Ecuadorean Indians flex political biceps

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

After days of intense protests, a triumvirate of military and indigenous leaders surprised the nation by staging a coup d'tat this weekend, ousting the president.

However, under pressure from US officials, the junta stepped down and restored democratic rule by passing the reins of power over to the vice president. Observers characterize the coup - although brief and ultimately ineffective - as a great achievement for Ecuador's native people.

"The indigenous movement has been gaining force recently in Latin America," says Quito political analyst Luis Eladio Proao. The natives' strength, organization, and ability to ally with the military "could serve as an example in the region." He notes that Bolivia, Guatemala, and Mexico have growing indigenous movements, and even Chile's small movement has recently gained strength.

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Most nations across the region, like Ecuador, are characterized by glaring disparities in the economic situation of indigenous populations and fairer-skinned mestizos and descendants of European colonists. But few countries have an organized Indian lobby as strong as Ecuador's.

"Ever since the '80s in Ecuador, the indigenous movement has been achieving higher levels of awareness. This movement is not an illusion; it is a real force that is making itself heard," says Mr. Proao.

The past month of protests in Ecuador were directed against President Jamil Mahuad, unable to wrest the nation from its worst economic crisis ever. In one year, the exchange rate has gone from 7,000 to 25,000 sucres to the dollar. Two-thirds of the population doesn't hold a full-time job. The situation became more tense after Mr. Mahuad decided to "dollarize" the economy on Jan. 9 - pegging the local currency to the US dollar.

Critics said this move would plunge the nation's 7 million poor - almost 60 percent of the population - into even greater poverty. Last week, 5,000 indigenous protesters descended upon this impoverished nation's capital demanding Mahuad's resignation.

Ecuador's indigenous movement has been a formidable social force for over a decade, and has been effective in the past in blocking the nation's highways, preventing food and merchandise from reaching the capital. Yet few believed it could successfully demand the president's resignation.

But on Friday, swarms of indigenous protesters seized the Congress and Supreme Court buildings. With the support of some maverick Army officers, they declared a coup and named a three-man civil-military junta to lead the country.

"No one ever thought the armed forces would split and take sides with the indigenous movement. They appeared to be a strong social movement, but one that lacked political support needed to carry it to the point it reached [Friday night]," says political analyst Simn Pachano.

This surprising alliance, many say, derives from a situation that is unique in the region. In most Latin American countries that have gone through violent guerrilla wars, the image of the armed forces is tainted by legacies of human rights violations. In Ecuador, in the past three decades, the military has worked side by side with the rural poor on development programs fostering mutual respect.

Nonetheless, the support the movement enjoyed came principally from junior officers and could not sustain the coup.

"They didn't have the support of a single commander of a division, brigade, or battalion of the armed forces. This is one of the principal reasons the effort failed.... These colonels didn't have armed troops or arms, so they had no power," says Col. Alberto Molino, an adviser to the former defense minister.

In the end, the US government took a strong stance against the coup, threatening the junta with "political and economic isolation," if democracy was not restored. Hours after taking power, Gen. Carlos Mendoza, former chief of the joint military command and a triumvirate member, dissolved the junta and announced the vice-president would take over.

Vice President Gustavo Noboa was sworn in as president Saturday, and protesters began to decamp from public parks and climb on buses to go back to the provinces. The previous night's victory was tempered with frustration.

"Unfortunately, General Mendoza betrayed us," Antonio Vargas, the president of the confederation of indigenous nations, told The Associated Press.

Quito resident Mario German Neacato is also conflicted. Although he thinks Ecuador will remain a democracy, he is not too optimistic.

"This presidency is just a continuation of the last one," he says.

The new president intends to stick to Mahuad's plan of dollarization. But that aside, analysts say, much has changed.

"Now they are going to take the indigenous people seriously," says Proao.

"Everyone is talking about the indigenous people. So you tell me: Have they or have they not been successful?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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