Ecuador's desperation

The classic military coup wasn't supposed to happen in Latin America anymore. But last week's military ouster of Ecuador's President Jamil Mahuad, triggered by violent protests of indigenous groups, was widely supported in the economically beleaguered nation.

The one bright spot in the affair was that the armed forces decided not to hold on to power, as they usually did in the past. Instead they allowed Vice President Gustavo Noboa, with the approval of Congress, to assume office.

The challenge for the new government is to turn the country's moribund economy around and begin to deliver vital public services - indeed, to show that it can govern. That's the only way Ecuador will be able to sustain civilian rule and avoid renewed military interference.

But that can only happen if international financial support, which was denied the Mahuad government, is quickly made available to help the country stem its economic slide.

Few countries in the region have been more troubled in recent years than this California-size nation that rises from the Amazon basin to the Andes and drops to the Pacific.

Successive governments have failed to produce economic or social improvements in the lives of the country's mostly poor citizens.

In few Latin American nations have politics been conducted less responsibly.

Ecuador's political leaders, their parties, and such groups as business organizations, labor unions, and indigenous organizations have aggressively promoted their own narrow regional and sectoral interests to the detriment of national policy. They've stubbornly resisted the compromises and concessions that are essential for governments to function.

Ecuador's political conflicts have stifled economic reforms over the years - as the country consistently squandered its sizable oil revenues.

Partisan confrontation in the past year blocked needed responses to the country's worst economic distress in memory, as economic activity shrank by nearly 10 percent, unemployment and bankruptcies surged, and Ecuador became the first South American country in years to default on its external debt.

In a last ditch-effort to prevent economic collapse, Mr. Mahuad gained some ground by moving earlier this month to replace Ecuador's debased currency with the US dollar.

But it was already too late - there was no public confidence left that his government could ever address the country's myriad problems.

Mahaud's departure had become increasingly inevitable. He was close to being replaced by a military junta. Mr. Noboa was allowed to take office only because of the visible pressure coming from the US and many Latin American governments - and the 11th-hour recognition of many in Ecuador that the international isolation caused by a coup would cause further financial disruption.

The loss of faith in democratic leadership is by no means limited to Ecuador. In 1992, Peruvians applauded President Alberto Fujimori's decision to close Congress and the courts.

They're about to elect him to a constitutionally questionable third term as president because Mr. Fujimori, unlike the country's traditional political leaders, demonstrated he could govern effectively.

In Venezuela as well, ordinary citizens, angered by years of corrupt and inept governments, have given President Hugo Chvez free rein to transform the nation's political institutions.

And there are several other countries in which democratic governments are performing badly, their authority drained by economic hardship, expanding violence, and other failures.

Democracy is still secure in most countries of Latin America, but events in Ecuador suggest the region's governments, to sustain democratic rule, will have to better satisfy the needs of ordinary citizens.

Ecuador, however, was also let down by the international community.

It was clear for some time that democratic politics in Ecuador were jeopardized by economic adversity. Yet the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in exchange for financial support, set economic conditions that the weakened Mahuad government, facing an unruly legislature, could not meet.

In a vicious circle, these continuing demands, coupled with lengthy and humiliating negotiations, further debilitated the government, making it less able to make critical economic decisions.

There were individuals in the IMF and other financial agencies who rejected their institutions' positions.

They called for significant support for the Mahuad administration, to bolster him politically so that he might have a chance to implement the policies needed to turn the economy around. No such aid was forthcoming.

Indeed, the international agencies and the US Treasury were unwilling to endorse or offer minimal assistance for Mahuad's dollarization strategy to regain political control.

The new government of Ecuador may be the nation's last opportunity to maintain civilian control. It confronts the same desperate economic situation its failed predecessor faced.

And it will surely need economic support from international financial institutions and the US to succeed politically and economically. That support has to be made available quickly or it may not make much difference.

*Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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