Stage set for Ecuadorian president or lawmakers to be booted out of office
QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Ecuador was locked in a showdown Tuesday between its conservative president and its opposition-led legislature that was turning the country into the latest Latin American nation torn between rival constitutional powers.
The opposition leadership's confidence in getting the 92 votes necessary to remove President Guillermo Lasso some time this week appeared to weaken during an hours-long legislative session in which lawmakers presented what they characterized as evidence of wrongdoing.
Lasso, who defended himself during the session, could still dissolve the legislature to keep his job and govern by decree as allowed by the Ecuadorian constitution.
Whatever happens this week, the faceoff added political instability to the problems tormenting Ecuadorians, most recently an increase in drug-related violence, including several massacres in prisons over the past two years.
Ecuadorians have long thought of everyday life as stable when compared to its neighbors, Colombia and Peru. But many in the country have become angered by their elected officials' failure to deal with joblessness, violence, extortion by gangsters and petty crime.
People feel the government is “totally disconnected from their most urgent needs,” said Laura Lizarazo, a senior analyst covering Ecuador and Colombia for the global firm Control Risks.
“We anticipate that the progressive deterioration in terms of security that Ecuador has experienced in the last year will persist," she said.
Lawmakers accuse Lasso of not having intervened to end a contract between the state-owned oil transport company Flota Petrolera Ecuatoriana and the private entity Amazonas Tankers. The accusers argue that Lasso knew the contract was full of irregularities and cost the state millions in losses.
Lasso, a former banker, was elected in 2021 and has clashed from the start with a strong opposition in the 137-member National Assembly.
The president, who has had medical issues throughout his term, arrived at impeachment proceedings in the Assembly Tuesday after they had begun, holding onto a person's arm as he walked.
Lasso categorically rejected the accusations, insisting there was no proof or testimony of wrongdoing, and spoke with sarcasm about the impeachment proceedings.
“I would like to begin by extending my appreciation to the members of the Assembly... who have dedicated themselves to this unfounded process with so much spirit,” Lasso said. “I want to deeply recognize them because ... they have stretched the limits of human imagination.”
This is the second time the opposition has tried to impeach Lasso, but it didn’t get enough votes last year.
Lasso did not say during the session if he would dissolve the Assembly. He told foreign reporters in April that he would not hesitate to do so if his removal were imminent. The move would allow him to govern by decree until presidential and legislative elections take place.
For more than an hour, assemblywoman Viviana Veloz presented videos and documents that she described as “irrefutable” evidence of the alleged irregularities, including freight rates. She said the damage to the state was estimated at more than $6 million.
Another Assembly member from the opposition, Estaban Torres, said he wanted to "be very clear with the country that President Lasso is not being accused of having appropriated public money for his own benefit” but of not having intervened to block the contract.
Andrea Endara, a political science professor at Ecuador's Ecotec University, said the option of dissolving the Assembly would condition the vote in favor of the president. But she warned that “votes can change up to the last second” and “in politics, anything is possible.”
Impeachment proceedings run separate from criminal investigations. Ecuador’s Prosecutor’s Office has opened a preliminary investigation, but Lasso has not been criminally charged.
Constitutional attorney Andre Benavides said the accusations against Lasso do not fit an embezzlement case because neither the damage to the state nor the alleged personal benefit of the president has been established.
In the streets of Ecuador, the political fight is breeding uncertainty.
Rodrigo Garcés, an auto parts dealer, on Tuesday rejected the idea of removing the president. He characterized the Assembly as “useless” and said the instability created by the impeachment proceedings “harms everyone.”
Meanwhile, retiree Luisa Coba said Lasso’s departure would bring the country better days, “because he has done nothing” as poverty and crime increase and medicines become scarce.
Associated Press writer Regina Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City.