GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador—The Catholic Church has always be seen as an influential force throughout Latin America. But its impact couldn't be greater than in Ecuador, one of South America's smallest countries.
Ecuador is the only Latin American country, in fact, that has been officially consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus by its president and Congress. And a statue of Antonio Garcia Moreno — one of the country's presidents who was murdered by Freemasons at the steps of Quito's Cathedral — is the only statue that has been erected in the garden of the Latin American College in Rome.
Some of the Catholic bishops who come from the most traditional families in the country are also related to many historical figures and among them, national heroes.
It's no surprise, then, that after social unrest almost paralyzed the country in March, social organizations looked to the Catholic bishops for guidance.
The bishops are faced with the difficult task of maintaining a critical stand against the recent neo-liberal economic reforms of the government without withdrawing their support from President Yamil Mahuad, the only man who seems capable of bringing the country out of the crisis situation.
Mahuad, the former major of Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, was once considered a political outsider. He entered politics late in life having first been a successful entrepreneur. He studied in the United States.
After his election, his decision to open talks with Peru to try to resolve 50-year-old border disputes received broad public support.
Last year, both countries signed a peace agreement, bringing Mahuad's popularity to its peak.
Yet Ecuador, crippled by a bloated military budget and inefficient state-owned enterprises, needed urgent economic reform. In late February, Mahuad negotiated a restructuring of its almost $10 billion debt with the International Monetary Found and announced dramatic economic measures.
Almost from the beginning, the tax policy changed. A fixed, higher rate was established. As well, the price of gasoline was tripled in order to increase government coffers — and this in a country that produces cheap gasoline. Thousands of workers were laid off at state-owned enterprises as a first step toward privatization.
Social reaction to the new measures was swift. Few people, though, could have predicted that such unrest would paralyze the country for almost a week. In the larger cities like Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca, taxi and bus drivers took to the streets and blocked main avenues with their vehicles, in protest against the government reforms. Truck drivers paralyzed main roads in the countryside, and in Quito and Guayaquil teachers' and health workers' unions demonstrated and clashed with police. Several political parties threatened to undo Mahuad's program unless he made important changes.
Amid the tensions, Archbishop Antonio José González Zumárraga of Quito urged the country and its people to keep working. During the worst days of the transportation crisis, the archbishop deliberately chose activities that required walking significant distances. When greeted by the people, he insisted that they go back to work.
“If all [sectors] say that they want the best for Ecuador, why is it impossible to sit around a table and reach an agreement?” asked the archbishop. “It is necessary for people to understand that, before resorting to extreme measures, we need to give a chance to the path of dialogue, of mutual understanding.”
Where to Put the Burden?
A source close to the Ecuadorean bishops' conference told the Register that the state-controlled economy endangered the country's future. Political reform was necessary for the country to survive, the source said.
For most Ecuadoreans, it remains unclear as to why suddenly their already stringent lifestyles must become even harsher. “Most of the people do not understand the relationship between reducing the state, and the future of their kids,” the source told the Register. “Such relationship indeed exist, but for many it is hard to understand [the reason for] their sacrifice.”
The bishops themselves believe there are other ways which would reduce the impact of economic reform on poorer Ecuadoreans.
“There are people who have the economic capacity to carry better the burden of the reform,” according to Bishop Antonio Arregui Yarza, secretary-general of the bishops' conference. Referring to the policy of establishing a flat tax rate, he asked, “Is it not justice to ask more of those who have more, when the common good is at stake?”
Nevertheless, the bishops are aware of another danger: the military. In a country that, until very recently, was obsessed with war, the military has been used to playing a leading role in politics and the economy — a role which it no longer plays.
Mahuad has promised to privatize most enterprises which were the property of the army, and to reduce the oil taxes directed at the army. The measures would lead to a down-sizing of the military and remove several generals' opportunity to increase their wealth, as was once the case.
Since the social unrest would be the perfect excuse for a military coup, the bishops have shown a strong commitment to preserving democracy.
Therefore it's not surprising that as much as they have called for a more humane economic policy, they have also called for unions and organizations to “keep their protests within the boundaries of a democratic, civilized system,” and to “waive disagreements in the table of dialogue and mutual understanding.”
Just before Holy Week, the Congress decided to support Mahuad's reform after the president agreed to partially reduce the price of oil products.
While political and social unrest eased during Holy Week, Ecuador's future remains uncertain. The bishops are aware that, whatever happens, they will play a decisive role.
Alejandro Bermudez is the Register's Latin America Correspondent.