The Ecuadorian lawyer and statesman José María Velasco Ibarra (1893-1979) was five times president of the republic and Ecuador's outstanding political figure of the 20th century.
José María Velasco Ibarra was born in Quito on March 19, 1893. His father, Alejandrino Velasco, was an engineer. His mother, Doña Delia Ibarra, had a very deep and lasting impact on the intellectual and moral formation of her son. He completed his schooling in his native city, except for postdoctoral studies in Paris, at the Sorbonne and at the Collège de France.
Velasco Ibarra started his public career in administrative posts. For 12 years he wrote a column under the pseudonym "Labriolle" in El Comercio, the principal newspaper of Quito. In his columns he fought against electoral fraud and for effective democracy. He was elected to Congress as a Liberal; but in 1932 he voted with the minority against the disqualification of Neptalí Bonifaz, the Conservative winner of the presidential election.
The following year Velasco Ibarra was elected Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies. As such, he led the fight against the new chief executive, the Liberal Juan de Dios Martinez Mera, accused of having reached the presidency through electoral fraud. Congress declared the office vacant, and Velasco Ibarra won the following elections with the backing of both Liberals and Conservatives. However, he was ousted after 11 months in office. Having grown tired of the obstructionism of the oligarchy and Congress, and unable to realize the reforms he proposed, he had attempted to rule as dictator and failed (Aug. 20, 1935).
After his ouster Velasco Ibarra went into exile, while politics in his country drifted through a sequence of coups, dictators, and provisional presidents. The next presidential elections were held in January 1940, and Velasco Ibarra, one of three candidates, lost to the Liberal Carlos Alberto Arroyo del Río. It is commonly accepted that, as usual, the Liberal party had made use of electoral fraud. Velasco Ibarra once more went into exile, and Ecuador under the new president suffered internal oppression, gave up a good part of its territory, capitulating in the face of a Peruvian military invasion and United States-Brazilian diplomatic pressure, and in general sank to the status of a satellite of the United States.
Recall to the Presidency
In these circumstances, the country remembered Velasco Ibarra, who came to be called the "Great Absentee." Police repression, through which the government tried to suppress the popular movement in favor of his candidacy, led to a bloody revolt that overthrew the Arroyo regime on May 28, 1944. On May 31 Velasco Ibarra returned from his exile and was acclaimed president of Ecuador.
Velasco Ibarra was backed at the beginning of his second administration by a coalition of all political groups, except the Liberal party. The Constituent Assembly confirmed him as chief executive. But the new constitution was in effect only for a year, after which the President called for elections for a new constituent convention, which also ratified Velasco Ibarra's tenure. The Constitution of 1946 was retained until 1963; but on Aug. 23, 1947, Velasco Ibarra was overthrown by his minister of national defense, Col. Carlos Mancheno.
Political stability was restored with the presidency of Galo Plaza Lasso in 1948. In the elections in which his successor was to be chosen, Velasco Ibarra won against the Liberal and Conservative candidates. This time he was allowed to complete his full term (1952-1956). The constitution prohibited consecutive reelection. Despite strong opposition by the Liberal-dominated Congress, Velasco Ibarra transmitted his presidential powers to his legally elected successor, the Conservative Camilo Ponce. In spite of this, 4 years later President Ponce used all legal means to impede his predecessor's reelection. Nevertheless, in 1960 Velasco Ibarra won a landslide victory against the government's candidate and against former president Plaza, the Liberal party's candidate.
At the beginning of his fourth presidency, Velasco Ibarra had the support of the left. But when he started to show coolness toward Castro's Cuba and at the same time tried to increase taxation, the Conservative and Liberal oligarchies formed an alliance with the extreme left. This coalition was headed by the vice president and was strongly backed by former president Ponce. When trouble broke out, the army thought that the easiest way to restore order was by ousting the President (Nov. 7, 1961).
Velasco Ibarra was succeeded by vice president Carlos Julio Arosemene, who was also ousted by the army on July 11, 1963. The military junta that took over tried to introduce absolute prohibition of presidential reelection but was ousted itself in March 1966.
After several interim governments Velasco Ibarra won the 1968 presidential elections over former presidents Ponce and Andrés Córdova, the Liberal candidate. The latter, as provisional president in 1940, had assured Velasco Ibarra's defeat by Arroyo del Rio. Now Velasco Ibarra had the personal satisfaction of triumphing over both Ponce and Córdova. On Sept. 1, 1968, Velasco Ibarra was inaugurated as president of Ecuador for the fifth time. However, just as during his first term, a hostile Congress nullified the executive branch. He decided to resign, but this time the army— apprehensive of what might happen—pleaded with him to stay and offered him its full backing. As a result, on June 22, 1970, he disbanded Congress and replaced the 1967 Constitution with that of 1946. The army backed his dictatorship for about 8 months. Then, as the aftermath of a frustrated revolt by some officers, Gen. Guillermo Rodríguez Lara seized the minister of defense (the President's nephew) and forced Velasco Ibarra to accept all the demands of the armed forces on April 6, 1971. From then on he became clearly a tool of the military. The officers may have wished him to stay beyond his term—ending Aug. 31, 1972—but he insisted on holding elections and on transmitting the presidency to the winning candidate. It was becoming apparent that Assad Bucaram would be elected, and he was totally unacceptable to the officers, who tried to persuade Velasco Ibarra to disqualify Bucaram. Velasco Ibarra refused, and on Feb. 15, 1972, he was ousted by the armed forces and replaced by Gen. Rodríguez Lara.
Velasco Ibarra's unprecedented success with the electorate was due to his understanding of the country's needs and to the support of the people. His relative failure in office is explainable through the fact that once the masses placed him in office he lacked the unqualified support of a permanent political organization and had to depend instead on the makeshift support of self-seeking opportunists. Though it is difficult to govern a country when there are so many powerful influences bent on impeding effective administration, Velasco Ibarra's five terms as president benefited Ecuador because he destroyed the stranglehold the corrupt Liberal party used to have on politics, brought about internal improvements, and refused to sacrifice the country's dignity in international affairs.
Velasco Ibarra died in Quito at 86 years of age on March 30, 1979, after suffering from intestinal and pulmonary infections. Velasco Ibarra had been living in exile in Argentina, and had returned to Ecuador to bury his wife, Corina del Parral, who died the previous month in a car accident.
Further Reading on José María Velasco Ibarra
Further information on Velasco Ibarra appears in George I. Blanksten, Ecuador: Constitutions and Caudillos (1951). Recommended for general historical background are Lilo Linke, Ecuador: Country of Contrasts (1954; rev. ed. 1960); Martin C. Needler, ed., Political Systems of Latin America (1964; rev. ed. 1970); Ben G. Burnett and Kenneth F. Johnson, Political Forces in Latin America: Dimensions of the Quest for Stability (1968); and Harry Kantor, Patterns of Politics and Political Systems in Latin America (1969).