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Ecuador Election is Latest Sign of Turn Toward Left in Latin America - 2002-11-25


Sunday's election of a left-wing former coup leader as Ecuador's President appears to be more evidence of growing Latin American disenchantment with traditional political parties, and free-market economic policies. Ecuador now joins Brazil and Venezuela, where populist, leftist, presidents have come to power on promises they would change the current economic model and address the needs of the poor.

Former army colonel Lucio Gutierrez soundly defeated his rival, businessman Alvaro Noboa, in Sunday's runoff election. He ran a successful campaign on promises to end corruption and address the needs of the poor.

Mr. Gutierrez, who briefly took power in a coup almost three years ago, was backed by leftist parties, labor unions, and indigenous groups opposed to the free market-free trade model advocated by Washington. An admirer of populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Mr. Gutierrez now becomes the latest leftwing politician in Latin America to be elected President. Last month, Brazilians voted overwhelmingly for former trade union leader, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, as President to succeed a center-right government.

Long-time Latin America analyst, Wolf Grabendorff, says Mr. Gutierrez' victory reflects growing Latin American disenchantment with free market reforms.

"He does have a great deal of popular appeal which has more to do with his way of talking and behaving, than with his politics," he said. "But basically this demonstrates the disenchantment, disillusionment of ten years of political and economic reforms which haven't brought home very much success or better well-being for many people."

With the exception of countries like Chile and Mexico, the economic reforms advocated by Washington: open markets, privatizations, and fiscal discipline, have not generated the kind of growth and income distribution envisioned by proponents. Instead, in many countries, poverty has increased and living standards have dropped.

Studies by the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean show that the number of poor people in the region declined from 48 percent of the total population in 1990 to 43 percent in 1997. These were the years when many nations began implementing the free market reforms. However, the U.N. Commission says the poverty rate has remained about the same since 1997, registering 43 percent last year, or about 214 million people.

Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington says this has caused many voters in Latin America to turn to populists for answers.

"It's this type of statistical realities that have created a certain sense of disenchantment and disabuse amongst the electorate, and we are seeing a very significant wave of elections taking place that are putting into office people of one sort or another of a populist persuasion," he said. "If the United States is wise it will take this as a diagnostic that the U.S. has to do something differently to deal with the increasing disappointment in Latin America with the western model and with the U.S. leadership."

The former U.S. State Department official in charge of Latin American affairs, Peter Romero, agrees on the need for Washington to become more engaged in the region. At the same time, Mr. Romero who now works for an investment banking firm in New York, does not see the election of Mr. da Silva in Brazil or Mr. Gutierrez in Ecuador as threats to U.S. interests.

Instead, he says the emergence of these non-traditional politicians is a sign of a healthy democracy in Latin America.

"You're seeing previously disenfranchised members of the electorate, the indigenous, the poor, the students, voting in record numbers and feeling like they're making a difference," Mr. Romero said. "Who are they voting for? They're voting for non-traditional candidates, they're voting for candidates out-of-the-box, not coming from the traditional crop of political parties that put forth candidates. That's good. But it's really incumbent upon those out-of-the-box candidates, many of whom have zero political experience and then they find themselves in the highest office in the land, it's incumbent upon the private sectors in these countries, as well as the U.S. government and other developed country governments, to make sure they succeed."

Like President-elect da Silva in Brazil, Mr. Gutierrez now faces the difficult task of fulfilling his campaign promises, while pursuing economic policies that do not alienate foreign investors and disrupt international credit lines.

Upon his election Sunday, Mr. Gutierrez sought to reassure the business sector that his election does not threaten investors. At the same time, he pledged to carry out an active social policy to combat the poverty that affects 60 percent of Ecuador's population. If he succeeds, Mr. Gutierrez' brand of populism could serve as an example for other aspiring politicians in Latin America to follow.

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