Courtesy Reuters

Bonfire of the Andes

El Tiempo, Colombia's biggest daily, got it just right in its April 20 lead editorial: "Ecuador: A Collapse Foretold." The situation in Colombia's southern neighbor was approaching a breaking point, and no one was surprised when, later that day, Lucio Gutiérrez became Ecuador's third president in eight years to fail to finish his term.

The protests that drove Gutiérrez from office represented a total repudiation of Ecuador's traditional political class by its citizens. The political establishments in Bolivia and Peru -- which together with Ecuador make up the highly turbulent southern crescent of the Andes -- have also received sharp rebukes. Such political and social ferment poses a major challenge to democracy in the region, and it is only growing. And dissatisfaction is not limited to the poorest citizens: In Ecuador, the pro-democracy protests that brought down Gutiérrez had a distinctly middle class profile, and the strains in Bolivia derive as much from well-off and modern Santa Cruz as they do from the mostly indigenous highlands.

Peru was the precursor to the current wave of instability. In the early 1990s, its political establishment imploded under the rule of Alberto Fujimori, a quintessential "outsider" and anti-politician. For years before his election, traditional political parties had been incapable of addressing the chief concerns of ordinary Peruvians: economic and physical insecurity. Fujimori was to some extent able to bring these problems under control, but his rule was highly autocratic and corrupt. The current administration of President Alejandro Toledo has also been dogged by charges of corruption -- albeit far less severe than that under Fujimori -- further aggravating public outrage. Conditions are propitious for another "outsider" victory in the 2006 -- a sure sign of Peru's continued political precariousness.

In Bolivia, President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada was forced to resign in the face of widespread protest in October 2003. The October 2004 municipal elections marked an even further drop in support for the country's already discredited traditional political parties, revealing pervasive discontent with their

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