at the corrupt power behind President
Andrew Gumbel of The Independent (On-Line)
Quito, 20th April 2005
Quito, 20th April 2005
Ecuador has had its share of eccentric presidents who talk the salty language of the people even as they rob them blind.
None, though, has topped Abdala Bucaram, the crazy man of Guayaquil who, during six turbulent months in office during the 1990s, cavorted with dancing girls on television, recorded a pop song, lunched with Lorena Bobbitt, the notorious American penis-chopper of Ecuadorian origin, and, according to prosecutors and the US Embassy, stole as much as $100m (£50m) from the public purse.
Mr Bucaram cast a long shadow after he was stripped of his office on the grounds of mental incapacity in 1997 and the fabulous stories - of banknotes stuffed into rubbish bags and paintings removed from the walls of the presidential palace in the dying hours of his administration - began to come out.
He continues to cast a long shadow, not least as he has become an adviser of singular importance to the President, Luis Gutierrez, and has just returned to Ecuador after eight years in exile in Panama.
In fact, Mr Bucaram's return - made possible by some highly questionable political meddling in the Ecuadorian Supreme Court and the consequent annulment of all charges against him - is the number one grievance of anti-government protesters who have packed the streets of Quito and other cities in the past few days. With increasing fervour, they are clamouring for President Gutierrez's removal along with a general house-cleaning of Ecuador's notoriously corrupt political class.
According to the Ecuadorian newspapers, it was Mr Bucaram who induced President Gutierrez to impose a state of emergency in the capital last weekend - a move that backfired spectacularly because the protesters did not back down, the army did nothing to clear them off the streets, and the President was forced to withdraw his emergency decree within 24 hours.
Ecuadorian politics has become a grand exercise in political theatre. Mr Bucaram's return to Guayaquil two weeks ago was a case in point. First he descended from a helicopter into a pre-prepared adoring crowd (though not, as was his habit 20 years ago, in a Batman suit). Then he burst into song. Finally, he mounted a horse, declared himself "as crazy as ever", and trotted with his lieutenants across a public park to Guayaquil's waterfront looking, in the words of a local lawyer whose office windows gave him a front-row seat, "like Attila and his Barbarian hordes".
Mr Bucaram's connection to President Gutierrez goes back to his own tenure, when Gutierrez, a colonel at the time, was in charge of his security. President Gutierrez himself came to power in 2002 on a wave of populist left-wing rhetoric.
President Gutierrez has concentrated on a constant struggle to survive politically in the face of uncertain congressional alliances. If he manoeuvred for Mr Bucaram's return, it was at least in part because he felt he had no choice. His main congressional ally, the Social Christian Party, turned against him after local elections last November, and he only maintained his slim majority thanks to the support of Mr Bucaram's Rodolsista party.
In December, President Gutierrez had the Supreme Court fired and replaced with one more likely to bow to his political wishes. When the new court quashed the charges against Mr Bucaram, indignation spread to the streets.
For more than a week, President Gutierrez and his generals have been all but barricaded in the presidential palace in Quito while protesters gather outside. The street campaign has already borne considerable fruit: the new Supreme Court, which Congress voted to uphold last week, has been dismissed. President Gutierrez's survival probably depends on his ability to have a new court appointed quickly and with a modicum of fairness. Whether he dares dispatch Mr Bucaram back into exile remains to be seen.