Attorney General of Ecuador Visits COHA

During his recently concluded visit to Washington, Ecuador’s highly regarded attorney general, José Xavier Garaicoa Ortiz, privately met with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs’ (COHA) editorial board to discuss current issues affecting his country. The ground rules of that meeting were that no public statement would be issued until the attorney general returned to Ecuador. The Ecuadorian attorney general was in Washington to participate in preliminary hearings before the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, under the auspices of the World Bank, to facilitate the mediation of the dispute between Ecuador and the U.S. multinational oil company, Occidental Petroleum. The company is seeking to invalidate the government’s cancellation of a contract allowing for the exploration and production of oil which Ecuador says was properly abrogated by actions of the company.

Garaicoa began by focusing on President Rafael Correa’s recent battle with the country’s fractious legislature and parts of the court system. Here, Garaicoa rhetorically asked which of the country’s instruments of government has been more responsive to the popular will. He went on to criticize the controversial U.S. military presence at the Manta airbase (arranged by one of President Correa’s predecessors) and confirmed that the president has stated that he will not extend the lease on the facility, which is up for renewal in 2009. The Ecuadorian president has based his position on Manta mainly on the grounds that there is substantial domestic opposition to the presence of any foreign military base in Ecuador, emphasizing that it was not aimed at the United States in particular.

The base was originally promoted to the Ecuadorian people as a vehicle for the country’s economic development, providing an opportunity that would result in new foreign investments and jobs coming to the region. But the past eight years of its operation have rendered drastically different results. Garaicoa noted that the use of the base as a staging ground for anti-guerrilla activities in support of Colombia’s government put Ecuador at risk of being drawn into that conflict, something neither the Correa government nor the people of Ecuador favor. At the end of his interview, Garaicoa lamented, “Manta has never filled the role it was originally intended to.”

In a country where voting is obligatory and where legislators are elected by popular vote, Attorney General Garaicoa insisted that President Correa remains Ecuador’s only elected official who effectively represents the popular will of the entire citizenry. “No existe un Congreso Nacional” (“There is no national congress”), asserted Garaicoa, emphasizing that the current law and constitution are basically marred, so that both the powers of the elected Congress and the checks and balances among the branches of government are unclear. In this respect, Correa plans to lead efforts to rewrite the constitution beginning in September because the current lack of clarity has allowed the populace to be under-represented, to the benefit of the more privileged elements of the citizenry as well as the other branches of the government. Consequently, the legislative and court systems have been acting in a manner that has invalidated their legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Ecuador’s transformative referendum held last month, where the president’s proposal was backed by 81.7% of voters, has convinced many Ecuadorian specialists that Correa’s recent actions are indeed fully in line with the expectations of a majority of the electorate. The referendum also proved that Ecuadorians were overwhelmingly in favor of a constituent assembly that would begin the process of effectively rewriting the constitution in September.