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 ability to deal with acute problems related to water, natural gas, and coca. Sánchez de Lozada's vice president, Carlos Mesa (another outsider), has struggled to hold on to power in the face of intense pressures and conflicting currents of nationalism. A proliferation of independent forces forged in opposition to traditional parties underscores Bolivia's fragile governance structures.

Ecuador's impossibly fractured political parties suffered another severe blow in the final months of Gutiérrez's government. Gutiérrez blatantly manipulated the judiciary, hiring and firing Supreme Courts at will, but what triggered the collapse was the Court's decision to drop corruption charges against exiled former president Abdala Bucaram. The cronyism and corruption associated with such a brazen decision fueled street protests against the political class as a whole.

In all three countries, the crumbling of traditional political structures has been accompanied by the mobilization of new social and political forces. The democratizing potential of this trend should be welcomed. Whether the potential will be met depends largely on whether political leaders can show they are committed to reform and respond to demands for social justice. If they fail to meet this test, instability will only increase.

In Bolivia and Ecuador, indigenous groups are now a permanent, visible feature of the political landscape. As with other social movements, different factions have staked out different positions; some are notably more moderate than others. Evo Morales, the most prominent indigenous leader in Bolivia and the leader of the Movement Toward Socialism, had previously backed the Mesa government. More recently, in an effort to shore up his base and prepare for a presidential bid in 2006, Morales has shifted back to a more radical stance on such questions as the export of natural gas. Still, Morales seems generally willing to work within the democratic system. Other figures, such as Felipe Quispe of the Movimiento Indigena Pachacuti, embody a more militant nationalist strand and have scant allegiance to the constitutional system. In Ecuador, the indigenous political party Pachakutik played a minor role in the ouster of Gutiérrez, after having formed part of his government in early 2003. The party is likely to regroup and may regain the salience at the national level that it has in many localities. Unlike Bolivia and Ecuador, Peru's significant indigenous population is only just beginning to be politically organized around ethnic identity.

It remains to be seen how political leaders in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru will handle these tough governance challenges. Washington is aware of the turmoil, but it has been largely passive in responding to the situations. Its failure to help out Sánchez de Lozada in 2003 when he requested an infusion of aid contributed to his fall. Its decision to deny Morales a visa to visit to the United States has weakened its influence in trying to facilitate more effective governance. And prior to the crisis that led to the fall of Gutiérrez in Ecuador, the United States might have responded more forcefully to the violation of democratic norms, alerted the government about the likelihood of public disorder, and discouraged the disastrous decision to allow Bucaram to return to the country.

The United States would be wise to avoid responding on its own and instead work with other leaders in the region. Talks seeking a trade deal with the Andean countries should move forward, with as much flexibility as possible. Washington should also encourage greater cooperation among the countries affected by a drug problem that continues to corrupt institutions and fuel destabilizing violence. With a new Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS) in place, the United States should now work vigorously to make that institution an effective multilateral mechanism for promoting the OAS Charter's democratic values and principles. For the region as a whole -- and in the troubled southern Andes in particular -- the OAS needs to develop mechanisms to deal imaginatively with difficult political problems before they erupt into full-fledged crises.

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  • Michael Shifter is Vice President for Policy at the Inter-American Dialogue and Adjunct Professor of Latin American Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
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