News of the world
THE SOUTH American country of Ecuador was in turmoil this week after the president was toppled in a confused coup attempt amid mass protests by the poor. A recent wave of protests culminated in a popular rising against the government of President Jamil Mahuad last week. But leaders of the rising made the fatal mistake of looking to a section of the military for support. So although Mahuad was forced to quit, the new government is in the hands of the same wealthy elite who stood behind him. Mahuad wanted to make the poor pay for Ecuador's profound economic crisis. Ecuador had one of the most unequal income distributions in the world, and 60 percent of people were already on or below the official poverty line before Mahuad's measures.
Half the country's population are descendants of the people who lived in the country before the 16th century Spanish conquest. They are mostly peasants living in the Andean highland area in dire poverty. They and their Quechua language are also discriminated against by those at the top of Ecuadorian society. The cities, such as the capital, Quito, and the main industrial centre of Guayaquil, are surrounded by vast shanty towns where the Spanish speaking, but multiracial, urban poor live in miserable conditions. Ecuador's debt burden is equivalent to its entire annual economic output.
Economic output has shrunk by over 7 percent in the last year and the poor have suffered as inflation has rocketed to 60 percent. The madness of the world market has fuelled the crisis. It has hit the prices of key export commodities such as shrimps, timber and bananas. The government's response was to push through austerity measures which will further impoverish the mass of people while protecting the rich. A key plank of the government plan was to abandon the country's currency, the sucre, and switch instead to using the US dollar.
The wealthy, with money held in dollars outside the country, would not suffer under this. But it threatened to wipe out savings held in the sucre inside the country, and also to push prices of many basic commodities higher still. The very poorest were particularly badly hit by the government's plans and they have been at the centre of the recent protests. Such protests also meshed with anger among workers over the government's privatisation plans.
Matters came to a head in a rapid and confusing series of events last week, in which leaders of the indigenous movement made the disastrous mistake of trusting sections of the military.
Learn lesson from show of strength
INDIGENOUS groups and others converged on the capital, Quito, and marched for the overthrow of President Mahuad last week. But instead of looking to their own strength and the backing of the country's workers and poor, they threw in their lot with a section of the military. A three man junta, consisting of a military figure, a former supreme court judge and a key indigenous leader, took power. Within hours military chiefs, with backing from the bulk of the armed forces, the rich and the US government, sidelined the junta. They installed a new government under Mahuad's vice-president, Gustavo Noboa. He announced he would continue with the state of emergency declared by Mahuad. He pledged to continue with the currency plan and with privatisation. The move left the mass of people furiously disappointed.
Riots exploded in the country's biggest city and similar mass protests hit other key cities such as Rio Bamba and Ambato. Ecuadorian newspapers quoted one protester saying, "The generals and the admirals have betrayed us. It's not them who feel hunger. "We've shown we are strong and we'll learn. We put too much confidence in the military and they've conned the people." People will have to look to mass action if the hunger for change the protests expressed is to have any chance of being realised.
ECUADOR borders Colombia, where the US is giving $1 billion of arms to death squads for use against trade unionists and the left