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Ex-Coup Chief Becomes Ecuador’s President

January 15, 2003

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) _ Three years after he led a coup to oust an unpopular president, a former army colonel took the oath of office Wednesday as Ecuador’s new leader, vowing to fight the ``corrupt oligarchy″ he says controls the nation.

As Lucio Gutierrez, 45, strapped on the red, yellow and blue presidential sash, his followers in Congress chanted ``Lucio, Presidente!″

``Lucio Gutierrez will not govern for the left nor for the right. He will govern for Ecuadoreans unhindered by the ideologies of the past,″ he said to loud applause. ``We will change Ecuador or we will die trying.″

Gutierrez won an election runoff in November, promising to fight corruption _ a pledge that could bring him into confrontation with Ecuador’s political elite. He said in an interview published Wednesday that he would call giant street protests if the political establishment tries to block his reforms.

Ecuador has been ranked in international studies as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Seven Latin American presidents were among the guests at the inauguration, including the region’s top leftist leaders, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

Gutierrez has frequently expressed his admiration for Chavez, raising fears among some Ecuadoreans that he may seek to emulate Chavez, a former paratrooper and coup leader whose leftist rhetoric has divided Venezuela and produced growing political instability.

Gutierrez, often referred to in the streets simply as ``the Colonel,″ thrust himself into the national spotlight in January 2000, when he led a group of disgruntled junior army officers and 5,000 Indian protesters in an uprising that drove the widely repudiated Jamil Mahuad from power in the midst of the country’s worst economic crisis in decades.

Gutierrez was imprisoned for six months after the coup and expelled from the army.

In his address Wednesday, he said he would take strong steps against ``the corrupt oligarchy that has robbed our money, our dreams and the right of Ecuadoreans to have dignified lives.″

``If sharing and showing solidarity, if fighting corruption, social injustice and impunity, means belonging to the left, then I am a leftist,″ he said, drawing cheers.

But he added: ``If generating wealth and promoting production means belonging to the right, then I a rightist.″ That remark drew fewer cheers.

Gutierrez has labeled Ecuador’s traditional parties and their leaders as corrupt and said all of the country’s former presidents should be in prison for their responsibility in ``the national disaster″ _ although he later apologized for his remarks.

In a fiery address Tuesday night before the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, Gutierrez said he would found a new Ecuador based on ``ethical values, moral values ... with social justice″ for the poor, including Ecuador’s large Indian population.

In his campaign Gutierrez pledged to reduce the number of lawmakers, eliminate the influence of political parties over the court system and extradite corrupt bankers who made off with people’s money when the banking system collapsed in 1999. He plans to call popular referendums to achieve his reforms.

``At some moment the country must change or if it doesn’t I will convoke marches,″ he said in an interview published Sunday in the daily HOY. ``We will not permit the mafia to destroy what we want to build.″

Gutierrez got a taste of what he faces in his efforts to rein in Ecuador’s traditional power brokers when he failed in a bid last week to negotiate an agreement with opposition parties that would have given him control of the 100-member Congress. Gutierrez’s political coalition has only 17 seats.

``He is showing the authoritarian spirit of a military man. He is chief of the executive branch. He can’t give orders to Congress,″ said Simon Pachano, a political scientist.

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