Police surrounded Ecuador's Congress in Quito Thursday to keep out dozens of Deputies who were fired a day earlier by four electoral judges the lawmakers had sought to impeach in the latest constitutional crisis for the small Andean nation.
The four judges of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal accused the 57 legislators of interfering with a referendum on whether to rewrite the constitution. Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, a close friend of Venezuela's leader Hugo Chavez, sided with the court and was pressing ahead with the referendum, a step the congressmen have called illegal. The court ruling was part of a clash over a constitutional assembly sought by Correa, who wants to limit the power of a political class he blames for the country's problems. The tribunal's action came after the 57 members of the 100-seat unicameral Congress signed a petition to start impeachment proceedings against the four judges who approved the referendum. The tribunal has seven members. Congress was unable to convene Thursday because it needs a quorum of 51. The fired congressmen met in a hotel and as they were leaving, a crowd of 50 protesters armed with clubs shouted insults and threats. President Correa who took office January 15, says his proposed reforms aim to make elected officials more accountable. A U.S.-educated economist Correa ran as a political outsider, earning support from Ecuadorians fed up with the political establishment. Constitutional experts said both the lawmakers and the court were violating the country's charter, not an uncommon occurrence in this politically unstable nation, where Congress has illegally dismissed three elected presidents in the last decade after they lost popularity. Correa is Ecuador's eighth president in 10 years. "The constitutional framework has been broken," said legal analyst Pablo Guerrero, who argued that the election tribunal has the authority to dismiss public employees and appointees accused of interfering in an election process, but not elected officials. Correa has called Congress "a sewer of corruption," alleging it represents parties rather than the people. But 80 percent of the congressmen who took office in January are first-term lawmakers who say they should have a chance to show they are honest. Meantime in related news Finance Minister Ricardo Patiño, retreating from a threatened default for a second time, said Ecuador will probably make its next debt payment on schedule as the government faces no imminent financial crisis. ''I expect we'll make the payment'' Patiño told reporters in Quito. ''Our creditors should know that we're very responsible. We're not going to ignore foreign debt obligations.'' The Ecuadorian government is still seeking to renegotiate the terms and conditions of loans from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, Patino said. The dollar, adopted by the country in 2000, will remain the official currency in the ''short term,'' he said. Patiño's comments mark the second time the government has backed off from threats to default on 10 billion US dollars of foreign debt after President Correa said he might halt payments to free up funds for social programs. Ecuador paid 135 million US dollars in interest payments on February 15, reversing earlier plans to invoke a 30-day grace period because of a cash shortage. The next payment of 30.6 million is due May 15.