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After abortive coup attempt, Ecuador is stable -- for now

Calm has returned to this cobblestoned Andean capital, but Ecuadoreans are still assessing the political impact of violent events which shook their nation -- and the government of President Le'on Febres-Cordero Ribadeneyra -- last week. Even by the standards of Ecuador's coup-studded history, the abortive revolt by the nation's Air Force commander, Gen. Frank Vargas Pazzos, and troops loyal to him, ranks as an out-of-the-ordinary affair.

For nine days, General Vargas's exploits held the country spellbound, as he seized control of two major air bases, went on radio with accusations of high-level military corruption, and ultimately called for the overthrow of the constitutionally elected government of President Febres-Cordero.

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Diplomatic sources in Ecuador suggest that Febres-Cordero's successful efforts to contain the rebellion added to his political prestige. The mutiny, which was defused swiftly and at a relatively low cost to human life, represents the most serious threat the government has faced since the restoration of democracy in 1979.

But whether the President will reap any long-term political benefits will be seen in congressional and municipal elections scheduled for June 1. The elections are the first since Febres-Cordero took office in August 1984. He campaigned on a platform favoring free enterprise and is known as a staunch ally of the Reagan administration.

Foreign diplomats say that Febres-Cordero's prestige hit a high-water mark in January, after his return from a highly-publicized state visit to Washington. But his position had been somewhat weakened since then by economic uncertainties, including the sharp drop in the price of oil, Ecuador's leading export. Slumping prices threaten to cut Ecuador's export earnings by over $700 million this year -- almost as much as the interest due on the nation's $7.4 billion foreign debt.

In the aftermath of the rebellion, Febres-Cordero will have to try to patch up smouldering animosities between the Army and Air Force which were stirred during the crisis. On Friday, when Army troops entered the Quito air base held by Vargas, they fired into the air only to be met by direct fire from Vargas's Air Force followers. The only soldiers killed in the action were from the Army, and, says one diplomat, the Army is not likely to easily forget that.

Observers also say Febres-Cordero may face long-term problems from Vargas's corruption charges, which will be investigated both by a presidential commission and by the Ecuadorean Congress. This process may be complicated by the fact that both of the officials Vargas accuses of corruption are closely tied to the President.

Any immediate political damage to Febres-Cordero is certain to be highest in Manabi province, site of the Manta air base and Vargas's home province. Observers say candidates identified with the President's Social Christian Party are likely to loose ground in the June election.

During the uprising, Manabi residents staged major pro-Vargas demonstrations and the province's highest-elected official publicly declared his support for the rebel general. Meanwhile, the state of emergency declared in Manabi and one other province was lifted on Tuesday.

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Foreign observers say that Vargas committed tactical blunders during the mutiny which damaged his own credibility. The general appeared to have the upper hand last Tuesday, in the early phase of the crisis. At that time, Vargas was able to negotiate a settlement with the government which secured the resignation of of Defense Minister Gen. Luis Pineiros Rivera and Army chief Gen. Manuel Albuja, the two officials he accused of corruption.

When Vargas quit his stronghold at the Manta air base on Ecuador's Pacific coast, handing himself over to authorities at the Quito air base, he was met in the capital by a crowd of over 3,000 which had turned out in a heavy rain to give him a hero's welcome. He was being held at the Quito base under house arrest.

But diplomats say that most public backing for the rebel general evaporated when he seized the Quito base and began demanding the overthrow of the government. Vargas wanted the regime replaced by a civilian-military junta.

The government finally lost its patience with Vargas after the second rebellion. Army commandos loyal to Febres-Cordero retook the base last Friday in a 90-minute battle that left four dead and nine wounded. Vargas is now under arrest at an Army base south of Quito and will face a court martial for mutiny.

The general's decision to rebel a second time is hard to explain, say observers, since the Quito facility is a tactical post with only a small arsenal and no warplanes. Sources speculate that Vargas, who has a reputation for recklessness, was suffering from physical and mental exhaustion that may have affect his ability to reason.

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