President Lucio Gutierrez was forced from power Wednesday when Congress voted to oust him from office and Ecuador’s military said it would no longer support him after days of increasingly violent and massive protests against his rule.
Gathering in a makeshift meeting room in the capital as thousands of anti-government protesters fought police outside, a special session of Congress made up mostly of opposition legislators voted 60 to 0 to remove Gutierrez. The president still had 20 months remaining in a four-year term to which he was democratically elected in 2002.
Alfredo Palacio, the vice president with whom Gutierrez often tangled, took the oath of office as Ecuador’s new leader.
After initially refusing to recognize the congressional vote, Gutierrez, 48, left the presidential palace with his family and fled the capital in a helicopter, according to media reports. Prosecutors issued an order for his arrest, saying the former president could be held responsible for two deaths this week during protests against his rule.
Gutierrez’s whereabouts remained unclear late Wednesday. Local media reported that he would seek asylum in Panama or Venezuela.
Hundreds of flag-waving Quito residents occupied the tarmac at the city’s international airport in a bid to keep Gutierrez from leaving the country.
“The people of Quito, especially, have brought to an end a dictatorship of immorality, high-handedness and fear,” Palacio said in his first speech as president. “The people of Ecuador have decided today to reestablish the republic.”
A populist former military man who won the presidency nearly 2 1/2 years ago with the backing of the country’s large indigenous population, Gutierrez became widely unpopular after he tried to avoid impeachment on corruption charges by stacking the Supreme Court with his allies.
One poll released over the weekend placed support for Gutierrez, who colored his speeches with leftist rhetoric, at just 4%.
Opposition to his rule was centered in Quito, where Mayor Paco Moncayo was an especially outspoken opponent. Moncayo recently called for “civil disobedience” against the government, saying the only way Gutierrez could restore order was by resigning or “putting 2 million Quito residents in prison.”
The movement to oust Gutierrez began to grow in December, when the president and his allies in Congress moved to purge the Supreme Court and appoint justices loyal to the leader.
Many supporters of the president, including leaders of Ecuador’s indigenous movement, grew disillusioned as he failed to implement the reformist, anti-corruption platform on which he had been elected. Instead, Gutierrez implemented an austerity program, including cuts in government subsidies for food and cooking fuel.
Two weeks ago, the movement to oust Gutierrez gathered momentum in the capital when a radio station called on its listeners to take to the streets and bang pots and pans.
“From this radio station, we will stay constantly alert to demand the constitution is respected,” Paco Velasco, the radio personality who helped spark the protests, said Wednesday as thousands of Quito residents took to the streets to celebrate Gutierrez’s removal.
In a speech late Friday that was clearly intended to mollify the opposition, Gutierrez fired all 31 justices of the new Supreme Court. He also declared a state of emergency in the capital, suspending the right to assemble and freedom of speech.
The emergency decree was widely ignored. Thousands of Quito residents took to the streets to defy it and he withdrew the order a few hours later.
Over the weekend, the protests spread beyond the capital to other cities, including Guayaquil, Ecuador’s commercial center and largest city. On Tuesday, a Chilean photographer died and dozens of demonstrators were injured as police tried to clear the streets.
Gutierrez told Associated Press on Tuesday that he had no intention of resigning.
“There is not the least possibility. I was elected for four years,” he said hours before demonstrators tried to march to the palace. “My government ends in January 2007.”
A second person reportedly was killed Wednesday as the demonstrations against the president grew larger and angrier, with about 30,000 people marching and fighting police in the streets around the presidential palace.
Palacio, the vice president, declared that the government was in “a state of coma” and that soon some “hands will try and apply euthanasia.”
About an hour later, the opposition legislators announced their special session.
Unable to enter the Congress building because the president of the legislature, Gutierrez ally Omar Quintana, had locked the doors, the opposition lawmakers instead met in the offices of a journalism school.
Those present voted unanimously to remove Gutierrez from office, with two abstaining.
The resolution declared that “Col. Lucio Gutierrez has abandoned the office of the presidency and as a result, the mechanisms of constitutional succession should be put in motion.” The lawmakers also voted to remove Quintana from office.
Shortly afterward, Gutierrez said he would not recognize the vote because it had not been approved by a two-thirds majority of the 100-member Congress, as called for under Ecuador’s constitution. He remained in the presidential palace, but left after the military withdrew its support.
“Before the situation which the country is living, we must take the decision to no longer support President Lucio Gutierrez ... in order to ensure public safety,” said Vice Adm. Victor Hugo Rosero, head of the joint chiefs of staff.
The new president, Palacio, is a 66-year-old cardiologist.
Reuters reported that thousands of Gutierrez supporters armed with machetes and guns had arrived in Quito by bus Wednesday. But crowds of anti-government protesters blocked their advance to the city center.
Anti-government demonstrators broke into the Congress building, smashing windows and chairs.
But by nightfall Wednesday, with Gutierrez gone from the capital, calm returned.
“We won’t get fooled again,” said Cecilia Calle, a civil rights activist who had joined the protests. “Now they know that an angry and brave people will not stop taking the streets in order to defend democracy.”
Times staff writer Tobar reported from Buenos Aires and special correspondent Perez from Quito.