The 5-Minute Briefing: South America's struggle towards democracy

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The Independent US

What's going on in Ecuador?

The short answer is, complete confusion. With eight presidents in nine years, the country is the most politically unstable in South America. The ousting of President Lucio Gutierrez this week was the result of mass street protests provoked by the dismissal of the country's Supreme Court justices.

Long before that, however, he was beset by charges of cronyism and made unpopular by the introduction of harsh economic measures at the behest of the International Monetary Fund. Mr Gutierrez has been granted asylum by Brazil.

The former vice-president, Alfredo Palacio, has been sworn in but it is not clear when elections will be held. In familiar Latin American style, Mr Gutierrez's fate was sealed when he lost the support of the military, which allowed protesters to reach the presidential palace.

How typical are events in Ecuador of the rest of the continent?

A definitive answer will only be possible when a new government has emerged.

The broad trend in Latin America has been towards more left-of-centre governments, ruling with a mix of populist rhetoric yet orthodox economic policies. They tend to be less heedful of the US and less dependent on the military for their survival than in previous decades. The most recent case was Uruguay, where Tabare Vazquez was sworn in this year as the first left-wing president in its 170-year history. The best example, however, is Brazil, the largest and most powerful country in the region, where Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva was elected President in 2002. In Argentina, Nestor Kirchner, President since 2003, is a nationalist who has secured a favourable debt restructuring deal which is being portrayed as a victory over the IMF.

What are the options in Ecuador?

There are several. The removal of Mr Gutierrez could hasten the return of the volatile former president, Abdala Bucaram, known as "El Loco" (The Madman).

The newly installed President - like Mr Vazquez in Uruguay - is a doctor who has strong ties to the US. It is unclear whether his links with the detested outgoing regime will count against him when elections are held. Washington will be monitoring the situation closely. The last thing it wants is a radical left-wing government in Ecuador, making common cause with the Venezuelan strongman, Hugo Chavez, whose policies so enraged the US that the Bush administration backed an unsuccessful coup against him in 2002. Mr Chavez has courted Fidel Castro, and bought arms from Brazil, Russia and Spain. More of the same in Quito would be a headache for the US.