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Strike threat is evidence of growing political standoff in Ecuador

Leftist labor union leaders hope to shut down Ecuador today in a show of strength against the conservative government of President Le'on Febres-Cordero Ribadeneyra. Although the unions are asking the legislature to double the monthly minimum wage, today's 24-hour general strike ``is more political than economic,'' according to Gonzalo Aulestia, a member of the board of the Unified Workers' Front (FUT).

The real issue is a growing conflict between the President and opposition parties in the nation's legislature. Febres-Cordero, a silver-haired millionaire, took office two years ago determined to implement free market economic policies. His policies were favored by the United States but strongly opposed by FUT and the Marxist opposition parties that control it.

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Those parties took 40 out of 71 congressional seats in the June elections, handing Febres-Cordero a major defeat and setting the scene for a political standoff.

In the war between Febres-Cordero and his opponents, economic policy has become the battleground, and the President is not above using guerrilla tactics. When the legislature began impeachment proceedings Sept. 1 against Finance Minister Alberto Dahik, the government sent 12 busloads of burly supporters to disrupt the proceedings.

At issue are a series of economic measures decreed by the government in mid-August to deal with the nation's failing economy. The decrees allowed the national currency to float on the free market, freed interest rates, and abandoned the sale of subsidized dollars to importers.

The government has noted with pride that the national currency, the sucre, has risen 16 percent against the dollar since the decrees were proclaimed. But it is too soon to assess the economic impact of the reforms.

Opposition party leaders such as Enrique Ayala, vice-president of the Chamber of Representatives, contend that the new decrees will further concentrate economic power in the hands of the wealthy agricultural exporters -- the backbone of the President's constituency.

The bitter struggle between Febres-Cordero and the legislature reflects a weakness in the structure of Ecuador's seven-year-old democracy, says the editor of the liberal Quito daily newspaper Hoy.

The 1979 constitution gave Ecuador's unicameral legislature power to pass laws quickly and fire cabinet ministers easily. At the same time, the constitution delegated great executive strength to the President. ``Right now, Congress is trying to maintain its moral authority while Febres is trying to destroy it,'' said the editor.

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While two branches of Ecuador's government are locked in conflict, leftist urban guerrillas who want to overthrow the whole system have launched new attacks.

Analysts say the guerrillas number no more than 200. But the fear of increasing instability has prompted the government to deploy ``flying squads'' of heavily armed police in some major cities and ports. This, in turn, has generated concern by Amnesty International over increasing reports of human rights violations in Ecuador.

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