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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 April 2007, 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK
Ecuador's political volcano
By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Ecuador

Ecuador is facing a political crisis. The president's plans for social and political reform have been met by violent protests from those opposing them. But now with the country on its eighth president in 10 years, failure could see the situation deteriorate further.

Ecuadoreans queue at a polling station during a constitutional reform vote
Few have benefited from Ecuador's oil revenues

The Tungurahua volcano in the south of Ecuador is rumbling, frequently spitting molten lava into the air.

Some, in this country with a large indigenous population descended from the Incas, believe the spirit of Pachamama - the feminine spirit which regulates nature - lives there. And she is not happy.

Neither are many of the Ecuadorian people.

They have had to endure more than 10 years of political turmoil. They have had eight presidents in that time. Three of them thrown out of office by angry crowds.

About half of the 13 million population live on or below the poverty line, thousands have no running water and more than a million have migrated, mostly to Spain and the United States, in search of a better life.

And all this in a country which is the world's largest producer of bananas, has ample supplies of oil and a thriving tourist industry.

Public views

People often look away or pretend they are in a hurry when they see a gringo with a microphone lurching towards them. But in the Plaza San Francisco in the heart of Quito's colonial quarter I found them queuing up to give me their views on why Ecuadorian politics have been such a disaster.

Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa casts his vote on referendum on whether people wanted a constituent assembly. Photo: Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images
President Correa is popular among the poor and disenfranchised

"The same politicians, the same parties," said Carmen, a middle-aged housewife.

"We've seen no improvement for 30 years," added an old man, struggling in his excitement to keep his top false teeth in place.

The crowd attracted more onlookers.

One woman took centre stage, ranting against the Church, the business community, foreign investors, the few wealthy families that had always and still do control Ecuador.

The crowd burst into applause.

It went on.

One angry speaker after another spoke about corrupt politicians, irresponsible businesses, greedy foreign investors. With no room left on my Minidisc, I made my escape.

Failed promises

A brief biography of two of Ecuador's recent presidents might help to explain some of the people's anger.

At the top of the list must be Abdala Bucaram who governed for six turbulent months in the mid-1990s.

The former Olympic sprinter called himself "El Loco - the Madman," releasing a CD when he took office called "A Crazy Man who Loves."

He called one ex-president a burro or donkey, then apologised - for insulting the good name of donkeys.

The man, also called Crazy Abdala, was accused of embezzling millions of dollars of state funds. But it took Congress a while to cotton on, finally dismissing him on the grounds of mental incapacity.

Lucio Gutierrez came to office on a tide of popular support. "Either I change this country or I die doing it," he promised an expectant nation.

He failed to fulfil one promise after another and first the indigenous people, then the workers who had backed him took to the streets.

With his popularity plummeting, he slunk out of office.

Radical changes

Disillusionment with their politicians is rampant on the streets of Ecuador. But many believe they have finally found a saviour in the 44-year-old, left-wing economist, Rafael Correa.

A map of Ecuador showing the capital Quito
He won a landslide victory and took office in January promising radical change. The people of Ecuador have heard that one before.

But Mr Correa has taken a first important step in actually implementing that promise.

The voters turned out recently for a referendum asking whether people wanted a constituent assembly that would radically rewrite the constitution.

The new laws, he promises, will give a greater voice to the poor, indigenous groups and women, overhaul the Congress and judiciary and limit the power and influence of the established political parties.

Mr Correa's proposals received a resounding "yes."

He makes no secret of his friendship with the radical president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez.

He has told the World Bank representative he can get out of Quito and he has warned the United States that he will not renew the lease on their military base in the western city of Manta.

Mr Correa also sacked 57 congressmen and women he accused of failing to do their jobs properly.

'Last chance'

Not surprisingly, the opposition in Ecuador does not like him, accusing him of acting illegally, concentrating too much power in his own hands and being Hugo Chavez's puppet.

The radical changes being proposed by this government were Ecuador's last chance
Fernando Bustamante
chief adviser to the Ecuadorian president

Mr Correa's chief adviser, Fernando Bustamante, with his silver hair and dark, austere eyebrows, looks and dresses like a professor at a top English university. He speaks English like one too.

As a journalist you grow accustomed to politicians talking a lot and saying very little. But Mr Bustamante said plenty.

"The radical changes being proposed by this government were Ecuador's last chance," he said. "If they failed, society would fragment," he warned, "leaving a failed state."

The people of this beautiful country of imposing mountains, tropical coastline and a large tract of Amazon jungle now find themselves at a crossroads where they are either going to choose the unknown and possible salvation, or continue on the same road to further political turmoil, or worse.

Tungurahua has spoken.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 28 April, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Ecuador
25 Apr 07 |  Country profiles
Ecuador MPs seek Colombia asylum
25 Apr 07 |  Americas
Ecuador's Congress sacks judges
24 Apr 07 |  Americas
Ecuador leader celebrates 'win'
16 Apr 07 |  Americas

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