The Washington Post
Saturday, April 23, 2005; Page A13

Long Fall in Ecuador: Populist to Pariah

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service

QUITO, Ecuador, April 22 -- Former president Lucio Gutierrez, holed up in the Brazilian Embassy on Friday with armed guards lining its perimeter, wasn't always the political pariah who this week inspired street riots and a vote by the legislature to overthrow him.

Luis Macas remembers how Gutierrez won him over before the 2002 election with promises to crack down on Ecuador's endemic corruption and serve the indigenous communities to which Macas and about 40 percent of Ecuador's population belong. Macas accepted a job as Gutierrez's agriculture minister and had high hopes for his administration.

Then their alliance fell apart, irrevocably.

"The rupture occurred precisely in August 2003," Macas said in the headquarters of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, which he heads. "The worst thing he did was to begin negotiations" with the International Monetary Fund.

Thousands of Ecuadorans experienced a similar disillusionment, though their reasons varied widely. Many agreed that Gutierrez submitted to pressure from foreign lenders, causing him to sacrifice spending on social programs to pay down the country's debt. Some disliked his backing of Plan Colombia, the U.S. military's war against the drug trade in neighboring Colombia. Some say he fell into cronyism; others that he was intoxicated with his own power.

Whatever the reasons, they stopped calling him a populist and started calling him a dictator. Local opinion polls suggested that the 54 percent support he got in the 2002 election had fallen to 4 percent.

On Wednesday, the anger he stirred fueled violence in the streets of the capital. For many, the change of heart spread to include anyone associated with his government.

Vladimir Portilla, 39, a businessman from Quito, stood outside the Brazilian Embassy on Friday with a small group of protesters demanding that Gutierrez be arrested instead of flown into exile in Brazil. On Wednesday, Portilla, his wife and young son were among those in the streets demanding Gutierrez's overthrow. Now, he'd like to see every member of Congress removed -- even those who voted to oust Gutierrez.

"All we want is a government that isn't corrupt," Portilla said. "The people of Quito had a moral and ethical obligation to try to clean up the government. We will not accept a dictator, not for one second."

Gutierrez's popularity has been eroding for more than a year and began scraping bottom in the past four months. In November, he narrowly survived an impeachment attempt in Congress. Then he dismissed the Supreme Court on grounds of political bias. A newly appointed court granted immunity to several exiled politicians accused of corruption, opening the door this month for a former president, Abdala Bucaram, to return to Ecuador.

Critics allege that Gutierrez had struck a deal with Bucaram, whom Gutierrez had served as a military aide. To placate protesters, Gutierrez dismissed the Supreme Court again on Friday. But the protests intensified, culminating in the burning of ministry buildings and the beatings of government employees and officials in the streets.

"The political class has been completely discredited," Paco Moncayo, mayor of Quito, who led protests against Gutierrez, said this week.

Gutierrez took refuge at the Brazilian Embassy Wednesday. Brazil granted him asylum on Thursday, but its Foreign Ministry was still negotiating with the new Ecuadoran government to assure safe passage to Brasilia.

Gutierrez, a mestizo, or mixed race man, from an Amazonian city five hours southeast of Quito, has described his base of support as the urban and rural poor. Eduardo Carbajal, 62, said he identified with the ex-president, though he conceded Gutierrez had made mistakes.

"He was born of humble origins, and I am also from humble origins," Carbajal said. "I trusted Gutierrez. I think he violated the constitution" by dissolving the Supreme Court, Carbajal continued, "but that was because he had bad advisers."

Christian Morales, 17, an indigenous Ecuadoran from the town of Otavalo, said he would continue to stand by Gutierrez and oppose Palacio because the former president was a small-town man who became a national leader -- a rarity in a country of 13 million that is slightly smaller than Nevada.

"The majority of the past presidents of Ecuador only did things for the cities, not for the rural areas," said Morales. But Gutierrez "did almost nothing for the cities and worked in the small towns."

Such sympathetic views are rare in Quito, where most of the dissent was concentrated. Marta Tigusi, 28, is an indigenous street vender from a province four hours south of Quito who sells crafts at an artisan market in Quito. She said that although she supported Gutierrez when he was elected, she grew to view him as a man who broke his promises.

"In the beginning he talked about the poor, but then he went to the side of the rich," she said. "Then we lost trust in him."

Special correspondent Christopher Sacco contributed to this report.

© 2005