Cablegate: Ecuador's Abrupt Change of Government: Embassy

Published: Fri 6 May 2005 08:36 PM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. (SBU) Summary: The abrupt overthrow of the Gutierrez
government on April 20 was not unprecedented here, but tested the
Embassy's capacity to respond quickly to a crisis. In this after
action report we examine the lessons we learned from this
experience, hoping that it will be useful for us and other posts
when similar circumstances arise in the future. End summary.
Lesson One - Don't Ignore the Vice President
2. (SBU) Former Vice President and now President Palacios was a
peripheral figure from early on in the Gutierrez government,
disagreeing publicly with the president on many occasions.
Although he was not involved in issues of particular interest to
the Embassy, the Ambassador and other Embassy officials visited
him, returned his calls, and maintained relations with him and
his staff. We have used this ongoing relationship to great
advantage in the early days of his administration to open dialog
and avoid early missteps on key issues such as the Forward
Operating Location (FOL) in Manta and ongoing free trade
negotiations that could have tainted our ongoing relationship.
Cultivate Contacts and More Contacts
3. (SBU) Embassy officials spoke with literally hundreds of our
contacts in the 24-hour period during and after the change in
government. These ranged from as high as the ex-president and
incoming and outgoing cabinet members to working level
secretaries with up-to-date information on the fast-breaking
changes within their offices. Since we had well-established
relationships with these people, they answered our calls and we
were able to put a certain amount of faith in the information
they gave us. Access to the Ecuadorian military high command and
U.S. Southcom was particularly valuable, as was access to key
politicians and government officials in Quito and Guayaquil. We
were also able to maintain contact with many police sources to
keep informed about protests that might endanger the Embassy or
US community. Without this broad range of contacts, our analyses
and our actions would have been less well informed, and might
have been distorted by inaccurate media reports.
Have Your House in Order Beforehand
4. (SBU) The RSO's emergency preparedness training over the past
three years enabled the Mission to be ready for any eventuality.
We conducted hands-on training for the emergency floor wardens,
the Marine Security Detachment, the local guard force and the
Ecuadorian police detailed to protect the perimeter of the
Embassy compound. This ensured that there were no injuries to
USG personnel during the crisis - even though hundreds of
Ecuadorians were injured and there were several deaths. This
training enabled us to evacuate and close the Embassy within 15
minutes on April 22 when there was a credible threat to Embassy
security. We also had frequent meetings of the Emergency Action
Committee (EAC) before the crisis, which allowed the Ambassador
to give direct, clear instructions, and ensured that key members
could exchange detailed information to coordinate responses.
These meetings ensured that EAC members were well prepared on
Emergency Action Plan procedures. We set up an e-mail collective
for EAC members so people could remain informed between meetings.
Clearly written security bulletins detailing standard operating
procedures were distributed to all Embassy employees on a regular
basis before and during the crisis, which pre-empted panic and
helped enable a quick and calm response during the evacuation of
the Embassy building.
5. (SBU) The safety of American citizens (Amcits) is always
paramount in our minds. During the evolving political crisis,
our existing warden net, which communicates with the large Amcit
community by e-mail and fax, was used to great effect. By
sending timely, accurate information, we helped control rumors
and inhibit panic among the community. As a result, we received
virtually no calls from Amcits resident in Ecuador during the
crisis. When the Embassy opened operations at the Alternate
Command Center (ACC), Consular officers established a Hotmail
account to facilitate communications with wardens in the event
that State Department systems failed.
Good Management is Key
6. (SBU) Early preparations made by the Management section for
emergency transport and fueling, provisioning the ACC, and
checking and setting up primary and alternate communications
systems proved invaluable. Once the center was up and running,
we found that there were not enough phone extensions at the ACC,
and noted that a pre-positioned TV, radio, copier and shredder
would have been useful. The need for a small public address
system at the ACC is being reviewed and issues addressed above
are being rectified. Management's initiative in safeguarding and
transporting Embassy children who were dismissed early from
several different schools was greatly appreciated by all,
especially given the traffic jams and protests throughout the
city on April 20. We have now initiated a process to update the
list of school-age dependents and respective schools every three
months and are developing "pick-up" standard operating procedures
to be reviewed by and distributed to parents.
Political Asylum, Recognizing the New Government
--------------------------------------------- ---
7. (SBU) After Gutierrez fled the presidential palace, he flew to
several locations before dropping temporarily out of sight.
Foreseeing the possibility that he might come to the Embassy or
Ambassador's residence to seek political asylum, we reviewed a
recent instruction cable on the subject and called Washington to
fully clarify the issue. As it happened, Gutierrez sought asylum
in the Brazilian Ambassador's residence, three blocks away from
USG facilities.
8. (SBU) Another issue of concern for several days after the
government changeover was whether the USG would "recognize" the
new Palacios government. Our consistent response was that the
USG and GOE had never broken relations, and we advised Washington
to respond similarly. Since that time, the State Department's
legal department has confirmed that the USG does not recognize
new governments, except in rare circumstances for political
objectives. Ecuador's new government did not warrant special
recognition or denial, and therefore the question became moot.
9. (SBU) Shortly before the Gutierrez government fell, post began
a review of former high-level government officials who might flee
to the US. There are already several high-profile asylum and
extradition cases concerning Ecuadorians who fled to the U.S.
after previous government overthrows or banking scandals. Hoping
to prevent a similar occurrence, we entered one official and are
considering entering others into the visa lookout system as
potential flight risks.
Things We Will Do Different Next Time
10. (SBU) Post will incorporate the many lessons we learned into
our Emergency Action Plan for future crises. For example, we
will designate an officer to serve as a clearinghouse for both
incoming and outgoing information. He/she can receive phone
calls and e-mails from the USG and other interlocutors, clear
cables and route information to the appropriate levels in the
Embassy. We will also schedule specific times for conference
calls from key Embassy officers to disseminate updates to
interested parties in the State Department and other USG
agencies. We will also help inform other Embassies in the region
by greatly expanding our cable distribution and setting up a
classified e-mail collective.
11. (SBU) In retrospect, it is easy to see how the maelstrom of
April 20 and afterwards could have easily overwhelmed an
unprepared Embassy. While our best efforts ultimately could not
prevent an irregular change of government, other preventative
actions paid off handsomely. In the two years of the Gutierrez
presidency, post cultivated a wide range of contacts and had
excellent access to high government officials, the military high
command, and civil society leaders and opinion makers. We also
prepared continuously for emergencies, taking into account the
ever-present threat of protests and the risk of natural
disasters. Our management team was able to respond effectively
because it is held to a high standard by demanding leadership.
The fact that the Embassy's team was already well integrated and
had prepared beforehand for such a crisis, permitted a calm,
virtually seamless mobilization and response to April 20's
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