Political exile disrupts Ecuadorian ex-president’s talk, UCPD called

By Lokchi Lam

Former president of Ecuador Jamil Mahuad’s speech at the Harris School was unexpectedly interrupted yesterday when a man’s outburst prompted the event’s organizers to call in the U of C Police Department (UCPD).

Zanoni Cuesta, who said he was a political exile from Ecuador, stood up with his family during the question and answer session of Mahuad’s speech, entitled “In the President’s Shoes,” and publicly accused the former president of human rights violations and destruction of the country’s economy.

Cuesta urged the audience to look at the faces of his daughters and charged Mahuad with human rights violations and the destruction of Ecuador’s economy.

“It is very important people know what happened,” Cuesta said, holding up a book with the face of an Ecuadorian senator whom he claimed was killed by Mahuad.

Mahaud responded by describing Cuesta’s argument as “very illustrative,” and cited dropping oil prices as the cause of Ecuador’s economic misfortune, emphasizing that “changing the doctor” would not solve the patient’s problems.

Cuesta’s visibly emotional state prompted the event’s organizers to call UCPD officers out of fear that “there might be trouble,” said Hannah Levine, development coordinator at the Harris School.

Several UCPD officers filed into the Harris School Auditorium and lobby, and the rest of the event proceeded without incident.

Cuesta said in a later interview that he was a political exile who had been granted asylum in the United States, and had fled from Ecuador in 2001.

“The paramilitary groups made threats to kill me,” he said, adding that his role as an organizer of union and indigenous groups in Ecuador posed a threat to the paramilitary.

Cuesta also displayed a stack of papers that he claimed were from the human rights group Amnesty International documenting human rights abuses during Mahuad’s presidency.

“It’s very important let everybody know what happened during Jamil Mahuad’s presidency,” Cuesta said. “There were more than two million people leaving Ecuador over those years.”

Mahuad, who took the presidency in 1998, is known for ending a 57-year-long land dispute between Ecuador and Peru by signing the Rio Protocol. In an attempt to salvage the failing economy, Mahuad replaced Ecuadorian currency with the U.S. dollar, a move that incited public unrest. He was ousted from power when thousands of protesters besieged the presidential palace and the military refused to enforce order.

In Mahuad’s speech, he said he had noticed a pattern in the way that presidents are overthrown in Latin America.

“You are in the presidential palace, the people are outside and are very angry, they decide they will sit down until you resign,” he said. “And you ask your armed forces, who are your only support at that time, and they say…they are not going to support you anymore, and that’s it. You can imagine after being overthrown I became doubly interested in the system.”

While he said “human need” was his first responsibility as president, Mahuad compared the difficulty of serving the conflicting interests of both his people and the international community to the choice between dying of asphyxiation or a heart attack.

“If you follow your people…you will be unplugged from the international community,” he said. “You need to receive money from abroad and they say if you want us to send, first behave. If you follow the international community, you will die of a heart attack, because you will be putting pressure on your people.”