Ecuador to reduce debt payments; protests push constitutional reform

Ecuador’s Economy Minister Ricardo Patiño announced Feb. 28 that the previous day’s congressional vote to reduce debt service assignments in the $9.8 billion national budget by $283.4 million has spurred the government’s debt restructuring plans. Patiño said an auditing commission will be named to identify “illegitimate debt” that the government will not pay. “Congress has put at my disposal the option of a debt restructuring to reduce debt payments, and we will certainly consider it,” Patiño told reporters in Quito. Said Lisa Schineller of Standard and Poor’s in New York: “This is an example of the contentious nature in which external debt is viewed in Ecuador, where there is a weak credit culture.” The foreign debt of Ecuador, South America’s fifth-largest oil producer, totaled $10.21 billion in December. (Reuters, Feb. 28)

Towards “21st Century Socialism”
Ecuador’s Congress voted 54-1 with two abstentions on Feb. 13 to approve leftist President Rafael Correa’s plan for a referendum on whether to convene a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the Constitution. The right-wing opposition dominates the 100 seats in the single-chamber Congress, but defections from the conservative Christian Democratic Union (UDC) gave Correa’s proposal a majority; most rightwing deputies walked out before the vote. (EFE, Feb. 13)

Later that day, the Supreme Electoral Council (TSE) set April 15 as the date for the referendum. Approval is considered nearly certain, since polls show 77% of the population supporting the plan. If the polls are correct, in June or July voters will select 130 delegates to the Constituent Assembly, which is expected to begin meeting in August or September. The Assembly has six to eight months to write a new Constitution, which would then have to be ratified by the voters. If the new Constitution changes the legislature and the presidency, additional elections will have to be scheduled for legislators and the president. (Univision, Feb. 13) from EFE)

Correa has indicated that he expects a new Constitution to move Ecuador toward the “21st-century socialism” promoted by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias. On Feb. 17, during his weekly radio program, Correa said he would resign if his supporters didn’t win a majority of the seats in the Constituent Assembly. He ran for president to be an “instrument of change and citizens’ revolution,” he said. “If I can’t do this and I’m just going to warm the bench and be just another of the bunch of traitors and imposters we’ve had in the presidency, believe me, I’d rather go.” (AFP, Feb. 17)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 18

Protesters occupy congress
On Jan. 31, protesters stormed a session of Congress, accusing opposition politicians of blocking Correa’s Constituent Assembly plan. Police fired teargas and evacuated lawmakers as protesters armed with sticks and bottles briefly managed to get inside Congress. Opposition lawmaker Federico Perez told Reuters: “We had to leave the building because the protest was getting out of hand. They were yelling: ‘Kill them all.'” Correa government spokesperson Monica Chuji later said: “Peaceful mobilizations are supported by the government, but we are against violence.” Thousands had gathered in Quito to demand constitutional reform. (BBC, Jan. 31) Opposition lawmaker Martha Bucaram said Congress should consider moving to another city, citing the lack of “guarantees” for legislators’ security in Quito. (EFE, Jan. 31)

See our last post on Ecuador. See also the last Weekly News Update on Ecuador’s transformation.