Ecuador President under fire again. Says `no' to Congress' resignation request, could face year of unrest
| Quito, Ecuador
Ecuador's Congress has voted for a resolution calling on President Le'on Febres Cordero to resign. The resolution carries no constitutional weight, and the President said that he intends to stay in office until the end of his four-year term in August 1988. But the fact that Congress has taken such an unprecedented step in the aftermath of the President's kidnapping by Air Force commandos reflects fundamental concerns about the future of Ecuadorean democracy.
Mr. Febres Cordero does not behave like a man about to be toppled. Always an aggressive speaker, his declarations since his kidnapping last Friday have been as tough as ever. He questioned - with heavy irony - Congress's decision to debate the behavior of someone held hostage and lashed out at opposition political parties. The military high command has issued a statement supporting Ecuador's democratic institutions and the government.
Relations between President Febres Cordero and opposition groups have been acrimonious since he assumed power in 1984. Last June the government was defeated in a national referendum viewed as a test of its popularity. Soon after, the opposition formed a block that now holds 41 out of the 71 Congressional seats.
The resolution calling for the President's resignation includes a litany of allegations, including repeated violations of the Constitution. It places responsibility on the President for provoking the kidnapping because of his attitude. It also says the succession should be decided by the Constitution - in effect, meaning Vice-President Blasco Pena-Herrera should take over.
The President and his staff arrived at Taura air base near Guayaquil for a brief ceremony last Friday morning. A sudden burst of fire led most of the visitors to throw themselves on the ground. Two of the President's bodyguards died protecting him. The President has said since that he believes the commandos were out to kill him and were not prepared for a kidnapping.
It soon became clear that the rebel troops were followers of former Air Force commander Frank Vargas Pazzos, a maverick general imprisoned after he led an insurrection last March. Although Congress granted General Vargas an amnesty, the President refused to carry it out. And the armed forces were known to oppose the amnesty.
On Friday evening, national television showed Febres Cordero ordering the release of Vargas and guaranteeing that no action would be taken against the kidnappers. For Ecuadoreans used to hearing tirades condemning any negotiations with rebels, it was disconcerting. To some, it was shameful.
The President said afterwards that his duty was to his country and his fellow hostages, that he had not bargained for his own life. Some 74 Air Force troops have been taken from the air base, while judges have confirmed that investigations will go ahead.
The military court has withdrawn charges against Vargas related to last year's rebellion, but there is still an order for his arrest on other nonpolitical charges. The general is lying low. His political ambitions are no secret, and Ecuador's parties are already getting ready to launch presidential candidates for next January's elections. There could well be fierce competition among them to attract someone who has pitted himself against the current President.
The week has produced a deluge of declarations in support of the Constitution, democracy, and the role played by the armed forces, as well as a plethora of rumors. The dangers of coups and dictatorship have been stressed by all, yet there has been little sign of dialogue. Voicing an opinion expressed by many, former President Osvaldo Hurtado said the administration now lacked credibility, and could no longer count on the unanimous support of the armed forces. Since the changeover from military to civilian rule in 1979, the will to preserve democratic government has carried Ecuador through numerous political and economic crises.
Analysts agree that this one is by far the toughest.
The government's economic team was in the US for debt rescheduling talks at the time of the kidnapping, and negotiations had to be postponed. As the President's office has pointed out, political upheavals will not help Ecuador secure the extra $915 million needed for 1987.
Economic problems have traditionally raised greater concerns here than political ones. The cost of living is the most important issue for most Ecuadoreans. An unemployment rate of 12 percent, a gradual loss of purchasing power, and threats of strong opposition from the labor unions spell unrest for 1987. Febres Cordero said this week that he was not afraid to face storms and perils. The difficulty will be to achieve a peaceful outcome.