304. Airgram A–268 From the Embassy in Ecuador to the Department of State1 2

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  • Armed Forces Attitudes Toward Velasco Regime—The Prospects

Events Since June 22

The assumption of supreme powers by President Velasco on June 22 brought with it the reorganization of the Supreme Court, the dissolution of Congress, and the closing of universities. Since then the Velasco regime has eliminated hundreds of autonomous agencies, devalued the sucre, arrested, released and sometimes rearrested scores of political opponents, deported the Prefect of Guayas, and instituted reforms in the local government agencies of that province which have amounted to replacing regular employees with pro-Velasco followers.

Most of these actions have dissipated the initial popularity base of the Velasco regime as of June 1970 when Velasco assumed dictatorial powers. Other factors eroding tolerance of his regime are the increase in living costs, the effects of business stagnation and lack of new investment.

Nevertheless, no single group or likely combination of groups is currently able to pose a major challenge to the government so long as the armed forces give the regime their support.

The key question, then, is the attitude of the armed forces (especially the army) toward the Velasco regime. Any indication of a waning of their willingness to support the government would be a clear danger signal. Although the effects, if any, of the Rohon affair, which directly involves the institution of the armed forces, are not yet known, the following appraisal of attitudes toward Velasco as held by members of the Ecuadorean military establishment appear valid as of now.

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Velasco’s Strategy and its Effects

President Velasco began his fifth term as president with a determination to handle the military in such a way that it would not oppose his regime as it had in the past. Through the use of individual rewards, generous treatment of the institution, and selective elimination of potentially dangerous military opponents, Velasco has effectively created a military establishment which has more to gain by permitting his continued tenure than by opposing it. The retirement of higher-ranking officers and the consequent shifting around of Officers from command to command, plus the choice of generally passive officers for high commands, has left the three services without the leadership generally necessary to pose a threat to the executive. The role of Jorge ACOSTA as intermediary between Velasco and the military has been played quite effectively. Although it has been speculated in the past that certain officers at the unit commander level were the moving force for the recent wave of assignments and retirements, it is now apparent that however the changes were suggested, they were implemented by Velasco and Acosta for reasons of their own—namely to bind the military more closely to the regime.

Thus, President Velasco has been relatively successful in creating a rather tame-cat military institution. A lack of individual talent and leadership is a logical function of Velasco’s policy. Added to this is the absence of a young and dedicated officer corps at the lower levels, particularly because of the lack of appeal which a military career held following the 1963–66 debacle of the military junta. Thus, the military tends to be permeated with mediocre individuals who appear willing to roll with the political waves emanating from the palace and at the same time, cash in on whatever extra-official opportunities as may be available. The Ecuadorean army particularly is not nearly as professional as it should be and lacks the unity of purpose and esprit de corps which is found in other places.

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Political Tendencies in the Armed Forces

Politically, the consequence of the above factors would be to diminish any strong philosophical tendencies. By and large, Ecuadorean officers are prepared neither by education nor experience to hold a consistent political philosophy. Officers who may display a strong anti-communist, anti-terrorist conviction, may at the same time declare themselves in favor of radical reform. In this sense, it is not uncommon for senior, middle, and junior officers of the Ecuadorean armed forces to express admiration for the actions taken by the military government in Peru. It is doubtful, however, that many Ecuadorean officers understand precisely what the Peruvian government is all about, nor is it likely that they would be able to perceive the differences between the economy and society of Ecuador and that of Peru, for the purpose of emulating the Peruvian experience. It is interesting to remember that the Ecuadorean military junta of 1963 began with some of the most reformist rhetoric that had been heard from a South American military government. The junta did, in fact, execute some reforms but in the end the lack of administrative talent proved to be the downfall of the government.

There is no reason to believe that the talent available within the military today is any greater than it was in 1963. The temptation in Ecuador to take advantage of one’s position for personal gain is ever present and more often than not succumbed to. For many, talk of reform is nothing more than a smoke screen and for others, it is rhetoric untested by the opportunity for personal gain.

The present high command in the Ecuadorean armed forces would, by conviction, probably favor a moderate and mildly reformist government should they be put in a position of forming a military junta. There would, however, be pressures from among younger officers for a more radical approach toward structural reformation. If senior military officers were pushed aside, either at the beginning or following the creation of a military government, there is some possibility that fairly radical actions would be undertaken. Such a reformist government could probably maintain considerable momentum as long as its purpose was essentially to destroy existing features of society in the name of reform. When the elimination of undesirable people, groups and interest, was replaced by the necessity to construct, the results would probably not be very successful. There is no certainty, however, that whatever the circumstances might be, the radical elements would be in such a position [Page 4] of authority that a destructive course would be followed. The greater probability would be that a military government would repeat the experience of a few years ago by not doing anything particularly sinister or particularly admirable. If that were the case, it really would not be very much different than most other Ecuadorean governments.

Will the Military Intervene?

At the present time, the overall administrative confusion and the constant political turmoil are two probable causes of concern to military officers. Another cause of concern amongst some has been the tendency of the regime to use the military for police duties aimed against opponents of the regime—such as employing the military to arrest politicians, effect the deportation of BUCARAM, followed by the necessity for a large military presence in Guayaquil to maintain order. Basically, however, although the military may not enjoy playing policeman for Velasco it cannot be imagined that many officers hold a great deal of sympathy for those political elements against whom Velasco has acted. Were they running the government, it is doubtful that the military would permit a great deal of criticism from these same elements, nor would they act any less decisively in dealing with them.

There is of course no question but that the army is capable of deposing this government. Velasco has, as mentioned above, reduced the temptations to do so, and the leadership ability within the institution in the event they were tempted.

Furthermore, the timing, at the moment, for a military takeover is inopportune—at least theoretically. The country is slowly adjusting to a series of drastic financial measures enacted by the government. The populist program of the Velasco regime has left no spectacular “causes” available which would inspire solidarity, nor are there foreign devils to invoke, but only dreary hard work.

The military does not show signs of being prepared at the moment to assume all of the responsibility for the execution of public policy. Although it is probably correct that the armed forces today do not feel greatly inhibited by the failures of the junta of 1963–66, they are not [Page 5] unaware of the risks that must be taken in organizing a military government. They would probably just as soon be a bit better prepared, as they imagine the Peruvian generals were. Additionally, they would probably prefer to see the modernization of their equipment accomplished under a civilian government than to do it under their own auspices.

These considerations and undoubtedly many others militate against an armed forces takeover at this time. However, logical and theoretical considerations often do not prevail in Ecuador. There is the instinctive “trigger point” at which the military feels compelled to remove an inept civilian government from a deteriorating situation. At the present time in Ecuador, it is difficult to judge whether the situation is nearing that point. There are apparently some individual officers who feel this to be the case. But there also seems to be a tendency to hold one viewpoint individually and another when in the collective military group.

Based on an analysis of the situation it seems from the standpoint of timing, of philosophy, of organization, of clear advantage for itself, there would appear to be no overriding reason for the military to assume power in the immediate future.

To this appraisal must be added a very special caveat—Velasco Ibarra has in the past proven he is capable, at any given moment, of acting in a fashion so outrageous that all bets become “off.”

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 15–1 ECUADOR. Confidential. Drafted on November 18 by Shumate; cleared by Breidenbach, Blaikie, Morgan, and the Ambassador; and approved by Chaplin. Repeated to the Consulate in Guayaquil and USCINCO/POLAD.
  2. Since President Velasco’s assumption of supreme power on June 22, he had made changes in military personnel so they would have more to gain by keeping him in power than deposing him.