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Last Updated: Monday, 16 April 2007, 21:36 GMT 22:36 UK
Ecuador: New hopes and challenges
By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Quito

Indigenous Ecuadorians queue at a polling station for the referendum
Many of Ecuador's indigenous people live below the poverty line
Ecuador is a country full of divisions - divisions between rich and poor, coast and mountains, indigenous and mestizo, city and country.

One of the few things they all agree on is that the country's political system has failed them.

Ecuador has suffered 10 years of political turmoil - eight presidents in a decade, three of them thrown from office by angry crowds.

The Congress has not functioned for months, since the government sacked 57 opposition politicians.

President Rafael Correa took office in January promising radical change to lift the country from what he called the "pit of misery" it had sunk into.

The referendum on Sunday was the first step in that process and it went better than even he, in his wildest dreams, could have hoped for.

His proposal to form a constituent, or people's, assembly that will re-write the constitution won the backing of almost 80% of the population.

In his victory speech, he said: "My only aim is to help get my country out of this misery - the poverty into which we've sunk, which has always dominated us."

Lost faith

But it really shouldn't be like this. Ecuador is the world's biggest producer of bananas, it has ample oil supplies and tourism is thriving.

But much of the wealth is, and always has been, concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy families.

About 40% of the population lives below the poverty line and hundreds of thousands of Ecuadorians have migrated in search of a better life, mostly to the United States and Spain.

The people have lost faith in the politicians and their political institutions.

President Rafael Correa waves after referendum in Ecuador
The opposition accuse the president of acting illegally

In the Plaza San Francisco in the heart of the colonial centre of Quito people were keen to give their opinions.

"The old constitutions we have had were manipulated and controlled by the political parties," said housewife, Carmen Maurillo.

"The same parties as always. This new assembly and new constitution will be of the people. That's the change we want to see."

"President Correa is complying with the desires of the people, as people want change," said university lecturer, Gustavo Pazmiņo.

"For more than 30 years with the same congress and congressmen, we haven't seen any changes or improvements here," explained driver Arnoldo Saona, "But within three months, this new president has made things move forward."

"In this country we have oil, we have natural resources, we have some of the most beautiful parts of the world, such as in the Galapagos Islands, and yet there are still people who go hungry," said William Tapia.

"The new constitution will try to tackle that inequality and those people who vote no are just parts of the old political system or oligarchy in Ecuador."

Concentrating power

The opposition, beaten convincingly in last year's elections and now in the referendum, complain that Mr Correa acted illegally.

One of the 57 congressmen he sacked earlier this year is the head of the Christian Democrat party, Carlos Larrategui.

He admits that the politicians and Congress have failed the people of Ecuador.

"We don't oppose change," he said. "But we feel these changes are just concentrating power in the hands of the president, just like in Venezuela."

President Correa is complying with the desires of the people, as people want change
Gustavo Pazmiņo
University lecturer

Mention of the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, is a sensitive issue in Ecuador.

Mr Correa makes no secret of his friendship with his radical neighbour, but is quick to stress that Ecuador has its own problems and must find its own solutions.

Within hours of his convincing referendum victory, Mr Correa was in Caracas for a meeting with his Venezuelan ally.

Many analysts see similarities in what is happening in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia - a radical overhaul of the established political institutions in an effort to give the poor and the marginalised a greater say in the running of their countries.

The United States is watching these developments with some concern.

Mr Correa talks about restructuring Ecuador's foreign debt - he has said he will close the US military base in the western city of Manta when the lease expires in a couple of years and potential investors are nervous about the instability.

But the convincing victory in the referendum means that Mr Correa has now reinforced his mandate to execute fundamental changes.

Greater voice

The first step is to call a new election to choose representatives for a constituent assembly.

Their job will be to rewrite the constitution, radically reforming the political institutions, the judiciary and the general way the country is run.

Their aim will be to give a greater voice to the poor, indigenous communities and women.

They will bypass the existing Congress and try to ensure that those business and political elites that have always run Ecuador have their power and influence curtailed.

Not surprisingly, the opposition is not happy about that. There are rumours of thousands of dollars being removed from the country to overseas accounts.

Despite the backing of the people, Mr Correa's government is well aware that it has a huge challenge on its hands.

His key advisor, Fernando Bustamente, said Ecuador's future was uncertain.

"But," he said, "the government simply can't afford to fail. All the elements, all the divisions are there, that if we don't succeed we'll be left with a failed state."

Ecuador leader celebrates 'win'
16 Apr 07 |  Americas
Judge fired amid Ecuador deadlock
29 Mar 07 |  Americas
Ecuador referendum row escalates
08 Mar 07 |  Americas
Timeline: Ecuador
20 Mar 07 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Ecuador
15 Jan 07 |  Country profiles

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