Ecuador: Trials with Democracy

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Ecuador is a country that, according to conservative human rights body, Freedom House, stands “at the threshold” of democracy, but not for the first time. The small Andean country has a long history of inconsistent democratic governments, interrupted by sporadic military juntas and authoritarian dictators. In comparison to a number of other Latin American countries, Ecuador boasts an almost stable, relatively-tranquil history, yet the legitimacy of its democracy has been under inconclusive attack, although it has strong and formidable defenders. Characterized by “open political competition and free elections, combined with episodic breaches in democratic procedures, and a limited commitment to democratic norms among economic and political elites,” the emergent governance has ebbed and flowed. This evaluation will highlight Ecuador’s democratic tendencies throughout the past century. Furthermore, based on scholar Michael Sodaro’s ‘conditions’ for democracy, this article will also analyze whether some of the “necessary” variables, such as elites committed to democracy, state institutions and national unity, among others, are present and have promoted good democratic governance.

An Attempt at Democracy

Beginning in the 1940s, democracy in Ecuador periodically surged and abated. The election of Carlos Alberto Arroyo del Río marked an attempt at democracy, though the legitimacy of the appointment was highly contested at the time. Arroyo del Río’s dictatorial tendencies, his failures in foreign policy (such as the loss of half of Ecuador’s territory in the Río Protocol with Peru), the increased repression, and the rise in cost of living in Ecuador were all elements that led to his toppling in the May 1944 Revolución Gloriosa, a movement “to put an end to the hateful tyranny of traitors…” (as proclaimed by the military of Guayaquil). The revolt was a movement of the people, most of whom were underrepresented students, workers, and women, accompanied by the lower sectors of the military. This movement represented one of the first democratic steps of the century, signifying a unity of the people, and what appeared to be a forceful commitment to change.

José María Velasco Ibarra, the late Ecuadorian president whose series of terms began in the 1930’s, reentered the stage as successor to Arroyo del Río shortly before the completion of the latter’s term. He was welcomed with widespread support across social classes and political ideologies, paving the way for his election in July of that same year. Expectations in Ecuador were growing for broad and sweeping change, and initially Velasco Ibarra’s populist rhetoric, in which he was an advocate for social justice and a national transformation, carried much hope. There was an increase in democratic tendencies and representation, as witnessed in the formation of integrated civic organizations such as the Ecuadorian Confederation of Workers (CTE), a leftist labor rights movement that would become a significant force. Sodaro can attest that the role of civic participation in democratization is a vital one, and as organizations like CTE emerged representing people’s interests and concerns, more and more citizens became involved. The potential for democracy striking roots in Ecuador appeared to be growing. However, once again the democratic legitimacy of the appointment was questionable, in part because a majority of rural citizens were not permitted to vote due to literacy requirements.

Despite widespread popularity upon his inauguration, and the newly created progressive constitution that would increase representation to historically marginalized populations, Valesco Ibarra’s rhetoric soon changed as he consolidated power away from the newly incorporated members of society. Ironically these demographic groups—the labor force, the indigenous, and the female population—were the very same that had ushered him into office after the Revolución. In March 1946, Velasco Ibarra declared himself dictator and reinstated the 1906 constitution, further alienating the popular forces and bringing discontent in the country to a breaking point. His reign turned out to be short-lived, when in 1947 the military forced his resignation and expelled him from the country. Carlos Julio Arosemena Tola was subsequently appointed by congress to serve the final year of Velasco Ibarra’s term. The democratic election of Galo Plaza Lasso in 1948 began what would become a 12-year period of relative stability and mild democratic transitions in Ecuador.

The 1950’s: A Period of Relative Stability
There is no denying the calm that ensued during the 1950’s and part of the 1960’s, as democratically-inspired transitions took place. However, once again the genuine nature of the system remained questionable as basic democratic features and necessary conditions, such as inclusion and strong national unity, were only present in sporadic dosages. Traditionally subordinate-middle and working classes, most of whom came from Ecuador’s indigenous population (which made up the largest minority group), were restricted from participating. Splintering the country further was Ecuador’s rural labor force. Fragmented by ethnic, linguistic and cultural cleavages between coastal and Serrano populations, as well as divisions within the indigenous groups of the interior, the emergence of class organizations and mass political parties was nearly impossible. This lack of a robust civil society based on shared interests and beliefs, which is fundamental in promoting the trust, organization, and cooperation necessary for a democratic structure to flourish, represented the challenges that lay ahead for Ecuador’s democracy.

The 1960s: Economic Developments and Frustrations
The 1960s marked the beginning of even more tumultuous years to come, largely due to a series of economic transformations. The elites, who traditionally controlled much of the government, proved incapable of modernizing or including new social and political organizations into political life. In turn, they lost control to military coups, mass revolts, and interim governments. Economic recession and mismanagement of the government brought military intervention in 1963, which gave way to an interim civilian government and an effort to restore electoralism in 1968. This initiative ultimately failed when in 1970 the ever power-hungry Velasco Ibarra again seized control (for the fifth and final time). Consequently, an ever-widening rift had developed between him and congress. Also, due to suspicions of his catering to the interests of the elites, coupled with slow industrial growth and stagnant export revenue under his leadership, his proposed initiatives, such as attempts to add tariffs to imports, largely were suffocated.

By 1972, the military was no longer willing to coexist with the country’s emerging democratic institutions. Worried that the possibilities of growth and development would dissipate under the populist platform, the armed forces defied their constitutional limits by intervening in the elections that year and establishing authoritarian rule. An attempt was made to incorporate dominant and middle classes economically to create a peaceful modus vivendi with the military. Meanwhile, political participation, in respect to the lower classes, was being closely regulated.

The 1970s: Military Rule
The two military regimes that ruled until 1979 focused on economic modernization as their primary objective. Unlike the highly repressive and violent regimes in Argentina and Chile that were in power at the same time, Ecuador’s military was the “least iron-fisted in Latin America.” In fact, in the 1970s, the military regimes in Ecuador were largely benevolent. Perhaps it was due to the economic gains being made in the country at that time, although it also might be attributable to the absence of significant guerilla movements that called for the recruitment of a repressive counterinsurgency force. Later boosted by the boom in petroleum prices, the military oversaw substantial economic growth in Ecuador. This took place under newly implemented modernization policies developed to promote the overall size of the state sector, develop infrastructure, and promote economic diversification through channeling state credit and investment. The results of these efforts were significant, as reflected in a real GDP growth of more than 9% per year (on average) from 1970-1977. While the military regimes played an important part in changing the structure of the economy and the nature of the state, they ultimately failed in restructuring Ecuador’s locus of power, one of the most debilitating factors to its democracy.

According to Sodaro, one of the most integral conditions to democratization is an elite class committed to democracy and to resisting the temptations to dominance and corruption. Ecuador’s elites reflected no such interests. Even the modest reforms proposed by dictator Rodriguez Lara (1972-1976) were quickly stifled by the politically disaffected bourgeoisie, which maintained themselves in power as they had done throughout most of Ecuador’s modern history. Despite the increase in national wealth, another factor encouraging the pace of democratization, the overarching power of the elites, and their ability to control the economic and political structures, prevented natural democratic features from easily developing. Instead, associations that represented the elite class interests, such as the Chamber of Industry, thrived under the economic boom while simultaneously those that represented the masses proved largely ineffective. Perhaps in an attempt to unseat the elites, Rodriguez Lara’s progressive administration suspended congress, banned party activities, and excluded corporate groups from policy-making bodies. Ultimately, all formal group representation was eliminated.

In 1976, Rodriguez Lara was deposed after he was placed under the close surveillance of the elite class that felt threatened by his progressive policies. He was replaced by the more conservative, pro-elite figure, Admiral Poveda Burbano, who initiated dialogue between the military and civilian leaders, which lead to an eventual change in governance in 1979.

The 1980’s: Democracy for the Wrong Reasons
The return to democracy in 1979 was largely due to the interests of the elites, although the preference for a democratic system was absent. Authoritarian-led modernization had unsettled the bourgeoisie enough to mobilize them to protect their interests, and it appeared that democracy would be the most expeditious way to reinstate their dominance. Thus, ‘government of the people’ was not a product of class compromise or a mass movement, nor did it reflect an attempt to smooth over the relations between labor and capital. It was simply the best way to reassert the influence of business groups on policy. Given the existing disorganization among the popular class, there was no threat of a real political adversary. To the elites, democracy proved a safe alternative to military authoritarianism.

Jaime Roldós Aguilera was the first democratically-elected president of Ecuador after the row of dictatorships ended in 1979. Still, this transition to democracy was monitored and tightly controlled by the armed forces. Scholar Simón Pachano argues that the continued political pressure of the military resulted in a ‘“handed down’ democracy [that] did not inspire the sense of commitment that could have existed if the political parties and civil society had played a greater role in wresting [such a structure] from the military.” For this reason, a legitimate democracy ‘of, by, and for’ the people was far from realized as democracy was not a result of ongoing and widely wrought political compromises. What ensued was continuous strife between the executive and the legislature, the three branches of government, and a “chronic exacerbation of party fragmentation, regionalism, and personalistic politics.”

Even if it has been described as a “handed down democracy,” Roldós’ election featured a palpable expansion of civil liberties throughout the nation. For the first time in Ecuadorian history the indigenous population was allowed to vote, after the newly ratified 1979 Constitution eliminated a literacy requirement for participation, a tool that had long been employed to single-mindedly disenfranchise the masses. This would have signified an important democratic turn for Ecuador had Roldós’ policies to increase the participation of indigenous organizations continued under successors Osvaldo Hurtado and León Febres Cordero. Instead, under Hurtado, policies in favor of the private sector took root, while under his successor, Febres Cordero, a highly pro-business policy stance was implemented. Due to these uninspiring changes in leadership, marginalized groups were once again pushed to the fringe.

The extent of Ecuador’s democracy during these years was largely limited by the internal divisions among the working classes. Attempts to form inclusive civic organizations and grassroots’ movements were hindered by a lack of integration under an umbrella of broader political goals. Homogenous society is argued to be another necessary condition for achieving democracy, and a major contributor to national unity. Ecuador was far from being homogenous. Home to one of the largest indigenous populations in Latin America (estimates stand around 3.4 million people), it was deeply divided between the coast and the highlands. Hesitant to compromise their traditional values and attitudes for minimal political gain, indigenous regionalism allowed only slow political progression and effective representation, and hindered the development of democracy. It was only in 1986 that the indigenous movement took its first uncertain united steps, creating the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), a political organization that would become one of Ecuador’s most powerful forces and is still active today.

Ecuador’s chronic political instability was far from over. Faced with economic setbacks in the 1980’s due to a slump in international oil prices and the eruption of the foreign debt crisis, many Ecuadorians remained unconvinced that democracy was the best way forward. During this period one could even detect a bit of nostalgia for the previous era of military rule and the economic growth that had accompanied it. With hits to Ecuador’s national wealth and an unfavorable international climate (the Latin American debt crisis and Cold War residues dominated the international scene), support for the democratic system seemed to be losing ground.

Cambio de Camisetas: Political Institutions
The strength and transparency of political institutions are also important guideposts on Ecuador’s path to democratization. Both are necessary, firstly to ensure basic rights and guarantee the durability of denominated liberties, and secondly, for the government to be accountable to citizens and to afford an unobstructed view into the country’s political life. Yet, during this time Quito’s governing parties upheld few of these constitutional provisions. When, under pressure from political elites, based on clientelism and personalism, governing parties often discarded their electoral commitments towards progressive goals, reform and increased accountability. Ecuadorian political parties were developed in an environment hostile to strong popular movements, crippled by a dominant oligarchy and the continued intervention of the military into the political process. A new provision that required all candidates for public office to join legally registered parties, along with an historic disdain for political parties — instilled in part by Velasco Ibarra and continued by President Febres Cordero — continued to weaken lasting ties to these party organizations. A phenomenon termed cambio de camisetas began to take place, which entailed the desertion of congressmen from their respective parties in favor of another party based on future aspirations. It is based on these widespread institutional failures that genuine representation of the masses seemed a near impossibility.

The 1990’s and the 21st Century: “Presidencies Interrupted”
A period of relative economic growth and increased stability took place under President Sixto Durán Ballén from 1992-1996, before years of inconsistencies and political unrest accompanied Ecuador into the 21st century. Under Durán Ballén, modernization efforts were maximized in an attempt to stabilize the economy and expand the role of the free market. With the goal of eliminating costly as well as wasteful bureaucratic spending, he pursued structural reform, successfully recording a significant reduction of government deficits and a robust private sector.

Between 1997 and 2005, a series of what Arturo Valenzuela termed “presidencies interrupted,” in which the elected president was quickly ousted by popular movements (many due to embezzlement charges), gripped the country and prevented democracy from finally stabilizing. Nevertheless, elections in 2001, 2004, and 2006 allowed a weak democracy to stagger on, but revealed the public’s continued alienation from the political process, as well as its lack of confidence in the “central nucleus” of the political system: the executive and legislative branch, the political parties, as well as the national government.

In 2003, President Lucio Gutierrez and the newly formed Patriotic Society Party took the stage. Although democratically elected, his administration abused civil liberties and violated democratic traditions. Known for censoring the press, threatening organizations critical of the government, and allowing police brutality to go either unnoticed or unpunished, Gutierrez was a corrupt leader with few redeeming qualities to note. Using the country’s fragmented political system and weak coalitions to his benefit, he disabled nearly all checks and balances on his regime, thereby allowing himself near-total domination of all three branches of government. Although he was not the only president accused of dismantling the system (as Ecuador’s leaders are notorious for violating the constitutional separation of powers) his many abuses of power resulted in his overthrow in 2005. This overthrow became known as the “Rebelion de los Forajidos,” an uprising in Quito by a disaffected middle class in response to his power excesses.

Ecuador Today: Correa and Democracy
President Rafael Correa, bearing the facade of a new and radical populism, was sworn into office in early 2007 with approval ratings at 73 percent, some of the highest to be found in Latin America. He has since been reelected in April 2009 in a landslide victory. A left-leaning nationalist, and one of the most prominent figures in Ecuadorian politics in recent decades, he is an emblem of hope and progress for the masses. He has pledged economic relief to the poor, and renewed political sovereignty and regional integration. Largely his promises have been addressed (or at least serviced); economically, in his first months in office, he carried out a variety of popular policies, such as doubling welfare payments, doubling credits available for housing loans, and reducing electricity rates for low-income consumers. Ecuador’s political sovereignty has been increased through initiatives mobilized by Correa’s party, Alianza País, aimed at tightening state control of vital industries and thwarting monopolies. This can be seen in reforms to the oil industry, such as the new Hydrocarbons Law that no longer allows foreign companies to take four out of every five barrels of oil produced in Ecuador. However, these extensive modernization and centralization efforts have come at the expense of eclipsing the autonomy of citizen movements, such as the indigenous alliance, an unsettling consequence for the future of Ecuador’s democracy. Correa continues to advocate for regional integration as an alternative to a free trade agreement with the U.S. Along with prominent leaders such as Evo Morales, Lula da Silva and Hugo Chávez, he envisions an integrated economic region, similar to that of the EU.

However, in regards to democracy, Correa’s permanent campaign strategies do exhibit tendencies that could qualify the full blush of representative rule. This can be seen in his desire to enhance executive power and extend his duration in office. Truly a plebiscitary president who has embarked on a crusade to seek direct-democracy leadership, Correa encourages a style of government that invites all citizens to participate, while eliminating the need for representative leaders and political parties. His permanent campaign attempts have somewhat impeded on the civil liberties traditionally associated with democracy, consequently polarizing and eliminating the influence of various political institutions, such as parties, civil society groups, unions, and the media. Not only has he turned some people off by verbally attacking any political opponents, but civic organizations of the people, including leftist ones such as CONAIE, also have been ousted or at least threatened from playing their role as intermediaries, as have business organizations, in Correa’s determination to appeal and relate directly to the masses. While these changes have proven Correa’s dedication to serving the needs of the people, the most important aspect of a government in today’s definition of democracy, Correa’s initiatives can appear alarming.

One cannot help but wonder how much further Correa will go? Checks and balances have been unquestionably impaired in his effort to do-away with discredited institutions in order to achieve increased transparency and citizen participation. His constitution, approved by 65% of the population in 2008, and still highly popular, endeavors to prohibit discrimination, respect private property, increase spending on health care and the poor, and incorporate more rights for indigenous groups. However, in order to achieve this Correa has consolidated control over the economy, while simultaneously doing away with sufficient checks (such as his dismissal of congress in 2007) on his authority.

There is no denying some important democratic and liberating aspects that have thrived under Correa’s devotion to government transparency. It has increased, in part due to his radio program that informs people about the decisions and actions of the government. Also easily accessible to the public is information on the ministries, including their programs and budget priorities. The Ministry of Economy and Finance is just one example of increased transparency according to “Oil revenues, prices and related fiscal information, including financial statements for state-owned enterprises and local governments and data on the distribution of oil revenues,” have all been made available online. In response to years of fading trust in Ecuador’s leaders and bureaucracy, Correa’s steps have proven significant. Accountability has also increased with the introduction of meetings between government ministers and citizens in various locations across the country. Such measures have increased citizen involvement and overall inclusion in the government process, and have improved the formerly divisive nature of Ecuadorian politics. Correa has brought about renewed unity among the masses by focusing on solving social inequality and the uneven distribution of wealth, although in doing so, he often has fueled discontent among the elite. While there is no denying the increased representation he has brought to the Ecuadorian public, the role of political institutions and citizen movements still remain largely confined.

Looking Ahead
Ecuador now stands on the threshold of a possible democratic surge, but according to scholar León Zamosc, it is “still plagued by the flaws, of its democratic institutions, the dubiousness of its politicians’ allegiance to the rules of democracy, and the shallowness of its citizens’ democratic political culture.” While for the first time in decades the president has become a voice for the marginalized and poor, his allegiance to unqualified democracy is open to questioning. Steps must be taken to prove the legitimacy of the government and demonstrate a willingness to create a united, democratic country that is responsive to the needs of all Ecuadorians, ordinary and prosperous alike. The prospects remain high however, as Ecuador’s largely passive military, and long history of semi-democratic practice will provide the momentum necessary to take that final step, if Correa so chooses. In lessening the power of the elite, Correa moved in the right direction, exemplifying his desire to disclose Ecuador’s corrupt and self-destructive past practices. However, he has simultaneously taken a step backwards by weakening the influence of civic organizations. His goals for transparency, accountability and increased representation, which are slowly taking effect, are both necessary and worthy, but the question remains as to whether democracy will be his method of achieving them.