The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec)
January 23, 2000, Sunday, FINAL
SECTION: News; A1 / FRONT
BYLINE: Carlos Hamann
QUITO, Ecuador, Jan 23, 2000 (AFP) – In an emergency session yesterday, the Ecuadoran congress approved Gustavo Noboa as the country’s new president, following a bloodless military coup that removed elected president Jamil Mahuad from office.
With cries of ”Long live democracy!” the congress, by a large margin, approved Noboa, who was Mahuad’s vice-president, as the country’s new leader.
The move appeared to strengthen fragile civilian rule in the nation of 12.5 million after the military briefly took power amid one of the country’s worst economic crises in decades.
The vote grants Noboa’s regime the legitimacy needed to avoid global isolation: the United States, the European Union and virtually every Latin American nation had condemned any attempt at imposing a government by non-constitutional means.
Noboa took control of Ecuador’s government early yesterday, after a three-man military junta that deposed Mahuad handed power over to him. He will remain in office until January 2003, completing Mahuad’s term.
In a speech after the vote, Noboa, 61, said he will maintain a state of emergency throughout the country, and vowed to fight corruption. He also promised to keep Mahuad’s controversial economic program that replaces the local currency with the U.S. dollar.
In a surprise televised speech from Quito just before congress met, Mahuad – who had been missing for hours – said he had not resigned from the presidency, but recognized that he had been replaced by Noboa.
”The legitimate president was ousted by a military coup,” Mahuad said, describing the event as a charade.
Mahuad nevertheless urged Ecuadorans to unite behind Noboa, asking the nation ”to give Gustavo Noboa the support that was not given to me.”
The confusing string of events that led to a new government happened in a matter of hours: unrest that had been simmering for days peaked just before mid-day Friday, when thousands of Indians took over the congress building in Quito and brought the capital to a standstill.
The 10,000 Indian members of a broad umbrella organization known as CONAIE had been protesting in the capital for days, and were rapidly gaining support for a national strike against Mahuad.
Protesters demanded Mahuad’s resignation because of deteriorating economic conditions that including a dramatic fall in the value of the national currency, the sucre.
Upon storming congress, the Indians called for a government of national unity, and after hours of negotiations a three-man junta led by former defense minister General Carlos Mendoza, CONAIE leader Antonio Vargas and former Supreme Court judge Carlos Solorzano took power.
At first it was unclear if the rebels would be resisted by forces loyal to Mahuad, a former mayor of Quito, or military forces bent on maintaining the constitutional order.
The unpopular Mahuad first challenged the mutineers to call their movement a coup and refused to resign. But around nightfall the army informed Mahuad that he no longer had their support, just as thousands of protesters marched on the presidential palace.
Mahuad vanished for hours – in his speech he said that he was taken to the airport and offered an airplane to leave the country, but later slipped past a tightening military noose and took refuge at the Chilean embassy.
Early yesterday – in part responding to an international outcry – Mendoza invoked articles of the constitution on presidential succession and handed government control over to Noboa.
To ease the transition, Mendoza announced that he was retiring as head of the armed forces, and would join the army reserves.
An angry Vargas, however, said CONAIE would not recognize Noboa as president. Mendoza betrayed the Indians by dissolving the junta, Vargas told Agence France-Presse.
However, the massive Indian protest was over, and all day buses loaded with CONAIE members made the long trip from Quito to the small villages where most of their members live.
The insurrection against Mahuad originated in Ecuador’s worst economic crisis in more than 70 years. The Andean country’s economy contracted by 7.5 per cent last year, the worst performance in Latin America. Inflation was more than 60 per cent for the second consecutive year, and the country defaulted on half of its $13 billion in foreign debt in September.
Indians, who make up more than one- third of Ecuador’s population and are largely peasant farmers, have been hit particularly hard.