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Ecuador's president dissolves congress ahead of his likely impeachment

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today, the president of Ecuador dissolved Congress just days before legislative opponents were getting ready to impeach him. In a national broadcast, President Guillermo Lasso said that he had no other option but to rule by decree.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT GUILLERMO LASSO: (Speaking Spanish).

CHANG: He's saying there, "this is not just a Democratic decision. It was a constitutional one."

For more, we're joined now by NPR's South America correspondent, Carrie Kahn. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: OK, so Lasso is now solely in charge of the country. Like, how is he able to do that? How was he able to take power from the opposition Congress so quickly?

KAHN: He invoked this never-before-used measure in the Constitution to dissolve Congress and rule by decree. He says he had no other option because the country was ingovernable with such an obstructionist Congress dominated by parties opposed to him. This clause is called the muerte cruzada. And loosely translated, it just means mutual death...

CHANG: Wow.

KAHN: ...Since, with this option, both President Lasso and the legislature will have to face elections. And the president says he'll call for those to happen immediately, and he has to do that according to the Constitution. Both the Army and the national police, which is blocking lawmakers from entering the National Assembly, have pledged their support to Lasso and this plan.

CHANG: And Lasso was about to be impeached, right? Tell us why.

KAHN: The opposition did seem like it had the votes to impeach him, and his removal could have been as early as this week. The charges are a bit spurious. Opponents say he allowed corruption to take place, and it was his omission of duty, doing nothing to stop the corruption, that is what is impeachable. This is about a state oil contract that took place many years ago. Lasso denies any wrongdoing, but the conservative ex-banker is not popular in Ecuador right now.

CHANG: OK, well, I mean, will new elections solve Ecuador's political problems?

KAHN: Look, Ecuador has seen a terrible spike in crime lately, as organized crime gangs - drug gangs - have been fighting for territory. The country is now a new transit hub for trafficking by Mexican drug cartels that have moved in there and using the ports mainly to send drugs to Europe. I spoke with Sebastian Hurtado - he's a political consultant with the group Profitas - in Quito today. He says the political stalemate between Lasso and the opposition needed some sort of resolution since nothing was getting done.

SEBASTIAN HURTADO: Having early elections, even though it might be really disruptive, hopefully, at the end, might provide a new political scenario that looks better than what we are living through right now.

KAHN: He sounds pretty optimistic there...

CHANG: Yeah.

KAHN: ...But he says the next few weeks will be very difficult. The largest and most powerful Indigenous federation in the country - they're strong opponents of Lasso - have called him a dictator now and vowed to oppose his ruling by decree.

CHANG: I mean, I have to say, Carrie, it feels like we have seen quite a bit of political upheaval in South America lately. Is what's happening in Ecuador part of some larger trend, do you think?

KAHN: There had been a lot of unrest in Brazil earlier this year and in Peru, the situation continuing there, now in Ecuador. I asked Will Freeman that question. He's a fellow and a Latin American expert at the Council on Foreign Relations - you know, is this situation in Ecuador - means trouble for democracy in the region? He said opposition parties throughout this hemisphere are pushing democratic practices to the limits.

WILL FREEMAN: These Democratic tools - checks and balances, impeachment trials - being used sometimes for anti-democratic purposes - that's pretty dangerous.

KAHN: We'll have to see how quickly democracy is restored in Ecuador with these new elections, which are expected within 3 to 4 months.

CHANG: That is NPR's Carrie Kahn speaking to us from her base in Rio de Janeiro. Thank you so much, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.