointed the vice president to replace him. But enraged mobs continued to take to the streets, burning government buildings and beating employees and politicians who tried to flee.

Majority opposition members of the 100-seat Congress stormed out of the legislative chamber and regrouped in an auditorium several miles away. They quickly voted 62 to 0 to overthrow the embattled president on grounds of abandoning his office. He had been widely accused of trying to control the judiciary.

The country's military commanders then announced that they would recognize the rule of Vice President Alfredo Palacio, who has become an outspoken opponent of Gutierrez since taking office in 2002. "Today ends the dictatorship, the immorality, the arrogance, the terror and the fear," Palacio said after he was sworn in to office by Congress. "Today the people of Ecuador have decided to re-found the republic."

As he spoke, chaos was overtaking the capital. Marchers surrounded the presidential palace until Gutierrez was airlifted off the roof by helicopter in the early afternoon. When he attempted to flee the country at Quito's international airport, hundreds of demonstrators prevented his small airplane from taking off, forcing him to re-board the helicopter, according to local television reports.

The whereabouts of Gutierrez were not clear Wednesday night. There were conflicting reports that he was seeking shelter in Panama or Chile. Panamanian diplomats here denied he was seeking asylum.

In the evening, local television stations aired unconfirmed reports that Gutierrez was seeking shelter in the Brazilian embassy in Quito. Groups of protesters who gathered outside the embassy at night waved flags and chanted, "Lucio to prison!"

Meanwhile, the acting attorney general, Cecilia Armas, ordered the national police to arrest Gutierrez for using violence to repress the demonstrations, in which a least two people have been killed since Tuesday.

Hundreds of people rallied outside the burning Ministry of Social Welfare building, where employees stuck their heads out of broken windows looking to escape. Many in the crowd tried to throw rocks at the employees, even as they were being rescued from smoke-filled windows by firefighters. Sporadic gunfire could be heard in the streets around the building.

"Jump, bastards!" Enrique Villa Gomes, 28, squinting from tear gas, yelled at the trapped employees. Some of the male workers exiting the smoldering building were chased by demonstrators and beaten with wooden sticks.

"They support Gutierrez, and we want them gone," Gomes said, pointing at the employees still in the building. "We will make them get out!"

Gutierrez, 48, is a former army colonel who helped lead a coup against former president Jamil Mahuad in 2000 and was jailed for four months. When he was elected to a five-year term in 2002, Gutierrez promised to rid the country of corruption, but he has faced widespread opposition among many Ecuadorans who accuse him of ignoring the country's constitution and manipulating its courts.

In November, Gutierrez survived an impeachment attempt. But public opposition grew after his allies in Congress dismissed the Supreme Court on the grounds that the judges were politically biased. The government appointed a new court that granted immunity to several former politicians accused of corruption, which cleared the way for an exiled former president, Abdala Bucaram, to return to Ecuador this month.

Critics alleged that Gutierrez had struck a deal with Bucaram, whom Gutierrez had once served as a military aide. To placate demonstrators, Gutierrez dismissed the high court again on Friday. But the protests only gathered strength.

On Tuesday night, the protests turned violent, with one death -- a 58-year-old photojournalist from Chile -- and hundreds of people treated for tear gas asphyxiation. More deaths were reported during Wednesday's street clashes, but numbers remained unknown Wednesday evening.

Throughout the crisis, Gutierrez remained defiant, telling reporters early in the week that he would not resign. He angered many in Quito by saying his opponents were miscreants. In recent days, many have carried signs proclaiming, "I too am a miscreant!"

"With last night's protests, the public took a new role in this country," said Guadalupe Larriva, a member of Congress who voted to overthrow Gutierrez. "The people won't allow themselves to be manipulated by political leaders."

Gen. Victor Hugo Rosendo, head of the joint chiefs of staff of the Ecuadoran armed forces, said the military had been "forced to withdraw support from the president in order to ensure public safety."

But even after the government changed hands, demonstrators continued to march, venting their anger over what many saw as dictatorial tendencies and manipulation of the judiciary by a leader who once vowed to fight poverty and social injustice.

Many protesters targeted members of Congress, including Larriva. Several thousand people gathered outside of the auditorium where Congress was meeting, demanding the resignations of all of the members.

When the members tried to leave, some in the crowd pelted them with bottles and other projectiles. TV images also showed some in the crowd beating legislators as they ran from the building.

Palacio, 66, is a physician who has authored several medical books. He worked at hospitals in Cleveland and in St. Louis in the late 1960s and early 1970s, according to Ecuador's government Web site. From 1994 to 1996, he served as the minister of public health.

Palacio's split with Gutierrez began after the former president adopted austere domestic spending programs seen to be in line with international lending institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund. During an evening press conference at the Ministry of Defense, Palacio tried to distance himself from Gutierrez, saying he would not govern according to the will of the country's political parties, but according to the will of the people.

But Patricia de la Torre, a political analyst and professor at Ecuador's Catholic University, said the anger displayed by the people throughout the day suggests that they might not be ready to openly welcome anyone with ties to the former government, no matter how estranged those relations might have been.

"The people in this moment are extremely enraged," she said. "There is little level-headeness right now."

© 2005