Return to Democratic Rule, 1979-84
Roldós presided over a nation that had undergone profound changes during the seven years of military rule. During the ceremony to pass the mantle of power to Roldós, Admiral Alfredo Poveda Burbano pointed proudly to impressive indicators of economic growth between 1972 and 1979: the government budget expanded some 540 percent, whereas exports as well as per capita income increased a full 500 percent. Industrial development had also progressed, stimulated by the new oil wealth as well as Ecuador's preferential treatment under the provisions of the Andean Common Market (Ancom, also known as the Andean Pact).
Past export "booms" in cacao and bananas were managed by and for private coastal interests, but the state controlled the petroleum bonanza and thereby transformed the social landscape. Quito--the seat of the bureaucracy and the closest major city to the oil fields--reaped the benefits of the economic growth. The capital city lost much of its sleepy Sierra character and in the 1980s competed with Guayaquil as a center of modern economic endeavor. Employment in the public sector grew in excess of 10 percent annually throughout the late 1970s, creating a new consumption-oriented middle class in Quito. But such change highlighted the persistence of the traditional rural campesino and the unskilled urban subproletariat; petroleum revenues thus widened Ecuador's habitual inequality in income distribution.
Expectations that the economic and social changes would transform the traditional political culture were unfulfilled. Customary aspects of civilian politics, such as regionalism and personalism, reflected in the proliferation of political parties; and rivalry between the executive and legislature persisted during the five years that Roldós and his vice president, Osvaldo Hurtado, were in power.
The most destructive of these traditions was evident in the intense rivalry that developed between Roldós and Bucaram, the strongman of the president's own CFP who, having twice been prevented from running for the presidency, was now determined to run the country from his power base in the unicameral legislature, the National Congress (Congress Nacional--hereafter, Congress). Bucaram's coalition building secured him the presidency of the legislature during the first year of the new government. The president, for his part, was determined to retain his independence from the autocratic and increasingly conservative party boss. Bucaram had no apparent agenda other than blocking the reformist agenda of the president, who was thus forced to spend most of his first year in office scratching together his own political base, independent of the CFP, in order to achieve a legislative majority.
Roldós proved successful in this effort; in August 1980, his candidate for the congressional presidency narrowly defeated the bucaramista candidate, and the CFP also suffered major losses in the municipal and provincial elections in December. The president was not able to enjoy the fruits of his success, however; on May 24, 1981, he was killed, along with his wife and the minister of defense, in an airplane crash in the southern province of Loja.
The death of Roldós generated intense popular speculation. Some Ecuadorian nationalists attributed it to the Peruvian government because the crash took place near the border where, four months previously, the two nations had participated in a bloody flare-up in their perpetual border dispute. Many of the nation's leftists, pointing to a similar crash that had killed Panamanian President Omar Torrijos Herrera less than three months later, blamed the United States government.
Roldós's constitutional successor, Hurtado, immediately faced an economic crisis brought on by the sudden end of the petroleum boom. Massive foreign borrowing, initiated during the years of the second military regime and continued under Roldós, resulted in a foreign debt that by 1983 was nearly US$7 billion. The nation's petroleum reserves declined sharply during the early 1980s because of exploration failures and rapidly increasing domestic consumption.
The economic crisis was aggravated in 1982 and 1983 by drastic climatic changes, bringing severe drought as well as flooding, precipitated by the appearance of the unusually warm ocean current known as "El Niño". Analysts estimated damage to the nation's infrastructure at US$640 million, with balance-of- payments losses of some US$300 million. The real gross domestic product (GDP) fell to 2 percent in 1982 and to -3.3 percent in 1983. The rate of inflation in 1983, 52.5 percent, was the highest ever recorded in the nation's history.
Although widely considered a center-leftist, Hurtado confronted the economic crisis by instituting highly unpopular austerity measures aimed at gaining the approval of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the international financial community at large. Hurtado eliminated government subsidies for basic foodstuffs--thus contributing to both inflation and the impoverishment of the masses--and substantially devalued the sucre. With unemployment increasing to as high as 13.5 percent, the United Workers Front (Frente Unitario de Trabajadores--FUT) launched four general strikes during Hurtado's period in office. The most militant of these nationwide strikes, in October 1982, was called off after forty-eight hours because of union leaders' fears of provoking a coup d'état.
Outside observers noted that, however unpopular, Hurtado deserved credit for keeping Ecuador in good standing with the international financial community and for consolidating Ecuador's democratic political system under extremely difficult conditions. The political right, nevertheless, believing that the economic crisis was caused by presidential policies that were inimical to free-enterprise capitalism, bitterly criticized Hurtado. The right united for the 1984 elections in order to back León Febres Cordero Ribadeneyra, a businessman from Guayaquil, with Borja running a close second. As Febres Cordero entered office on August 10, there was no end in sight to the economic crisis nor to the intense struggle that characterized the political process in Ecuador.
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