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Sun Jan 30 09:49:45 MST 2000
NY Times, January 30, 2000
Ecuador's Coup Alerts Region to a Resurgent Military
By LARRY ROHTER
QUITO, Ecuador, Jan. 29 -- In presidential palaces and defense ministries
all across Latin America this week, the same question was being nervously
asked in the wake of the military coup here that toppled President Jamil
Mahuad: can it happen again somewhere else?
Having made it through the 1990's without a single elected civilian
president being overthrown by men in uniform, Latin Americans thought they
were finally free of the military adventurism that has plagued the region
for two centuries. But Mr. Mahuad's replacement, first by a military-led
junta and then by his vice president, suggests that judgment may have been
premature and is forcing them into a sobering reassessment.
"The political leadership of the continent should not be sleeping too heavy
a sleep today," Argentina's leading newspaper, La Nación, warned in an
editorial titled "The Ecuadorean Mirror." "Something is happening in
Ecuador and in other countries of Latin America, and the forecast is not
for an easy passage."
Coming after the recent rise to power of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, the coup
here indicates that groups of military officers all over Latin America are
coming under the spell of an old ideology that is being dressed up in new
clothes. Mr. Chávez calls it "Bolivarismo," after the 19th-century
liberator Simón Bolívar, and posits a system in which the armed forces
bypass traditional political parties seen as corrupt and ally themselves
directly with the masses.
During the cold war, in contrast, the armies of Latin America
enthusiastically embraced the anti-Communist "doctrine of national
security," originally developed by American policy makers, as justification
for their repeated intervention in the political process. The result was
right-wing military dictatorships in Central America and countries like
Argentina, Brazil and Chile and many abuses of human rights.
Not surprisingly, the loudest complaints about the coup here have come from
countries that survived the cold war experience and do not want a
repetition. "It is not tolerable that when governments face difficult
situations or economic crises, all it should take to generate a situation
of instability is an uprising by a group of colonels," the foreign minister
of Chile, Juan Gabriel Valdés, said.
But the passage of time, combined with the political squabbling and
economic hardship that have accompanied the restoration of democratic rule,
have softened some of the bitter memories of repressive military rule.
"Governments haven't produced results, politically or economically, and
people are fed up and looking for an alternative that is functional and
coherent," said Michael Shifter, a senior policy analyst at the
Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
A poll taken here just before the coup, for instance, found that the
military in Ecuador has reached a level of popularity even higher than the
Roman Catholic Church.
"Over the past 20 years, the Ecuadorean Armed Forces have maintained a
course of action that, in the midst of the chaos the country has lived
through, has managed to transform them into the only institution that
enjoyed prestige and respect among the citizenry," said Simón Pachano, an
analyst at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences here.
Given that opportunity, the armed forces here and elsewhere have been
searching for a new role and model, and the emergence of Mr. Chávez has
been fortuitous for them. His repeated citation of Bolívar's pan-American
vision and the nationalist and populist regime he has installed in
Venezuela resonate deeply, both among frustrated and idealistic junior
military officers and left-wing politicians who have been shut out of power.
Echoing Mr. Chávez, the colonels who launched Ecuador's coup offered a
classic populist program. They presented themselves as protectors of a
downtrodden Indian minority, reformers who would satisfy unmet demands for
social justice and patriots who had suffered along with ordinary
Ecuadoreans at the hands of a corrupt and incompetent political elite.
Even before last week's coup, diplomats here and in Colombia were
acknowledging the existence of a "Chavista" faction within the military.
Indeed, one of the colonels who was involved in the seizure of Congress
here on Jan. 21 cited Mr. Chávez's pan-American ideals in a letter he made
public after he sought political asylum in the Venezuelan Consulate in
In the document, Lt. Col. Guillermo Pacheco Pérez proclaimed his
identification with "the cause of Bolivarian liberation" and the
"ultra-free Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela." His goal, he said, was "to
refound a New Republic that permanently marginalizes all that has swept us
away to institutional putrefaction and the servitude that Bolívar
Significantly, Venezuela has been the only country to break ranks and not
speak out against the coup here. On his weekly radio program, Mr. Chávez,
himself a former army colonel and paratrooper who led a failed coup attempt
in 1992, not only condoned the rebellion, but sounded downright sympathetic
to its leaders and their goals and tactics.
"I saw 25,000 Indians asking for their rights, and I saw military units
supporting them," Mr. Chávez, who was elected to office in December 1998
after a prison term, said approvingly. "Who are we to judge the people of
Ecuador?" he asked, adding that, "We cannot condemn people when they take
to the streets."
On Wednesday, the Venezuelan government approved the restoration to active
duty of about 200 officers who took part in Mr. Chávez's 1992 coup attempt
and were cashiered as punishment, an action that raised new doubts about
its commitment to democratic principles. "Along with Ecuador's coup, that
sends exactly the wrong message to every potential military conspirator in
every barracks in the continent," a Latin American ambassador here
Here, last week's breakdown of the political order has been portrayed as a
victory for constitutional rule, with Gen. Carlos Mendoza, the armed forces
commander who briefly led a three-man junta before stepping aside for Vice
President Gustavo Noboa, being praised by the new minister of the interior
for "sacrificing a brilliant career so the world would be spared the
spectacle of a disoriented and destroyed Ecuador." But that interpretation
has not found much favor outside the country.
"This was the stereotypical Latin American military coup," said Eduardo
Gamarra, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida
International University in Miami and an expert on Andean politics. "The
president was toppled and replaced by his vice president, who is supported
and guaranteed by the military."
Indeed, in an interview with foreign reporters this week, Mr. Mahuad
directly linked his overthrow to his refusal to adopt policies that the
military favored. "I made peace with Peru" -- a neighbor with which Ecuador
fought several border wars in the 20th century -- "and cut the military
budget," he said, incurring the wrath of an officer corps unwilling to
Still, the new government here is aware that it faces ostracism from other
governments in the region unless it moves decisively to punish the rebels,
and it has taken some steps to do so. More than a dozen colonels are now in
custody and awaiting trial on charges of sedition and conspiring against
the constitutional order, and investigations of an estimated 300 junior
officers have begun to determine their responsibility in the overthrow of
But Gen. Telmo Sandoval, who supported the coup, has been promoted to
commander of the armed forces, and other generals who played major roles,
like Gen. Carlos Moncayo, who permitted Indians to seize the Congress
building by withdrawing his troops, are still free. "I will not permit a
witch hunt," the new minister of defense, Adm. Hugo Unda Aguirre, said
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