Ecuador's brash leader adds dimension to quirky politics

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In Ecuadorean politics, anything is possible. A legislator once brandished a stick of dynamite to get Congress's attention. In May, the outlawed mayor of the nation's largest city successfully campaigned from exile in Panama to get three relatives seated on the city council.

President Le'on Febres-Cordero Ribadeneyra has added his own chapter to quirky Ecuadorean politics through his controversial style.

Portrayed in the international press as a South American version of a Ronald Reagan ``Wild West'' conservative, Mr. Febres-Cordero is the first Latin American President ever elected on a free-enterprise ticket. And, unlike other presidents treading lightly in unsteady democratic systems in South America, Febres-Cordero operates politically like a bull in a china shop. He tends to rely on brute political strength rather than diplomacy to make his business-based agenda work in the four-year term he's limited to under Ecuadorean law.

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``I have to admit with a little bit of shame that politics are very hard in Ecuador. Politics are violent. But I'm not responsible for that, and I have to survive [in that system]. I'm not saying it's good, but I think it will change'' as democracy matures, President Febres-Cordero said in an interview here.

The white-maned, mustachioed President comes under fire from his Ecuadorean opponents not only for his political style but also for his inclination to work with the international bankers rather than against them. He has encouraged foreign investment in his country and refused to blame the international financial community for the region's economic troubles.

``I don't think the failures we've seen in Latin America are due to the people, but to leaders who don't go through with policies. Ecuador is still an oasis in Latin America from an economic point of view -- we have growth, even though we may be politically very unstable,'' he said.

Today, at midterm, Febres-Cordero faces his rockiest period in office, and he may have to call on his commanding style more than ever. The trouble is, that itself could backfire.

He runs the country as if it were his own company. His flamboyant wrangling with an opposition Congress has often flared into incidents that one foreign diplomat here calls ``comic opera.'' For example, he had three opponents jailed for four days for ``spreading false rumors,'' he temporarily closed the Supreme Court (using constitutional grounds to disallow the appointment of new judges he didn't approve of), and he refused to allow a law passed by Congress to take effect.

Fresh from a major defeat in a national referendum, Febres-Cordero is saddled with a new opposition Congress and an oil price decline that has wiped out nearly half of the nation's trade revenues.

He also has had to deal with the repercussions from a recent revolt led by an Air Force commander who alleged corruption in the President's inner circle.

To many international observers the situation looks unstable. But Febres-Cordero's supporters -- and even some critics -- say he will keep the country on the democratic path started seven years ago, even though some of his policies may fail to achieve his goals.

Febres-Cordero's main concern is finding ways to shore up the economy. Though under his policies the economy moved from a negative to a healthy positive growth rate, this OPEC nation's oil prices dropped from a high of $40 a barrel in the early 1980s to $10 a barrel today.

In the Monitor interview, Febres-Cordero was intent on correcting misconceptions about his and his country's image and was critical of North American ignorance of Latin America.

He blames a ``leftist'' international press for his Wild West image. A cattleman, he breeds horses and he's a gunsmith with world-class ranking in combat pistol-shooting competition. He said his occasional habit of carrying a pistol is left over from his cattle business days, when he spent time in remote areas and needed a gun.

This ``pistol-toting'' image is popular at home -- where macho is a political plus. But this image doesn't fit with the businesslike image Febres-Cordero has tried to cultivate in the international financial community.

At home, he was able to forge a network of support among the 17 parties in Congress in his first two years in office -- even though most of these parties were, technically, liberal opponents. This network was undone in the June 1 elections. The President's conservative coalition doubled its numbers to become the second-largest force in Congress, but the newly elected opposition politicians are expected to pose a renewed challenge.

Some of his bitterest opponents, such as former President Osvaldo Hurtado, assert that Febres-Cordero makes illegal grabs for power. Other opponents disagree.

The President admitted that the March revolt by Air Force Gen. Frank Vargas Pazzos has added to his image problem at home and abroad. The general raised questions of improprieties on the part of the Febres-Cordero government, and the issue remains a domestic political millstone for him. Abroad, the revolt raised questions about the government's stability.

Though Ecuador is the United States' strongest conservative ally in Latin America, Febres-Cordero bluntly pointed out his problems with the US. He criticized the US preoccupation with its Nicaraguan ``itch,'' noting that the US is ignoring bigger problems further south. In his brusque style, he characterized the US ignorance of Latin America by explaining that an American once asked him if Ecuador was in Africa.

Although his 1984 campaign slogan of ``bread, housing, jobs'' was a pitch to the vast majority of poor Ecuadoreans, his economic successes have been more in the realm of shaping up the nation's foreign debt as well as its trade and oil policies.

Ecuador was the first country to sign a multi-year rescheduling of its foreign debt that totals $8 billion. It bucked OPEC quotas so it could sell more oil, and it backed out of parts of the Andean Pact that hindered foreign investment by requiring foreign companies to nationalize over time.

These are successes that the President admitted the average Ecuadorean may not recognize in daily life. But the official figures show that inflation dropped from 60 percent in 1984 to 24 percent last year and that economic growth moved from a negative 3 percent in 1984 to a positive 4 percent in 1985. This, they said, means higher employment and a better standard of living.

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