[Last update: 22 January 2003]

Drug War, Plan Colombia, and US Air Base at Manta, Test the New President

by Ron Smith

Reporting from Quito, Ecuador

January 21, 2003

The new president, Lucio Gutierrez, was sworn in to the presidency Wednesday, January 15th, and the country is ablaze with anticipation. Unfortunately, the country may also become ablaze with exactly the kind of anti- democratic activity currently gripping Venezuela. Additionally, Lucio´s rhetoric has changed significantly since the days of the congressional takeover by the indigenous and working class. The fact is that after the inauguration, the future of Ecuador remains a question mark.

The hopes and fears of Lucio

Lucio Gutierrez is, much like his counterpart in Venezuela, a former member of the armed forces in Ecuador. Like Chavez, he comes from the lower classes and is of mixed ethnicity. In various places around Quito, one can see the graffito, "Lucio = Chavez!" Lucio participated in the takeover of congress initiated by progressive indigenous groups and enforced by the grassroots concertacíon made up of labor and militant indigenous groups. The revolutionary governing coalition was composed of three members, including indigenous leader Antonio Vargas, General Carlos Mendoza, and Carlos Solorzano, a former Supreme Court judge.

Lucio participated in the revolutionary uprising of January 2000, but refused to join the ruling coalition. The revolutionary coalition soon found itself in the impossible position of facing down the United States.

The US embassy here threatened a complete shut down of economic aid and an economic blockade. Mendoza, representing the armed forces, backed down to the demands of the United States, and the former vice- president, Gustavo

Noboa, was installed as the new president. Noboa is a classic free-marketeer, has willingly aided the United States in the dubious Plan Colombia, specifically by allowing the US special privileges in the Forward Operating Location at Manta, and by increasing the Ecuadoran military presence along the Colombian border.

The elections of 2002 found Ecuador in an extremely precarious situation: The economy was recently dollarized, which produced drastic results for the local population; Plan Colombia has been growing into the Andean Regional Initiative, with accompanying escalations in violence. Lucio presented himself as the rebels' choice in the Ecuadoran elections, and promised major changes in the direction of the Ecuadoran state. The fact remains that at this point, Lucio is a big question mark in terms of his loyalty to the revolutionary forces that catapulted him to fame and then the presidency.

At the time of the failing of the coup, local indigenous groups, angry at the unilateral decision of armed forces to dissemble the governing coalition and accede to US demands, stated that they felt that Mendoza and the armed forces had betrayed the revolution. The fact is that progressive groups all over the country are holding their collective breath to see if Lucio will remain loyal to the needs of the common Ecuadorans.

Many see the current political environment as a triple threat to the heavy-handed policies of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who is hell-bent on complying with US military objectives in the region. Chavez in Venezuela, Lula in Brazil, and Gutierrez in Ecuador surely make for uncomfortable neighbors for the hard- line Uribe. To signify the importance of this new coalition, both Lula and Chavez were present at the inauguration in Quito on January 15th to celebrate Lucio's ascendency.

Lucio and the His Cabinet: Tokenism or Real Change?

Perhaps the two most confusing parts of the inauguration were Lucio's address and his selection of cabinet members for the new government. Many progressive sectors are hailing the new government as being more open, and in the words of a retired general, an example for Andean nations.

Lucio's cabinet includes two indigenous members, a first for Ecuador and the other Andean nations. Luis Macas is the new agricultural minister, and Nina Pacari is the new Foreign Relations minister, both are members of CONAIE, the indigenous organization that participated in the events of January 2001. While this shows real progress for the Ecuadoran government, the fact that only two indigenous people out of a cabinet of 16 ministers are indigenous shows that there is still far to come in a country with over 6 million indigenous citizens.

What's more disconcerting about the cabinet is the appointment of Ivonne Baki and Mauricio Pozo. Ivonne Baki is descibed in the newspaper El Comercio as a friend of Bill Clinton and advisor to Jamil Mahuad, deposed former president. Baki has lived in Washington, D.C. for several years before she was appointed as Foreign Commerce minister, and is a real neo-liberal force for the new cabinet. She claims that her mandate is to improve the competitiveness of Ecuadoran businesses and open the economy to foreign investment. Many speculate that Baki was appointed as a means of placating the neo-liberal right; Baki came in eighth in the Presidential elections.

Mauricio Pozo is also quite worrisome, in his new role as Economy and Finance Minister, he worked for the Association of Private Banks, and is an ardent defender of dollarization and the neo-liberal model. How this cabinet will play out with Nina Pacari and her populist anti-neo-liberal model versus Mauricio and Ivonne remains to be seen. Already, on the fourth day of the Gutierrez presidency, Lucio announced that he was, with much regret, going to increase the cost of gasoline, up to $1.98 per gallon for Extra, and around $1.50 for Regular. This cost increase was mandated by the IMF, and may have some very serious repercussions for the country's poor.

Does this indicate that Lucio has abandoned the poor? Perhaps not, if we reflect on some of the more conservative actions of Hugo Chavez at the beginning of his presidency. Again, Gutierrez is still an unknown.

Lucio's Unlikely Address

Lucio addressed the national congress during his inauguration, with members of congress and invited presidents from South American nations present. The invited presidents included the notorious Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Lula da Silva from Brazil, Hugo Chavez, and Fidel Castro. Also present was Peruvian President Toledo and his wife. Uribe looked quite uncomfortable during the presentation, perhaps a symbol of his discomfort with the change in power in the neighboring nations.

Lucio covered all the big topics, including his position on the economy and poverty in a nation with 80 percent of the population in poverty. Lucio claimed that his goals included the alleviation of poverty and the development of Ecuador for Ecuadorans, and decried the role of developed nations in demanding payment of the external debt. At the same time, he claimed that Ecuador needs to open its borders to more foreign investment and eliminate taxes for foreign companies. These two goals seem fairly incompatible, as the opening of the Ecuadoran economy is one of the root causes of poverty in the nation and for the poor, the dollarization has been a catastrophe.

At one point in the speech, Lucio claimed that "if to oppose corruption makes me a leftist, then I am your leftist". He subsequently claimed that he will not govern for the left or for the right, but for Ecuador, and that he has no ideology. This last statement caused quite a bit of consternation. As Colombian professor, Lilia Solano, stated in a post-inauguration interview, "to claim not to have an ideology is to claim an ideology."

Lucio's speech indicated some of the deep divisions in Ecuadoran society and in his cabinet. According to Coronel Jorge Brito, another progressive armed forces member and former professor at the School of the Americas, Lucio changed dramatically from the initial presidential campaign to the current one. Coronel Brito also participated in the uprising and like Lucio, spent several months in prison. One thing that is certain is that Lucio's presidency will not be an easy one, as many of the most reactionary forces in the country will not allow the changes that his electoral base is demanding.

Lucio and the Drug War

Ecuador plays a significant role in the US Andean Initiative; more than being a neighbor to Colombia, Ecuador is the site of the US Forward Operating Location at Manta, on the coast. Manta is considered a disgrace to many Ecuadorans, a result of the Mahuad presidency.

One of the many actions that caused President Mahuad's removal in 2000 was his signing of the treaty with the United States. Alexis Ponce, of the local group Assemblea Permanente por Derechos Humanos, describes the base at Manta as a step towards the Hondurization of Ecuador, referring to the major role Honduras played in the Central American wars of the 1980´s. Ponce speculates that the claims by the United States that "Andean intelligence agencies need to improve their capacity and their coordination" could be a preamble to another Operation Condor, the notorious US-supported intelligence plan of South American dictatorships in the 1980´s. Following this logic, Manta plays a central role in this intelligence coordination. Ponce has first-hand knowledge of these intelligence operations, as he recently received a disk from an unnamed source including transcripts of telephone calls and computer images of his family members, all originating from the Ecuadoran Police.

According to retired General Rene Vargas Pazzos, former head of the Ecuadoran Armed Forces and Lucio's former professor, Manta is a scar on the face of Ecuador and is being used for all manner of covert and grey activities by the US military and their notorious contractors, Dyncorp. Pazzos noted that Manta is large enough for the largest US troop carrier airplanes, such as the C-5 Galaxy, the C-130, and the C-140, an indication that the base is intended to be used not just for drug interdiction, but for staging a major invasion. According to Pazzos, the United States is far overstepping the limits of the agreement, and is making Manta a staging area for future US interventions in the Andes and beyond. Pazzos indicated that Lucio is stuck with Manta, for the agreement that allowed for the US base has a duration of 10 years. What Pazzos claims is that Lucio can push the United States to abide by the agreement to the letter and only use the base for anti- drug operations and prevent any more expansions of the base.

Along the Ecuador-Colombia Border

Remember Fusarium Oxysporum? You know, the nasty genetically-engineered fungus that supposedly only affects coca and poppy (much like the Glyphosate Fumigations were supposed to only affect large-scale coca growers) that the US and Colombia claim is not being used against campesinos? Recently, Adolfo Maldonado, a doctor working with the local group, Accion Ecologica, conducted several tests in the Sucumbios region of Ecuador, which borders Putumayo in Colombia where the heaviest fumigations are taking place. The results of these tests showed the heightened presence of Fusarium fungus in soil and plant samples. According to Maldonado, this does not necessarily mean the US and Dyncorp are spraying fusarium, but he attributes it to two possibilities; an unforeseen side effect of intensive fumigation with the deadly Glyphosate cocktail, or someone is spraying fusarium fungus. The Glyphosate side effect hypothesis seems unlikely. At this point, the results are inconclusive, but several campesinos have reported a coffee-colored powder emanating from the very same planes that fumigate with Glyphosate. The seriousness of this possibility cannot be overestimated and could have serious unforeseen ecological and medical ramifications.

A recent interview with an Afro-Ecuadoran mother from a community on the border with Colombia illustrated that the supposed war on drugs in Colombia knows no borders and affects the poor from all the surrounding nations. She was kind enough to show this reporter the sores and burns covering much of her 3-year-old son's body, the result of bathing in the San Miguel River that forms part of the border between Colombia and Ecuador. A lawsuit is currently being tried in the United States of Ecuadoran citizens against the Dyncorp Corporation for illegal sprayings across the Ecuadoran border. According to a treaty between the Ecuadoran and Colombian governments, no Colombian fumigations may take place within 10 kilometers of the border, but Maldonado claimed that he checked spaying damage and overflights with a GPS monitor, and not only were the sprayings taking place close the border, he also witnessed planes crossing the border to dump their load of Glyphosate.

The World Social Forum and Beyond

Many of the progressive groups operating here in Ecuador are participating in the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Many groups from all the Andean nations will be attending the Forum, and the forum has devoted a day to Colombia and the issues regarding the current Andean conflict. These groups see this as a way of continuing the internationalization of resistance to the US plans in Colombia and beyond. Look for reports from yours truly as I head for the Forum on January 23rd.

Copyright © 2003 Ron Smith and activ8media
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