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Cablegate: Political Landscape Changing in Esmeraldas

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E.O. 12985: N/A

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: A pre-election visit to Esmeraldas
province suggests that incumbent Esmeraldas Mayor Ernesto
Estupinan's rise in political popularity has triggered
initial changes to the political landscape in this coastal
border region. Estupinan, a member of the leftist Popular
Democratic Movement (MPD), has all but assured his re-
election after successful initiatives reinforcing basic
public services in the provincial capital of Esmeraldas.
More importantly, these efforts have exposed the past
failings of the traditionally dominant Partido Roldosista
Ecuatoriano (PRE), in turn undermining the re-election
efforts of PRE provincial prefect Homero Lopez and eroding
the PRE's regional support. END SUMMARY.


2. (U) On October 7 and 8, PolOff and ConOff met with local
election officials, party officials, independent electoral
observers, and business leaders in the cities of Esmeraldas
and Atacames, in coastal Esmeraldas province, which borders
on Colombia. Voters in Esmeraldas' 7 municipalities will
visit 950 voting stations on October 17 to select a
provincial prefect (US governor-equivalent), 7 mayors, 4
provincial councilors, and 31 municipal councilors. While
Esmeraldas' 263,933 voters represent just over 3% of the
national total, the region's political history is
intriguing. It is the base of former Ecuadorian President
Abdala Bucaram of the PRE, who fled to Panama in 1997 after
Congress declared him "mentally unfit" for office.

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3. (U) Poverty and illiteracy characterize the coastal
province of Esmeraldas, which lies on the Colombian border
and whose population is over 70% Afro-Ecuadorian. Voter
participation has historically hovered around 70% and
localized fraud and violence are not uncommon. The coast-
based PRE traditionally has shared political power in the
province with the Social Christian Party (PSC) and the
National Action Institutional Renewal Party (PRIAN).
However, growing public perceptions of instability along the
Colombian border, public concern regarding the recent
closing of dozens of schools in the region, and the ongoing
widespread belief that past elected officials have stolen
millions of dollars of public funds opened the door for new
political leadership.


4. (SBU) Meetings with election officials and independent
electoral observers suggest that arrangements for the
elections are proceeding relatively smoothly. Roy Torres
Estacio, President of the provincial office of the Supreme
Election Tribunal (TSE), said scheduled training sessions
for voting station officials were proceeding apace. He also
noted that none of the new electronic voting booths used as
part of a pilot project will be located in Esmeraldas
province, easing the preparation process. Piedad Ortiz,
regional coordinator for the NGO Citizen's Participation,
noted that nearly all of her 41 observers were trained and
ready for Election Day independent monitoring activities.
Also the OAS will send a team to monitor the elections.

5. (SBU) With respect to potential problem areas, both
Estacio and Ortiz claimed that any irregularities would
probably occur at the local level and include violations
associated with improper advertising near voting stations
and isolated incidences of incorrect voting procedures. To
prevent inadvertent voting irregularities, Citizen's
Participation has a new voter information program in
conjunction with eight other international and national
organizations. As elsewhere, Ortiz, Estacio, and all party
officials interviewed reinforced the belief that election-
spending limits were ludicrously low. For example, the
spending limit for candidates in the race for Mayor and
Provincial Council member is $8,000, while the limits for
the municipal council races range from $2 to $133 per
candidate. Party officials tacitly acknowledged that their
candidates were overspending.


6. (SBU) While the PRE has historically garnered much of the
country's support in past elections, most of the attention
in this year's campaign was focused on the accomplishments
of Estupinan and the positive prospects of the MPD. Even
PRE supporters agree that Estupinan, the first Afro-
Ecuadorian elected as mayor of the provincial capital, has
transformed Esmeraldas from a trash-infested and decrepit
city to a clean, and more importantly, well-functioning
port. The president of the province's chamber of tourism
and other business leaders, including former PSC congressman
Carlos Saud, report that Estupinan's efforts have generated
sustainable business opportunities. Polls show Estupinan
leading his PRE rival Carlos Canizares, with 41% to 15%
respectively. Even PRE's own internal polls, provided by
acting prefect Cesar Pimentel of the PRE, revealed an 8%
lead for Estupinan.

7. (SBU) Meanwhile, the race for provincial prefect (US-
governor-equivalent) between MPD candidate Lucia Sosa and
current prefect Homero Lopez is too close to call. Lenora
Neira, an official with the TSE, candidly noted that without
the recent MPD rise associated with Estupinan, Sosa would
otherwise have had no chance against an incumbent PRE
candidate. The turnout at two political rallies observed by
ConOff and PolOff - supporters for the MPD rally numbered
more than 400 while those of the PRE numbered around 100 -
suggested that the MPD has greater popular support or
organization capacity. PolOff and ConOff spoke informally
with local from various socioeconomic classes who reinforced
this perception.

8. (SBU) Party officials, election officials, and
independent election observers all noted that Estupinan's
Afro-Ecuadorian roots reflect an important shift for that
population's interest in the political process. While it
may not trigger an increase in the absolute number of Afro-
Ecuadorians actually voting, they believe that the MPD's
successes and Estupinan's presence will make this population
take greater ownership in party activities and raise issues
that are of concern to the poorer regions of the province.


9. (SBU) It was heartening to note Estupinan's popular
appearance is based on a solid record of accomplishment.
However, while the general perception was of a political
shift away from the PRE and toward the MPD, seasoned
political officials observed that Estupinan's support is
based on his personal qualities and record of
accomplishment, rather an ideological following for his
party. That support could have a coattail effect which
changes the political balance in Esmeraldas, at least in the
short run.


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