Ecuador: The Populist President

Lucio Gutiérrez
Lucio Gutiérrez speaks to journalists, Dec. 19, 2002, in Madrid (Photo: AFP). 

The resounding victory of former army colonel Lucio Gutiérrez in November’s presidential election marks “a cry of defiance from the majority of Ecuadorans who are poor, marginalized, and excluded,” observed columnist Washington Herrera in Quito’s El Comercio (Dec. 3). “Now one of the major questions that the next president must resolve is how to implement policies to set the foundations for a solid and irreversible process of addressing social inequities.”

Gutiérrez’s populist rhetoric and vagueness on policy specifics have left commentators in Ecuador and the region struggling to discern whether his accession to the presidency in January will set the stage for social reform or merely precipitate a new round of economic turmoil. Gutiérrez’s trademark olive-green army garb on the stump and his popularity as a leader of the coup that ousted free-market advocate Jamil Mahuad from the presidency three years ago have drawn inevitable parallels with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who hailed his Ecuadoran counterpart’s victory as a vindication of the rising tide of populism in South America.

Yet O Estado de São Paulo (Nov. 25) noted that Gutiérrez “changed his tone in the second round of the campaign,” donning suits and delivering a more moderate political message “to please businessmen and bankers” during the runoff against banana industry magnate Alvaro Noboa.

His pledge to retain the present foreign-exchange regime anchored by the U.S. dollar and to continue servicing Ecuador’s foreign debt obligations—especially critical in view of the nation’s efforts to negotiate a new credit program with the International Monetary Fund—has helped to ease fears among investors of an imminent economic collapse similar to the Argentine free fall a year ago.

Mirko Lauer, writing in Lima’s La República (Nov. 26), argued that Gutiérrez’s election “is another sign that Latin America is fed up with right-wing, sellout, and even corrupt policies of the 1990s that were disguised as modernization but left the continent even poorer....It has reached such an extreme that voters don’t care if the candidates were coup leaders, populists, Marxists, or jailed so long as they lift the neoliberal albatross from around our necks.”

Felipe Burbano de Lara, columnist in Quito’s Hoy (Dec. 3), notes that Gutiérrez’s success will depend significantly on his ability to build a working relationship with the nation’s newly elected Congress. “Lucio Gutiérrez is a personality who breaks with recent tradition in Ecuador,” he observed. “His opponents do not know much about the man.”

 La Tercera of Santiago (Nov. 27) urged Gutiérrez to seek a model for political and social reform not in Caracas but rather Brasilia, where new President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva “is striving to give signals of tranquillity to the markets and a full devotion to the priorities that the Brazilian nation demands. ...Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether Gutiérrez will confirm his promises of economic stability or effectively become the Chávez of Ecuador—in which case Ecuador’s future will be as bleak as that of  Venezuela.”