Ecuador’s democracy perseveres in crisis

Latin America’s trend toward democracy during the past few years is laudable, and this week provided another promising example. Ecuador has peacefully resolved its presidential crisis and is back on track to achieve political stability.
Ecuador’s recent woes began last July, when Abdala Bucaram was elected president by winning 20 out of the country’s 21 provinces. Although his critics charged that he was mentally unsound (Bucaram’s nickname is El Loco, “the crazy man”), his personal charisma and promises to help the poor helped him win the election. Once he gained office, however, Bucaram quickly lost popularity when he promoted measures that reduced the state’s role in the economy. After months of tension, Ecuador’s Congress ousted him Thursday on charges of corruption, nepotism and mental incompetence. This action, however, created a political crisis because Ecuador’s constitution does not clearly provide for succession.
Three individuals struggled for the presidency in the past week: Bucaram tried to rally his remaining supporters and regain power; Rosalia Arteaga, the vice president, claimed the position was legally hers; and Fabian Alarcon, the leader of Congress, was backed by the legislative body as interim president. Unrest and instability led many to speculate that Ecuador’s powerful military would step in and take power through a coup. Now, however, this has been averted. Alarcon has won the power struggle, at least for the moment, and although the military did play a large role in brokering the deal to make him interim president, there has been no coup.
Alarcon was able to finally take control when Arteaga, who had been declared interim president on Sunday, agreed to step down. Arteaga had originally claimed that she would not resign until Congress rewrote the constitution to make the succession issue clearer, but she changed her mind and Tuesday night resigned. Bucaram, meanwhile, said he was illegally removed from power and has left the country to seek support and recognition from neighboring governments. Alarcon will govern as interim president until August 1998, and must set a date for new elections within the next 12 months.
Although the political crisis is over, Alarcon faces a multitude of problems. Ecuador’s government has to deal with a large deficit, high inflation, popular unrest and a domineering military. Still, the recent developments are encouraging. The military has shown itself to be committed to the democratic process and willing to accept the role of kingmaker rather than king. In this, it follows the example of several of its neighbors. Nations like Colombia and Paraguay also have had their armed forces reject opportunities to overthrow the civilian governments. And in Ecuador’s case, the peaceful approach is working. After a week of protests, the past few days have been quiet.
Ecuador’s military and government have taken a bold step toward peace, democracy and resolving the nation’s problems. It needs support and encouragement as it struggles to determine its own destiny. With the nation’s political problems under control, Alarcon and Congress now can concentrate on making Ecuador more free and economically strong.