The Problem with Democracy

Everything You Need to Know About Ecuadorian Politics
According to the Dowbrigade

that is not Saddam surfacing unscathed in South America – it is part
a massive
again, our adopted Latin American home is in turmoil, as protests against
du jour,
have wracked both Quito, the capital, and Guayaquil, the main port
and business center.

The essence of Ecuadorian politics is a seesaw battle between power
centers in Quito (aristocratic, reserved, old money, cultured cronyism)
and Guayaquil (hot, raucous, rapine capitalism and endemic corruption).
Usually, one group has the Presidency and the other has the Opposition.

However, over the past 15 years Ecuador has had a successions of clowns
and frauds run into and out of office that make George Bush look like
a cross between FDR and Abraham Lincoln. They also make Ecuadorian politics
one of the most gripping and absurdist political shows on the face of
the planet, featuring world-class bombast, rhetoric and theatrical drama,
moments of transcendent triumph, and enough low comedy and cutthroat
treachery to entertain the most jaded political junkie.  And all
with amazingly little loss of life or even severe suffering on the part
of innocents, other than the undeniable tragedy of underdevelopment that
limits the options and opportunities of 90% of the population.

The seeds of the current absurdist political farce began, in an eerie
echo of the Kennedy saga, in the death of Jaime Roldos, a 40-year old
was killed in a mysterious plane crash in the Ecuadorian Andes, near
the border with Peru, in 1981.

Since then, Ecuador, a small, largely agricultural nation, has a track
record of holding relatively open, fair elections, and usually allowing
the winner’s to take office.  However, the last 10 or so Presidents
have not managed to finish their terms, creating the longest string of
interrupted terms in the world today, as far as we can tell.

Sixto Duran Ballen (1992 – 1996), born in Boston, was the last Ecuadorian
president to serve out his term. A kindly, elderly man, he was an
old-line aristocrat.

He was followed by Abdala Bucaram, popularly known
as "El Loco" a power-mad populist
out of control and over the top, an eccentric egomaniac in the caudillo
mode the likes of whom we haven’t seen since Juan Peron and Papa Doc
left the stage. Bucaram said, "They call me Crazy Abdala,
but madmen speak from the heart and see with their soul". He named
his 20-year-old son head of customs and set him up in a street level
office on Calle
Victor Emilio Estrada
, where the going rate was $5,000 per shipping
container, irrespective of contents, cash money, US bills.

El Loco was forced out of office for “mental incompetence” after six spectacular months of world-class
political pillaging and massive protests from every level of society
and class. He fled to asylum in Panama and was succeed by a Romanesque
Triumvirate including the head of Congress and an Indigenous leader.  They
lasted three days. At that point the Congress finally decided to check
the Constitution and elevated the sitting Vice President to the Presidency.  Unfortunately,
she was a woman, and a rather mousy stooge of El Loco at that, so Rosalia
lasted all of three more days.

At that point the president of the Congress, Fabian Alarcon, decided
to take matters into his own hands, and named himself "interim President"
until new elections could be organized 18 month later, in 1997.

In those elections, a young, idealistic reformer with an academic
background, Jamil Mahauad, was elected.  Like most Ecuadorian politicians,
he is from a Lebanese Christian family. Somehow, almost the entire political
ruling class of a small South American country comes from two
small villages in Lebanon
. Go figure.

Unfortunately, it became increasingly clear, or at least almost universally
believed by the public, that their brilliant new leader was, well, gay.
A still resolutely conservative and muy macho society was in no way shape
or form ready for that.  Worse than Rosalia. Poor Jamil was forced
to resign and flee the country after an Indian and military revolt led
by one Coronel Lucio Gutierrez, who clearly saw himself as a messianic
figure saving the country from an ignominy worse than losing a war.

Gutierrez was promptly thrown in jail, and a bland old-line pol,
Gustavo Noboa, finished out his term until yet another round of new election
could be arranged.

Meanwhile, "El Loco" stewed and stormed in Panama, periodically flying
the entire political leadership of his still popular populist party up
to Central America for conspiratorial meetings and party elections. When
last sighted Jamil was living in Cambridge, doing something at the Kennedy
School, and running some kind of queer government-in-exile, convinced
he was still the legitimate President of the country. We couldn’t make
this stuff up.

Anyway, by 2003 Lucio had gotten out of jail and into politics, and
somehow, although a relatively unsophisticated career military officer
with roots in the indigenous community, got himself elected, the ninth
President in 8 years, and immediately found himself in deep trouble.
Although he had managed to put together an electoral majority,
he had absolutely no support or power base in the halls of government.  His
party was brand-spanking new, created just to propel him to the presidency.  He
had no experience with or knack for executive authority in a democratic

By the end of last year it was clear he would not withstand a vote of
confidence in Congress, so he cut a deal with the Devil, and with the
support of the populist loonies of the exiled El Loco, managed to survive
with 52 out of 100 votes.

The quid pro quo came due last month, when taking advantage of a legislative
holiday, Lucio fired the entire Supreme Court and named a new one, which
promptly annulled all of the legal proceedings against El Loco Bucaram,
allowing his triumphant return from 8 years of Panamanian exile three
days later.

At which point all hell broke loose.  Massive protests erupted
in BOTH Quito and Guayaquil.  It is starting to look more an more
likely that Lucio, whose name is already slang for "vain incompetence",
will join the proud tradition of truncated terms. Which is unfortunate,
because Ecuador, which five years ago ditched their own currency and
adopted the US dollar in a so far unsuccessful attempt to attract American
really needs to show some signs of political stability.

We are fascinated and inspired.  It is like watching a slow motion
train wreck with lots of posturing and emotional angst, but where nobody
really seems to get hurt, and everybody comes back for the next chapter.

is a supremely sad question to even consider, but
if given the choice between the bumbling banality and eccentric street theater
of Ecuadorian politics and the silent but deadly, cancer-like certainty which
currently pervades the corridors in Washington, we think we’ll go with the steamy
Latin passions.

But the over-riding fear and discomfort that we feel arises from the
suspicion that without a two century tradition of staid and ensconced
two-party politics and a first world economy, Democracy in the modern
world only has two ways to go.

One is towards smooth, managed elections where slick "Democratic" Totalitarians
like General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan regularly garner 94% of the
total vote.  The
other, seen with increasing frequency in developing countries which buy
into American rhetoric and organize truly free and open elections, is
chaos. With a gullible electorate mesmerized by modern marketing techniques
applied to politics, any kind of zany sleazebag nutcase can one-off a
popular political movement and get elected, and then have no hope of
a stable government.

This keeps young, aspiring democracies trapped in underdevelopment,
political instability, and social chaos.  It also produces some
of the most gripping political theater on the planet. We will try to
our readers abreast of developments in Ecuador.

QUITO, Ecuador-Apr 18, 2005 – Chanting "Lucio, get out," a
river of demonstrators poured into the streets of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s
largest city, Monday night to demand that President Lucio Gutierrez
step down, as anti-government protests spread from Quito, the capital.

from the Associated Press

Local Spanish-language coverage (and photo) from El Universo

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4 Responses to The Problem with Democracy

  1. Mike Walsh says:

    Jamil has milked Cambridge for all it’s worth and now has moved on to Santa Clara University.

  2. Mike Walsh says:

    I listed you as a potential Bridge Blogger for Ecuador in the Global Voices project. You should be able to get to the relevant wwiki page by googling [ Bridge Blog Index ] . Be patient, their pwiki page is frequently vandalized.

  3. Somewhere I have seen … And if on that thanks.

Comments are closed.