Originally created 06/02/04

Ecuador looks to Miss Universe pageant to improve country's image



QUITO, Ecuador -- The Miss Universe pageant, watched by hundreds of millions around the world, can bring fame and fortune to its winner.

The small Andean nation of Ecuador, saddled with an image of political instability in recent years, is hoping for the same thing for itself when it hosts the pageant on Tuesday.

But growing demands for President Lucio Gutierrez's ouster over a corruption scandal are threatening to put a damper on Ecuador's efforts to use the event to attract tourists who otherwise might never have visited.

In the past decade, two presidents have been driven from office and a third government was weakened when its powerful vice president fled into exile accused of corruption. No elected president has finished his term since Sixto Duran-Ballen did so in 1996.

Trying to put the past behind it, Ecuador has spent millions of dollars sprucing up for the Miss Universe contest, when judges must choose from among 80 contestants from around the world.

The winner will replace Amelia Vega, the 19-year-old native of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, who is now recording her first album.

The two-hour contest, to be broadcast live at 9 p.m. Tuesday on NBC (WAGT-TV, Channel 26), will devote 10 minutes to highlighting Ecuador's tourist attractions. Organizers say this year's telecast might be seen by 1.5 billion television viewers in 180 countries.

"Miss Universe is a great opportunity for the country to demonstrate our strengths," Tourism Minister Gladys Eljuri said in an interview, reeling off a few facts: Home to 15 Indian groups, Ecuador also has the most birds per square mile and the world's highest active volcanoes, the Andes mountain of Cotopaxi.

"Ecuador, which has been kept as a great hidden secret, will be revealed to the world," Eljuri said.

But if Gutierrez's opponents have their way and he is forced to resign or is dismissed by Congress on unconstitutional grounds, the country's efforts for an image makeover will fall flat.

Gutierrez rose to political prominence as an army colonel in January 2000 by leading a rebellion of disgruntled young military officers and 5,000 Indian protesters against unpopular President Jamil Mahuad. Angry Ecuadoreans accused Mahuad of helping corrupt bankers during Ecuador's worst economic collapse in half a century.

Gutierrez then spent four months in military prison. But in November 2002 he won an election runoff campaigning as a fighter against the deeply embedded corruption that has marked Ecuador's governments. Although he won office with the support of a leftist party and Ecuador's powerful Indian movement, he quickly aligned himself with the United States.

Support for Gutierrez, 47, who bills himself as "the United States' most loyal ally" in Latin America, has dropped to as low as 16 percent in public opinion polls in recent months.

Quito shopkeeper Jorge Vallejo, 57, summed up a common view of Gutierrez these days.

"People voted for him because they were fed up with traditional political parties. But he's turned out to be one of the worst presidents in our history. He's a liar and spends his time helping his relatives and friends get jobs in the government."

Gutierrez's problems deepened last week when he fired his social welfare minister, Patricio Acosta, amid a public uproar after Washington placed Acosta on a list of foreign officials suspected of corruption and suspended his U.S. visa.

Ecuadoreans were quick to interpret the move against Acosta, Gutierrez's closest confidant, as a sign Washington was distancing itself from Gutierrez.

"It was a very strong blow because no one would think that Acosta is going to steal without Gutierrez's permission," said Benjamin Ortiz, a former foreign minister and newspaper editor who now heads a think tank in Quito.

Gutierrez's opponents in Congress quickly called for his resignation and threatened to impeach him if necessary. Gutierrez has refused, saying it would violate the constitution because there are no grounds for his removal.

Adrian Bonilla, a sociologist with another Quito think tank, said congressmen would not hesitate to violate the country's constitution, revealing a side of Ecuador that most Miss Universe viewers probably wouldn't like.

"This is not a democratic society," Bonilla said. "It is an authoritarian, hierarchical and deeply racist society and that is reflected in its institutions.