Jeremy Horner / Panos /

*On a typical Sunday afternoon, Plaza de la Independencia, Quito’s main square in the heart of the colonial quarter, is where families come to enjoy a pleasant stroll.* Storytellers entertain crowds while indigenous women wearing elegant black felt hats sell their wares under a hot Andean sun.

But last April, the atmosphere in the square was quite different. It was the focal point of week-long popular protests which finally toppled President Lucio Gutiérrez. Thousands of protesters clamoured outside the presidential palace demanding that the President and his cronies resign, chanting: ‘Que se vayan todos!’ (Out with the lot of you!). Bowing to mass pressure and abandoned by the police and by Congress, Gutiérrez was whisked away by helicopter, eventually finding sanctuary in Brazil.

Gutiérrez was the third president to be ousted from office in eight years. The former army colonel had originally been hailed as a populist leader intent on social reform, earning him much-needed backing from the Pachakutik Pluricultural Movement, the political wing of the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE). But after a litany of unfulfilled promises and unconstitutional acts such as the purges of Supreme Court judges, popular and indigenous support evaporated. Gutiérrez’s close ties with the US and the IMF, privatization policies and cuts in fuel subsidies all exacerbated his plight. The dropping of corruption charges against two former presidents proved the last straw, triggering social movements to mobilize against the doomed president.

Gutiérrez’s successor is former vice-president Alfredo Palacio, a US-trained cardiologist, who has promised to regain political stability and tackle corruption. Yet most Ecuadorians are weary of government and view the political élite with scepticism as little more than corrupt self-serving officials. They claim Palacio has made few, if any, notable changes during his first six months in office.

All Ecuadorian presidents need the support of indigenous groups to survive. Ecuador’s indigenous movements are arguably the best organized, unified and politically astute in Latin America. Since the early 1990s indigenous groups have been pushing for political representation and demanding social and institutional reform that goes far beyond the traditional causes of promoting multiculturalism and bilingual education. The turning point for indigenous movements came in 1996 when seven Pachakutik deputies were elected to congress. The subsequent appointment of indigenous leaders to ministerial posts has consolidated indigenous groups as a force in national politics.

Since oil production started in the Amazon region in the 1970s, oil has dominated the economy. Indigenous groups campaign to protect the rich biodiversity and tenuously cling on to ancestral lands granted by the Constitution, while oil exploration programmes and pipelines expand across their lands.

Ecuador is a country divided by geography and cultural rivalry, notably between the serranos living in the temperate Andean highlands dominated by Quito and the costeños from the Pacific lowlands centred around the commercial port, Guayaquil. Yet despite these divisions, Ecuadorians are united in their belief that the country’s sovereignty is gradually being eroded. Replacing the old national currency, the sucre, with the US dollar in 2000 symbolized for many a loss of sovereignty. The overwhelming foreign ownership of the oilfields and foreign military presence, in particular the US air base in the coastal city of Manta, has fuelled further resentment against foreign intervention.

The Guagua Pichincha volcano that surrounds the capital is currently dormant, but like Ecuador’s social and indigenous movements, it may in time erupt again.