Political Rights: 3
Civil Liberties: 3
Status: Partly Free
Population: 12,600,000
GNI/Capita: $1,080
Life Expectancy: 71
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (95 percent), other (5 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Mestizo (65 percent), Amerindian (25 percent), white (7 percent), black (3 percent)
Capital: Quito


Lucio Gutierrez, a former coup leader and retired army colonel who had never held political office, was sworn in as president in January 2003 after promising during a hard-fought campaign to eliminate the country's infamous corruption and alleviate its extraordinary rural poverty. Gutierrez was supported in his victory at the head of a leftist coalition in the chronically unstable country by the country's increasingly empowered Indian groups. Despite the unprecedented incorporation of indigenous peoples in Gutierrez's government, by year's end, the conflicting demands placed on Ecuador's still fragmented political system by his heterogeneous coalition and the need for economic reform resulted in the withdrawal of key political support by Indian and peasant communities.

Established in 1830 after achieving independence from Spain in 1822, the Republic of Ecuador has endured many interrupted presidencies and military governments. The last military regime gave way to civilian rule when a new constitution was approved by referendum in 1978.

Vice President Gustavo Noboa took over as president in January 2000 after demonstrators had forced his predecessor to step down. The protests by indigenous groups, reportedly manipulated by putschist senior army commanders, were joined by those of significant numbers of mid-level military officers led by Lucio Gutierrez. Despite the protestors' acclamation of a three-person "junta" that included Gutierrez, congress met in emergency session in Guayaquil to ratify Noboa, who did not belong to any political party, as the new constitutional president.

Gutierrez, a civil engineer who was inspired by another coup plotter, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, won a surprise first-round victory in the October 20, 2002, presidential election, defeating two former presidents who stood as standard-bearers for Ecuador's traditional political parties. Gutierrez, who had campaigned on a platform of combating corruption and poverty, went on to best the banana magnate Alvaro Noboa, a populist, in the November 24 runoff. Gutierrez was sworn into office on January 15, 2003. His election constituted the first time that Ecuador's chief executive shared the humble background and dark-skinned complexion of the country's majority, and his government included the unprecedented incorporation of indigenous peoples.

After initiating a few reforms, such as an overhaul of the corrupt customs service and some tough fiscal policies, including increases in bus fares and in oil and electricity prices, the Gutierrez government quickly became mired in internal disputes. Dissent over the fiscal reforms as well as over government plans to encourage private investment in the oil industry and controversial labor reforms boiled over into the streets, as one-time Gutierrez supporters expressed their frustration that the cashstrapped government had not done more to fight poverty. Despite government successes in fighting inflation and making vast improvements in Ecuador's balance of payments situation, the decision by the powerful indigenous Pachakutik movement to withdraw support for Gutierrez, at one point calling him a "traitor," appeared to portend serious social tensions in the months and years ahead. In November, a scandal erupted over the alleged ties of Vice President Alfredo Palacio to a businessman detained on drug-trafficking charges who had contributed $30,000 to the GutierrezPalacio campaign.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens can change their government through elections, and the 2002 elections were generally considered to be free and fair. The 1978 constitution provides for a president elected for four years, with a runoff between two front-runners if no candidate wins a majority in the first round. The 77-member unicameral congress (National Chamber of Deputies) is composed of 65 members elected on a provincial basis every two years and 12 elected nationally every four years. In 1998, the national Constituent Assembly decided to retain Ecuador's presidential system. It also mandated that in the year 2002, a presidential candidate would need to win 40 percent of valid votes in first-round balloting and exceed by 10 percent those received by the nearest rival in order to avoid a runoff.

Transparency International has ranked Ecuador as the second most corrupt country in Latin America, after Paraguay. A government report published in 2000 said that corruption costs Ecuador more than $2 billion a year. In July, former president Gustavo Noboa was given asylum in the Dominican Republic, becoming the latest in a long line of politicians, including other former presidents, who opted for exile rather than face corruption charges.

Constitutional guarantees regarding freedom of expression are generally observed. The media, mostly private, are outspoken. The government controls radio frequencies. In 2003, the situation of the press in Ecuador deteriorated, as the media faced attempts to effect a gag law as well as aggressive statements by Gutierrez, members of his government, and members of congress.

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government generally respects this right in practice. The government does not require religious groups to be licensed or registered unless they form NGOs that engage in commercial activity. The government allows missionary activity and religious demonstrations by all religions. The government does not restrict academic freedom.

The right to organize political parties, civic groups, and unions is generally respected. Labor unions are well organized and have the right to strike, although the labor code limits public sector strikes. Ecuador has numerous human rights organizations, and despite occasional acts of intimidation, they report on arbitrary arrests and instances of police brutality and military misconduct.

The judiciary, generally undermined by corruption afflicting the entire political system, is headed by a supreme court that, until 1997, was appointed by the legislature and thus subject to political influence. In reforms approved by referendum in May 1997, power to appoint judges was turned over to the supreme court, with congress given a final chance to choose that 31-member body on the basis of recommendations made by a special selection commission. In a positive development, a new criminal justice procedural code that fundamentally changes Ecuador's legal system entered into force in July 2001. The new code empowers prosecutors to investigate and prosecute crimes, and alters the role of judges to that of neutral arbiter presiding over oral trials. In another positive development, in 2003, an Ecuadoran court initiated a case against ChevronTexaco, alleging that a subsidiary of the California-based multinational oil company polluted the rain forest with billions of gallons of waste from 1971 to 1992.

Torture and ill-treatment of detainees and prisoners remain widespread. However, police courts that are neither impartial nor independent continue to try members of security forces accused of human rights violations.

Ecuador is a transshipment point for cocaine passing from neighboring Colombia to the United States, as well as a money-laundering haven. Widespread corruption in Ecuador's customs service led the government to privatize it in May 1999. The dollarization of the Ecuadoran economy appears to have had the unintended effect of making the country more attractive for money laundering and other financial criminal activity.

A growing number of incursions from both Colombian guerrilla groups and their paramilitary enemies into Ecuadoran territory added to regional concern (including worries in Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, and Peru) about the extent to which the neighboring country's civil war would affect public safety and the survival of democratic institutions. Violent crime has undermined public faith in the police to maintain order.

Despite their growing political influence, indigenous people continue to suffer discrimination at many levels of society and are the frequent victims of abuse by military officers working in league with large landowners during disputes over land. In the Amazon region, indigenous groups have attempted to win a share of oil revenues and a voice in natural resource and development decisions. Although the government tends to consult indigenous communities on natural resource matters, their wishes are not always met.

After the 2002 elections, women held 17 of 100 seats in congress, the largest proportion in the country's history. Gutierrez initially named four female cabinet ministers, including the first female minister of foreign affairs. At year's end, there were two female cabinet ministers, following turnover in the cabinet. Violence against women, particularly in indigenous areas where victims are reluctant to speak out against other members of their community, is common.

Trend Arrow

Ecuador received an upward trend arrow due to a rise in the participation of the country's indigenous peoples in government.

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