Recently, the U.S. has been doing its utmost to steer political change in the Middle East, an area of key strategic importance to Washington. However, judging from U.S. cables declassified by the whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, diplomats are also very much on top of events in Latin America, even when it comes to small and relatively non-influential countries. Take, for example, Ecuador, a poverty-stricken nation in the Andean region wracked by chronic debt and political instability.
Despite its low geopolitical profile, American diplomats in the Bush era sought to keep Ecuador very much within the political fold. Fearing ideological contagion from nearby Venezuela and a spillover domino-like effect, the U.S. Embassy in Quito did its utmost to maintain its political grip on the Andean country. WikiLeaks cables, however, reveal the utter futility of such a strategy and the negative and ultimately distorting effects that such long-term interventionist policies can have upon poor nations.
Short-sighted U.S. diplomacy was put on vivid display as the Bush administration sought to deal with Lucio Gutiérrez, a former army colonel best known as one of the leaders of a coup which ousted President Jamil Mahuad in 2000. Riding a nationalist wave of indignation, Gutiérrez joined forces with indigenous protesters who were unhappy with the government’s economic policies, which included plans to scrap Ecuador’s currency in favor of adopting the U.S. dollar.
As the protesters took over the national parliament in Quito, Gutiérrez helped to form a short-lived junta. Unamused, the military high command imprisoned the army colonel for disobedience and Gutiérrez later languished in jail for six months. When he was released, however, the military man continued to pursue politics — this time through peaceful means at the ballot box. Vowing to overturn corruption and poverty, Gutiérrez ran for president in 2002 and rocketed to national attention.
Rising Political Star
For American diplomats in Quito, Gutiérrez posed a potential risk. The U.S. had a military base in the Ecuadoran coastal city of Manta which the Bush administration employed to fight the sensitive drug war in the Andes under so-called “Plan Colombia.” The last thing Washington wanted was a nationalist president who might jeopardize the installation.
Perhaps even more importantly, however, the Bush White House sought to minimize contagion from nearby Venezuela, where the U.S. had been involved in aiding the Venezuelan opposition earlier in 2002. Though the opposition succeeded in briefly overthrowing President Hugo Chávez, the coup effort rapidly crumbled and the Venezuelan leader was returned to power. Riding high, Chávez was now free to look for ideological partners in the region, which would counteract the U.S. Shortly thereafter, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva of the Workers’ Party would come to power in Brazil, and Washington may have feared that a Gutiérrez win would complete a dangerous triangle.
As Ecuador awaited the first round of its presidential election, the former army colonel looked to become one of the nation’s leading political contenders. In Quito, Bush-appointed ambassador, Kristie Kenney, went into action. A diplomat who had advised the White House as a member of the National Security Agency, Kenney also had intimate knowledge of the U.S. drug war in the Andes having previously served as an advisor on international narcotics and law enforcement matters. Prior to the first presidential round in Ecuador, Kenney met personally with Gutiérrez and though it’s unclear what the two discussed, sources close to the candidate reported that the ambassador touched on Plan Colombia and Ecuador’s commitment to the International Monetary Fund or I.M.F.
If Kenney thought that Gutiérrez would tow the line, further events seemed to cast doubt on such a notion. As he qualified in the first presidential round, Gutiérrez declared his intention of forging greater South American political unity and expressed reservations about the Bush-supported Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Heralding Lula’s electoral victory, Gutiérrez remarked that events in nearby Brazil reflected Latin America’s true desire for change.
Once he won the second round, however, and became president, Gutiérrez reversed himself and started to turn on his former supporters. Ecuador, he declared, would have to reach an agreement with the I.M.F. if it wanted to deal with its massive fiscal deficit. While in Washington in early 2003, Gutiérrez said Ecuador wanted to become a strong U.S. ally and promote foreign investment. Hoping to convince the Americans that he was no Hugo Chávez, Gutiérrez spoke with businessmen at the conservative Center for International and Strategic Studies, as well as George Bush himself.
In addition to initiating negotiations with the I.M.F, which resulted in Ecuador having to cut vital social programs, Gutiérrez also backed Plan Colombia and sought to implement a free trade agreement with the U.S. Otto Reich, the hawkish Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under Bush, who had earlier developed reported links to the anti-Chávez opposition in Venezuela, was dispatched to Quito in an effort to shore up corporate ties. Reich met with Kenney and businessmen in the capital, to discuss bilateral trade.
Such moves pleased the likes of the Quito Chamber of Commerce, but alienated Gutiérrez’s former supporters in Ecuador’s social movements. Within Congress, too, Gutiérrez lost allies as some left parties pressed a censure motion against the president on alleged embezzlement charges. In Quito, however, Gutiérrez was now Washington’s man and so Kenney voiced her support of the embattled president. Such moves served only to affront the sensibilities of Ecuadoran members of Congress who declared that the ambassador should leave the country for having intervened in the nation’s internal affairs.
The Quito Cables
Undeterred by local calls for her removal, Kenney met with Gutiérrez in August 2004. According to a WikiLeaks cable, Gutiérrez was highly cooperative as the two discussed current matters such as the pending trade deal.1
Indeed, the president expressed appreciation to the U.S. for its economic assistance and remarked that he would redouble efforts to bring the Congress round to the free trade initiative. Kenney in turn “complimented this initiative, emphasizing the importance of an inclusive public and congressional relations strategy to the final approval of the FTA [Free Trade Agreement].”
Behind the scenes, however, Kenney may have doubted Gutiérrez’s ability to ram through the accord. The following month, the ambassador sat down with key indigenous leaders to gauge the popular mood.2 Already, critical social groups had called for a referendum on the FTA and in speaking with Kenney the native community stressed the need for greater inclusion of the public within the negotiation process. The indigenous organizations also told Kenney that an FTA might take away Ecuadoran sovereignty, which had “already been compromised by the presence of the Forward Operating Location [U.S. military base] in Manta.”
Writing to her superiors, Kenney fretted that indigenous peoples could disrupt the next round of FTA negotiations by mounting large protests. Even worse, Kenney continued, should the indigenous and their allies “succeed in obtaining one million signatures and forcing an FTA referendum, a clear display of no confidence in Gutiérrez’s chosen economic track, the government of Ecuador might reconsider the value of continuing free trade negotiations.”
From Mubarak to Ecuador
If history is any indication, U.S. diplomats are reluctant to abandon sinking ships, even when the popular mood seems to be swinging against Washington’s policies. Take, for example, recent events in Egypt: even after massive protests in Tahrir Square, it wasn’t until the last minute that the Obama administration withdrew its support for the kleptocratic rule of Hosni Mubarak.
Given Gutiérrez’s earlier leftist leanings, Kenney and others at the State Department may have wondered about Ecuador’s true political orientation. Nevertheless, if WikiLeaks cables are any indication, Washington had indeed settled on Gutiérrez as the best choice within Ecuador’s volatile political milieu. Like Mubarak then, the U.S. now backed Gutiérrez, even though social movements had turned against the Ecuadoran president.
But even for the likes of Kenney, Gutíerrez may have gone too far when he stacked the Supreme Court with his own supporters. By now somewhat alarmed, the U.S. ambassador submitted a letter of protest to Gutiérrez which had been signed by Ecuadoran businessmen and local officials who had grown disenchanted with the president’s power grab. Shortly afterward, Kenney met again with Gutiérrez to follow up on the Supreme Court matter.
In the midst of the political furor, Gutiérrez maintained that the U.S. was not exerting any pressure on him and that his meeting with Kenney had been conducted “in the most cordial terms.” In the middle of the crisis, George H.W. Bush traveled to the coastal city of Guayaquil. Bush claimed that he had touched down in Ecuador to attend a meeting with business executives and discuss free trade, though later the former U.S. president met personally with Gutiérrez. Privately, high level U.S. diplomats may have decided that it was time for Gutiérrez to go.
True Nature of Power Relations Exposed
As the Gutiérrez regime became more and more isolated, U.S. diplomats worried that Ecuador might be turning to Venezuela to shore up political support. In March of 2005, U.S. embassy personnel met with Ecuadoran officials to express concern over Venezuela’s attempts to supposedly “hijack” a proposed Organization of American States Social Charter, which would foster the principles of social development, democracy and the fight against poverty.3 “Perhaps reluctantly,” U.S. officials reported, Ecuador “had succumbed to government of Venezuela pressures to drive the Social Charter process.”
Meanwhile, at the U.S. Embassy in Quito, the Americans worked themselves into a frenzy trying to parse Gutiérrez’s true motivations.4 “For a month,” wrote U.S. officials breathlessly, “the Embassy has heard rumors that Ecuador President Lucio Gutiérrez would travel to Caracas and meet Hugo Chávez. Confirmation has proved difficult, however; Gutiérrez himself swears the trip dates have slipped until autumn.” Reportedly, Chávez had long “pressured” Gutiérrez to visit Caracas, “intimating that a refusal was tantamount to opposing Latin American unity. The Ecuadorian has so far resisted, partly from concern of annoying the United States and partly because the two are not friends.” Despite such assurances, the U.S. government fretted that it “could not control Gutiérrez’s travel plans.”
Though it is common knowledge that Washington has a condescending attitude towards Latin leaders, the true extent of such American imperiousness can sometimes seem jarring, as revealed by WikiLeaks cables. During a late March 2005, tete-a-tete between Kenney and Gutiérrez, the ambassador bluntly told the Ecuadoran that “there was little to gain, politically or commercially, from the president visiting Caracas.”5 If Gutiérrez did make the trip, Kenney added, the Ecuadoran president “might want to couch the visit in regional terms, visiting Venezuela and other South American nations on a multi-stop tour.” Gutiérrez apparently got the hint and “welcomed the suggestion.”
Chávez’s Foreign Relations: Crass Political Dealings?
Though the WikiLeaks cables are certainly damning of the U.S. embassy in Quito as well as Gutiérrez, certain documents are unflattering toward Venezuela as well. Indeed, perhaps the most inflammatory document released in the Quito cache thus far, deals with relations between Gutiérrez and Chávez. In an April 2005 cable, Kenney details U.S. suspicions about Venezuela’s foreign adventures, making for some rather unsavory reading.6
“Chávez is not without allies here,” Kenney remarked. “Ecuador’s indigenous and traditional left are both numerous and potent; despite no personal affinity for the Bolivarian despot, they delight in his anti-imperialist, gringo-bashing message.” According to unnamed U.S. sources, “Venezuelan money and logistics back much of the anti-Free Trade Agreement opposition in Ecuador.” Such efforts were directed out of the Venezuelan embassy, which recruited “converts to the Bolivarian cause.”
Developing ties to anti-free trade Ecuadorans is one thing, but according to Kenney, Chávez’s diplomacy went much farther. The U.S. ambassador wrote that there was “genuine dislike” between Gutiérrez and Chávez, “due mainly to the latter’s Machiavellian manipulation of the personal relationship.” Nevertheless, in an inflammatory charge, Kenney declared that Chávez had financed guerrilla training for Ecuadoran radicals in Venezuela itself.
What is more, the U.S. ambassador wrote, “evidence seems to tie the Venezuelans to a spate of violence against the Gutiérrez opposition, its aim to foment an even more violent response.” In 2004-5, the U.S. ambassador declared, “a low-level wave of political violence in Quito, impacting mainly Gutiérrez’s opposition but affecting government and allies’ officials as well,” had been brewing.
Specifically, the incidents included “unknown assailants firing shots at the homes and businesses of outspoken administration critics. Gunmen opened fire on a Congressional deputy as he drove home from work. And ski-masked thugs at Quito’s Central University (UCE) roughed-up former VP and current Gutiérrez opponent Leon Roldos.” Kenney reported that the police had made little headway in investigating the crimes, but that the U.S. embassy was close to linking the incidents to “government of Venezuela henchmen.”
If true, Kenney’s reports raise serious questions about Chávez’s foreign policy. Given that Gutiérrez was a pro-U.S. ally and stood poles apart from Venezuela on most major issues, why would Chávez even bother with Ecuador? In her report, Kenney proffers an answer: “Chávez considers Ecuador a fertile export market for his Bolivarian revolution,” she declared flatly. Venezuela was essentially opportunistic, she added, and “Ecuador’s political cannibalism and general (and worsening) instability plays right into Chávez’s hands.” In a further sign that Chávez was “prioritizing” Ecuador, the Venezuelan leader tapped a former army colonel and personal confidant to head his country’s embassy in Quito.
If Chávez was involved in aiding the Gutiérrez government, then this raises the question of whether Venezuela’s foreign policy responded to any solid principles or was simply based on crass opportunism [for a further discussion of these issues, see my comments in this earlier Al Jazeera article].
If Chávez wondered whether it might be worth it to back Gutiérrez to the hilt as he faced down the opposition, such hopes were most likely dissipated by April 2005. Pouring into the streets of Quito, unionists and students blocked roads with burning tires and shut down the center of the city. They had come forth to demand the president’s resignation and reinstatement of the Supreme Court justices. In response, Gutiérrez called out the riot police who attacked the people with tear gas.
Gutiérrez had few friends left. In Congress, the president suffered an overwhelming setback when he was defeated on a vote which was backed by the I.M.F. and which would have privatized Ecuador’s oil, water and pensions sector. Just 7% of Ecuadorans supported Gutiérrez, while 58% believed the only way for the country to resolve the political crisis would be for the president to resign.
After two people died in anti-government clashes, the Attorney General issued a warrant for Gutiérrez’s arrest while Congress voted to remove the president from office. Worried by the growing turbulence, Kenney met with Gutiérrez once again at the presidential palace. Later, the U.S. ambassador offered to mediate between the president and congress, an offer which was rebuffed by some as interventionist.
One lawmaker, Julio González of the Pachakutik party, declared that Kenney was “one of those responsible for the judicial crisis, because she has been supporting the dictatorship of Lucio Gutiérrez.” “We can’t accept mediation,” González added, “when behind this offer lurks concrete actions like the Manta base, Plan Colombia and the free trade pact.”
Fleeing the presidential palace in a helicopter no less, Gutiérrez sought asylum in the Brazilian embassy. A day after the president was ousted from office, Gutiérrez’s vice president Alfredo Palacios took over the reins of power and named leftist Rafael Correa to head the nation’s ministry of economy. Speaking to reporters, both criticized Gutiérrez’s economic austerity measures. It was immoral, Palacios argued, for Ecuador to use 40 percent of its budget to service the country’s debt.
What Political Impact for the Quito Cables?
A polarizing political figure, Gutiérrez succeeded in a few short years in hollowing out Ecuador’s already fragile governing institutions and leaving the country in economic shambles [when the president left office about 50% of Ecuadorans were mired in poverty]. In his wake, Gutiérrez left a bitter residue of civil distrust, which is still being played out on the Ecuadoran political scene.
Though the U.S. was largely to blame for Ecuador’s plight, you would not know it from listening to Kenney’s comments. When the Ecuadoran newspaper Hoy asked the ambassador what she discussed with Gutiérrez in their final interview, Kenney explained, rather unreflectively, that the conversation was “the same dialogue that I maintain now with president Palacio, about the necessity of a great national dialogue, which includes the citizenry, so that the latter knows what is happening and there is institutional stability fostering democracy.”
What kind of lasting impact might the Quito cables have upon the wider political culture? Perhaps Kenney and U.S. diplomats are something of a lost cause, but Ecuadorans are another matter. As they become aware of the documents, local political activists and indigenous peoples may grow even more wary of forming political alliances with populist demagogues (and perhaps with Hugo Chávez for that matter, who does not emerge very favorably from the WikiLeaks scandal). Though social movements have long recognized the error of providing initial support for Gutiérrez, the cables are likely to further inflame civil society, which had placed so many high hopes on the former army colonel when he first rode to power.
References for this article can be found here.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution!: South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008). Visit his website, http://www.nikolaskozloff.com/