Honk If You Voted for El Loco

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Destinations, May 1997

Honk If You Voted for El Loco

Ecuador's volcanoes seem too tame for you? Try its politics.
By Joshua Hammer

Middle-American tourists on the hunt for Andean woolens and Panama hats don't usually expect to find themselves in the middle of a revolt. But that's what happened in Quito less than three months ago, as a strike erupted protesting the policies of the hugely unpopular president, Abdala Bucaram, aka El Loco. "It was the most frightening, exciting weekend I've ever spent," said one American, who with several others from his tour group, spent three days holed up in a downtown hotel as tires burned and a mob milled about outside their windows.

Travelers to Latin America are rarely far from political upset, but Ecuador had always seemed relatively calm. True, in 1986 then-president Leon Febres Cordero became so worked up during an appearance before the legislature that he pulled out a pistol and emptied it into the chamber's ceiling. A year later, Ecuadorian paratroopers held Cordero hostage for 11 hours.

In the decade since, however, multiparty democracy seemed to be catching hold in Ecuador-until Bucaram swept into power last August. A flamboyant populist who twice had fled into exile in Panama to escape extortion charges, Bucaram won the election by declaring himself a "defender of the poor." But once in office he styled himself less after Robin Hood than Robin Williams. He danced on stage with scantily clad women, recorded a ballad titled "A Lunatic in Love," and invited Lorena Bobbit, the Ecuadorian who'd sliced off her American husband's penis, to lunch with him at the presidential mansion.

Such clowning might have been amusing had it not been accompanied by dizzying corruption. El Loco packed the cabinet with family members and business cronies who allegedly plundered $100 million from the treasury. He then had the gall to push for an economic austerity package that raised electricity and fuel fees for ordinary citizens by more than 300 percent. Two million Ecuadorians took to the streets in protest. Finally, after days of unrest and chaos, Bucaram fled back to Panama and a new president was appointed by the legislature.

Today, Quito is quiet again, but the serenity may not last. The next presidential elections are scheduled for 1998, and El Loco has vowed to return and reclaim his presidency. Travelers planning a visit to Ecuador next year should probably keep an eye on his flight schedule.

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