Chaos in Ecuador

We are all familiar with the truism that a week is a long time in politics. However, if you live in Ecuador you might well be inclined to think that a mere day can sometimes feel like an awfully long time.

Last weekend saw the "five-hour coup", which for a brief moment plunged Ecuador into a political-constitutional crisis. On Friday evening thousands of indigenous Indians and at least 70 junior military officers stormed the empty congress building in the capital city of Quito. Once inside, a colonel by the name of Lucio Guitierrez - dressed in full army fatigues - rushed into the main chamber and shouted: "Ecuadorean people, rise up and fight against corruption!"

Guitierrez's call was seconded by Antonio Vargas, one of the most radical leaders of the Indian population who comprise some four million of the 12.4 million Ecuadorean population. Vargas boldly stated that "we have started a peaceful but unstoppable fight against another kind of slavery".

An hour after occupying the congress building, this very unlikely-sounding coalition of forces then took over the supreme court and declared "a government of national salvation" - by setting up a three-man junta composed of Guitierrez, Vargas and a former president of the supreme court. Adding to the slightly surreal air, Fausto Cobo, head of the army's war school and now apparently a sturdy champion of the oppressed, said the rebel army units intended "to end the looting by the government and to support a just cause by our indigenous comrades". The leaders of the coup claimed during the evening that they had the support of some 500 military officers, and things did indeed look good for them when the chief of the armed forces, general Carlos Mendoza, asked president Jamil Mahuad to resign" in order to prevent a "social uprising".

By Saturday morning the coup had turned to dust. The three-man junta dissolved itself and meekly handed power over to Gustavo Noboa, vice-president until the coup and now the sixth president in four years. General Mendoza pledged his full support for Noboa and "the constitutional order". Even Mahuad himself popped up on television and, very gentlemanly, wished Noboa "the best of luck" - while condemning the coup of course.

So what was behind this extraordinary whirlwind of events?

Ever since assuming power in the August 1998 general election, Mahuad has had to face severe economic problems, not to mention the ever present 'Indian problem' - so much so that three weeks ago he declared a state of emergency and imposed (an ineffectual) martial law. At least seven million Ecuadoreans are permanently trapped in dire poverty. Inflation topped 60% last year, making it the highest in Latin America. The economy shrank by 7.5%. Only one person in three in the labour force has a full-time job. Confronted by all this, Mahuad announced last week that he would 'do a Panama' - ie, effectively make the US dollar Ecuador's official currency. Mahuad hoped such a measure would curb inflation, bring down interest rates to US levels and act as a spur to foreign investment.

Mahuad's proposals provoked outrage - particularly from the leaders of the Indian political movement. Vargas angrily declared that Mahuad's plans to peg the Ecuadorean economy to the US dollar were an "affront to national sovereignty" which would only benefit the rich. It was the backlash against Mahuad and his proposed 'dollarisation of Ecuador' that triggered the coup - possibly the shortest in history.

The mass movement has been betrayed already. Naboa - number one man thanks to the coup - has said he will forge ahead with his predecessor's controversial plans. Vargas retaliated by saying the Indian population would reject Noboa and continue the struggle against the "corrupt political system". But the dramatic collapse of the coup itself only serves to expose the fantasy-like nature of Vargas's project. It was the overwhelming pressure from US imperialism which doomed the putative three-man dictatorship and their dreams of national autarky. The US state department immediately condemned what it called the "proto-coup", and threatened to cut off foreign aid and discourage investment in the country. Menacing noises also came from the United Nations, the Organisation of American States and, crucially, the South American Mercosur trading bloc - which is made up of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, as well as associate members Chile and Bolivia. Born on Friday evening, the 'Ecuadorean road' to national salvation lay in ruins by Saturday morning.

The Ecuadorean experience contains clear lessons for revolutionaries. Primarily, the insidious allure of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend'-type politics, an unfortunate trait that has marred the workers' movement almost since its inception. Thus we have seen left sects in Britain advocate 'victory' (military, that is, not political of course) for Gaddafi's Libya, Galtieri's Argentina, Saddam's Iraq, Milosevic's Serbia, etc, in their respective struggles against democratic imperialism. The consequence of such 'lesser evilism' is the abandonment of independent politics by the working class and oppressed.

Ecuador provides a dramatic example of where this leads. Tragically, the most radicalised sections of the oppressed Indian population, personified in Antonio Vargas, ended up looking to disgruntled elements in the ruling regime for salvation. With no revolutionary programme to guide them, the representatives of the oppressed sought saviours from above, hoping a putsch might eventually deliver utopia.

Revolutionaries in Ecuador must fight for a democratic republic - which means the call for a constituent assembly where full democratic rights for the four million Indians are guaranteed. The fake democracy of Mahuad, Naboa, the technocrats and the 'constitutional' generals must be left behind.

Danny Hammill