The Miami Herald
Oct. 03, 2002

Ecuador's presidency seen as 'up for grabs'


  QUITO - Ecuador has launched its presidential campaign season, lining up an odd mix of candidates that include a billionaire banana magnate, two former presidents, a couple of coup plotters and a former fugitive.

  The Ecuadorean electorate has met this roster with a collective sigh of disinterest.

  Less than three weeks before Ecuador's Oct. 20 election, not one of 11 candidates vying to lead this South American nation of 12 million people appears to have enough support to win outright.

  Although one -- the richest man in Ecuador, Alvaro Noboa -- has been a front-runner this election season, analysts say the presidency is up for grabs. Former President Rodrigo Borja recently jumped in the polls, putting him in a statistical tie with Noboa, and is expected to make it to the Nov. 24 runoff.

  ''For a while, Alvaro Noboa was running by himself,'' said Santiago Nieto, director of the Confidential Report polling company. ``Now absolutely anything can happen.''

  The election is critical for Ecuador, a country so stricken with political crises that the past two elected leaders were booted out not halfway through their terms.

  The next president will be charged with rescuing a nation mired in economic woes, struggling with foreign debt and rising government salaries it can't pay for. Ecuador, which two years ago adopted the dollar as its currency, is an oil-rich nation, but roughly 70 percent of the population live in poverty. The new president will also have to address rising unemployment in a country foreign investors are increasingly leery of.

  ''In six years, we've had six presidents,'' said candidate Xavier Neira, a lawmaker who lived in Miami in 1988 and 1989 while on the run before being exonerated from what he calls trumped-up fraud charges. ``There's a crisis, not just economic, moral, but political and social. The worst is expected.''

  For 10 of the candidates, the key issue this campaign season has been Alvaro Noboa, a candidate with so much money that for awhile analysts wondered if anybody could beat him.

  An early Cedatos-Gallup poll showed 21 percent of Ecuadoreans would vote for Noboa, and for weeks nobody else came close.

  But the latest Cedatos poll, conducted Saturday, shows Noboa's popularity slipping. The survey gave him 17 percent, with Borja close behind at 16. It was a big leap for Borja, who was 10 points behind in prior polls. Experts say that if Noboa keeps dropping, he won't make it to a second round.

  Still, a sizable number of Ecuadorean voters, 18 percent, said they have no preference -- largely because the nation's biggest political figures aren't running.

  Candidates argue that Noboa leads the polls because he narrowly lost the 1998 election and has been campaigning ever since. Noboa's appeal is largely attributed to his years-long campaign to deliver free food and medicine to the down and out. In a country with such widespread poverty, his is a potentially successful strategy,
  opponents say.

  A notoriously poor public speaker, Noboa never shows up for candidate forums or debates and shuns interviews. He is being sued by his brothers and sisters and owns one of the banana plantations that was subject to a recent Human Rights Watch report alleging child labor violations. The same plantation was the scene of a bloody and repressive strike this spring.

  ''Alvaro Noboa doesn't give out ideas; he gives out gifts,'' Borja said in an interview with The Herald. ``He gives out baskets of flour and medicine to the poor, people nobody has ever given anything to.''

  Borja, president from 1988-92, is considered an elder statesman whose presidency enjoyed high oil prices and few crises. Yet many experts argue that Borja, a leftist who opposes open markets, is a has-been with outdated ideas.

  ''Borja knows how to run the country, but his economic beliefs are from the 1970s,'' said Walter Spurrier, editor of Weekly Analysis, an economic newsletter.

  ''My government was a serious and honest government,'' Borja said. ``Nobody has questioned that.''

  Several other candidates, including former Vice President León Roldós, are viewed as possible run-off contenders.

  The winner will replace Gustavo Noboa -- no relation to the current candidate. Gustavo Noboa is a former vice president who assumed office two years ago after a surprise and bloodless coup ousted his boss. Then-President Jamil Mahuad was driven out in 2000 when army colonels joined forces with an uprising of the indigenous community, furious over a bank freeze, dollarization and the state of the economy. Once Mahuad sought shelter in the Chilean embassy, army Col. Lucio Gutiérrez and indigenous leader Antonio Vargas became members of a three-man junta that reigned for a few brief hours. Vargas and Gutiérrez? Both candidates for the presidency.

  Gutiérrez regularly wears military fatigues, even though he was kicked out of the armed forces after serving six months in the brig for his role in the coup. He is
  adamant about ending corruption, which helps fire up support among the masses who are fed up with graft and eager to put an outsider in the presidential palace.

  Some critics believe Gutiérrez, denounced for his admitted admiration of Venezuela's controversial President Hugo Chávez, also sympathizes with Colombia's leftist
  rebels. But Gutiérrez defends his candidacy, saying he participated in a spontaneous uprising, not a military rebellion. It was legitimate, Gutiérrez says, but ``perhaps
  not legal.''

  ''The people who lost their privileges with Mahuad's departure are the ones who think I shouldn't run,'' he told The Herald last month. ``I am leading in several polls, and I am convinced I am No. 1 in the heart of the people.''