Carlos Julio Arosemena

President of Ecuador overthrown by the army after incidents of drunkenness

Carlos Julio Arosemena Monroy, lawyer and politician: born Guayaquil, Ecuador 24 August 1919; President of Ecuador 1961-63; married Gladys Peet (one son, one daughter); died Guayaquil 5 March 2004.

Carlos Julio Arosemena was one of the most colourful politicians to have served as President of Ecuador, a country that has had no shortage of larger-than-life leaders.

At the height of the Cold War, he fluctuated wildly between flirting with Cuba and cracking down hard on the left, and he was eventually overthrown by the military after a series of scandals arising from his fondness for the bottle. But he survived to become a revered elder statesman, respectfully consulted by politicians of all persuasions. The government declared three days of national mourning to mark his passing.

Arosemena was a protégé of the most flamboyant of Ecuador's long line of populist caudillos, José María Velasco Ibarra, who was President five times and deposed by coup d'état four times. He was serving as Velasco's Vice-President in 1961, when the military overthrew him and installed Arosemena in the presidential palace in his place. He lasted 20 turbulent months, before the armed forces tired of him, too.

His liking for intoxicating left-wing rhetoric was as strong as his predilection for what he called "masculine vices" (which he defined as booze, women and - less predictably - reading. He had a private library of more than 15,000 volumes). The combination was more than the country's conservative business élite and military establishment could stomach.

When they threatened to move against him, he attempted to shore up his position by breaking off diplomatic relations with Cuba, Poland and Czechoslovakia. This earned him a public rebuke from Fidel Castro, who called him a "drunken coward". But it was too late to save his skin: in July 1963 the armed forces turned him out, proclaiming that it was their duty to save the country from the "abyss of dissolution and anarchy" into which Arosemena was leading it.

He had presided over a series of embarrassing incidents, including one in which he appeared drunk during a state visit by the (very prim and proper) President of Chile, Jorge Alessandri. The last straw came when Arosemena, much the worse for wear, managed to insult both the American ambassador and a prominent visiting businessman at a formal banquet, allegedly by relieving himself into a wine-bottle. The tanks rolled on the following morning.

Arosemena took refuge in Panama, but within a few years he was back in the fray of Ecuadorean politics, with undiminished enthusiasm. He founded the Nationalist Revolutionary Party (PNR) as a vehicle for his personal views and ambitions, and was elected to congress several times.

A born controversialist and iconoclast, he provoked strong emotions in admirers and detractors alike, and delighted in causing uproar with his frequently outrageous opinions. Carlos Calderón Chico chose a characteristic quote for the title of his biography last year: No me importa el juicio de la historia - "I don't care how history judges me."

He was a striking figure in later life, elegant and patrician, with long, flowing white hair and bristling moustache. His admirers regarded him as a true democrat, in a country where political idealism has often been in short supply; he was responsible, during his time in congress, for promoting ground-breaking legislation on income tax, wages and security of tenure for tenants. Even his enemies had to concede that he was not interested in enriching himself; he lived out his days in the same small house in the centre of his native city where he had lived for almost 50 years.

Carlos Julio Arosemena was born in 1919 into a prominent political family in Ecuador's main port and commercial centre, Guayaquil. His father, Carlos Julio Arosemena Tola, was President of Ecuador in 1947-48.

He read law at the local university, but politics was his lifelong vocation. His first public appointment was in 1945, as second secretary at the Ecuadorean embassy in Rio de Janeiro. He made such a success of this modest posting that he was quickly promoted and sent to Washington. His political star continued to rise under the patronage of Velasco Ibarra, who had seized power in 1944, and in 1952 Arosemena was one of the founders of the velasquista party. In 1960 he was the great man's running mate, but he was not one to play second fiddle to anybody for long. The two fell out after Arosemena denounced some of Velasco's appointees as "crazed with greed", and the President ordered his arrest.

He was freed after the military coup of November 1961, and installed in power by the junta. He tried, nevertheless, to maintain his independence from the military, appointed a broad-based cabinet and resisted pressures from Washington to sever relations with Fidel Castro's revolutionary regime in Cuba, which was moving rapidly to the left.

Two unsuccessful attempts were made to impeach him in congress for his erratic behaviour, before the armed forces again decided to take the law into their own hands.

Colin Harding

Comments