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Ecuador - Military in Politics

With the exception of García Moreno, the most powerful Ecuadorian political figures of the nineteenth century arose from the military. Chronically threatened by revolts and insurrection, leaders employed force to defend their authority. The distinction between civilian and military spheres of action was blurred, and the institutional identity of the military had not become wholly established.

Reformist Liberal governments of the early part of the twentieth century codified military law, regularized promotions, and banned soldiers from joining political parties or clubs. The establishment of a military academy in Quito in 1901 helped professionalize the armed forces. In addition, the military recruited an increasing proportion of its officer corps from the middle rather than the upper class. By 1916 officers had begun to regard themselves increasingly in institutional terms.

In 1925 the army as an institution intervened in national politics. A group of young officers, objecting to the political domination of the Guayaquil business oligarchy, revolted against civilian rule. Ambivalent over imposing direct military rule, the officers appointed a civilian-dominated junta, followed, in 1926, by a civilian as provisional president. The army continued to intervene in political affairs until 1948, removing numerous presidents. Yet the military refrained from governing directly.

In 1963 the army high command deposed President Carlos Julio Arosemena Monroy, perceiving him to be overly tolerant of the communist threat against Latin America and a national embarrassment because of his reported public drunkenness. In contrast to previous patterns, however, the army assumed direct control, claiming the need to "end the chaos and rectify mistaken paths" and promising to introduce a new socioeconomic structure. Over the next three years, the military junta adopted a moderate program of fiscal, agrarian, and industrial reforms aimed at eliminating structural obstacles to development. The military failed to mobilize support from the intended beneficiaries of its reforms, however, and stirred strong opposition from elite groups, especially Guayaquil business interests. Shaken by the lack of popular backing and an economic downturn and fearful of damage to military prestige, the armed forces relinquished power to a civilian interim president in 1966.

The longest period of direct control by the armed forces occurred between 1972 and 1979. In 1970 President José María Velasco Ibarra, unable to win congressional approval for his budget, had assumed dictatorial power with agreement of the military. Concerned over Velasco's cumulative political misjudgments and his interference in military promotions and assignments, however, the armed forces seized power in 1972 . General Guillermo Rodríguez Lara launched an era of military authoritarianism with a program of state-led development more ambitious than any during previous interventions by the armed forces. Ranking officers held many cabinet posts or became deputies in ministries and agencies headed by civilians.

In spite of being divided into reformist and traditionalist elements, the military government brought banking, basic industries, agriculture, and fisheries under public-sector control. The government also nationalized several large unprofitable enterprises. The government also created new mixed-ownership firms and public enterprises, notably the Ecuadorian State Petroleum Corporation (Corporación Estatal Petrolera Ecuatoriana--CEPE). Some enterprises served the military's own equipment requirements and brought revenue to the armed forces. After powerful large landholders diluted an ambitious effort to recast agriculture by redistributing income to the peasantry, however, the military's reformist thrust gradually lost momentum.

Although key capital garrisons successfully foiled a coup attempt against Rodríguez Lara by the chief of staff of the armed forces in 1975, discontent simmered among senior military and influential civilian political elements. Early the following year, a Supreme Council of Government composed of the commanders of the army, navy, and air force replaced Rodríguez Lara. The triumvirate disagreed as to the advisability of an early restoration of civilian government, but the commitment to gradual military withdrawal espoused by its head, Admiral Afredo Poveda Burbano, prevailed, and constitutional rule was restored in 1979. The incoming civilian government inherited serious economic problems, however, because of the Supreme Council's unwillingness to make unpopular decisions on wages and consumption.

The military attempted to limit its withdrawal by retaining a veto power over undesirable candidates, parties, and coalitions. Outmaneuvered by civilian politicians, however, the armed forces could not prevent the electoral victory of a left-leaning coalition that it found distasteful. Nonetheless, the seven years of military rule had strengthened the position of the armed forces. They controlled the membership of the boards of major state corporations; operated air and sea transportation lines; became major industrial shareholders through investments made by the Directorate of Army Industries (Dirección de Industrias del Ejército--Dine); and received a portion of petroleum revenues for military requirements. The armed forces reportedly controlled at least fourteen major business enterprises, ranging from an automotive assembly plant and a profitable shrimp-farming project owned by the army to a dredging company owned by the navy, and a domestic airline operated by the air force. In addition, several prominent retired officers had turned to politics or management positions in private or government-owned businesses.

During the 1980s, the military as a whole remained loyal to the constitutional system. Nonetheless, civilian politicians could never safely ignore the reactions of the military to their proposed actions and accepted a degree of military autonomy in matters of national defense. Indeed, the outbreak of hostilities with Peru in 1981 was fundamentally a military affair; the elected civilian government had little choice but to support the initiatives taken by the high command.

During the conservative administration of President León Febres Cordero Ribadeneyra (1984-88), a series of episodes inflamed relations between the military and the executive branch. Matters reached a crisis point in March 1986 when Lieutenant General Frank Vargas Pazzos, the air force commander and chief of the Joint Command of the armed forces, accused the minister of national defense and an army commander of corruption and demanded their dismissal. When the president reneged on his commitment to remove the two officers and bring them to trial, Vargas and his supporters took control of the Quito air force base. The brief rebellion was put down at the cost of several lives, and Vargas was court-martialed and put under house arrest at an army base. In January 1987, air force paratroop commandos loyal to Vargas seized Febres Cordero at the Taura Air Base near Guayaquil. In return for his freedom, the president pledged that no reprisals would be taken against his kidnappers and agreed to Vargas's release. Vargas later presented himself as a candidate for president and came in fourth in the first-round election in January 1988, winning over 12 percent of the vote.

When the Congress initiated moves to impeach Febres Cordero, the military warned congressional leaders that it would shut down the legislature if a formal impeachment action were brought against the president. Military authorities also backed Febres Cordero in proceeding with the court-martialing of the rebellious paratroopers in spite of his promise of immunity. Nevertheless, the episode shook military unity and tarnished its prestige as an institution.

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Page last modified: 10-01-2012 19:32:12 ZULU