Rodrigo Borja Cevallos

One of the founders of Ecuador's Democratic Left (Izquierda Democratica) party, Rodrigo Borja Cevallos (born 1935) was a former president of Ecuador.

Rodrigo Borja Cevallos was born June 19, 1935, in Ecuador's highland capital city, Quito. His family was descended from an aristocratic family of pure Spanish blood, and Borja was the first of seven children born to Luis Felipe Borja and Aurelia Cevallos. His father was active with the Socialist Party, while his grandfather was a distinguished Liberal jurist.

His primary and secondary school education was at the Colegio Americano in Quito. Borja was initially a casual student who excelled in athletics while gradually developing political interests. He graduated at the age of 19. At the Central University he became more serious about education, graduating with distinction from the Faculty of Law in 1960. His 500-page thesis on constitutional law was later used as a text elsewhere in Latin America. He then proceeded to Costa Rica for postgraduate work in political science, while directing his interests increasingly to national affairs.

While still a law student, Borja had joined one of Ecuador's two traditional parties, the PLR (Radical Liberal Party). In 1962 he was elected to congress, where he soon became one of the brightest young lights of the Liberals. With the seizure of power by the military in 1963, he left the nation to serve with the United Nations. Three years later he returned to Ecuador and joined the law school faculty at the Central University. He continued to be active in sports and was especially successful in automobile racing. In 1967 he married Carmen Calisto, with whom he had three daughters and one son.

In the 1968 elections the Liberals were defeated by the forces of former President Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra. When the new Velasco government negotiated an accord with the Liberals, the PLR underwent severe internal wrangling. The party's youth in particular were outraged by such unprincipled opportunism on the part of the Liberal leadership. Breaking away from the PLR, under Borja's direction they founded a new political party, the Izquierda Democratica, or ID (Democratic Left). It participated in congressional elections in 1970, with Borja winning as deputy from Pichincha, the state in which Quito is located.

The constitution was suspended shortly thereafter, and Borja was unable to take office. Instead, he devoted himself full time to the organization and growth of the ID. Traveling the length and breadth of Ecuador, Borja sought the establishment of the first truly national, mass-based political party in the nation. In 1978, with the most recent military government negotiating its withdrawal from power, Borja officially registered the ID with the Supreme Electoral Tribune, supported by the signatures of 45, 000 members.

When national elections were convened, Borja was named presidential candidate for the ID. He finished fourth in the race, but in the process established his party as a major force in the nation. Subsequently elected to the national legislature, Borja became the leading spokesperson of what he termed Ecuador's "center-left." The ID was the most active and constructive force in the legislature and, with the approach of elections in 1984, emerged under Borja as a prime contender for power.

That year Borja was opposed by several other broadly centrist, reform-oriented candidates, in addition to the high-powered and lavishly-funded campaign by Ecuador's political and economic conservatives on behalf of Leon Febres Cordero. In the first round elections Borja came in first, with Febres Cordero second and the other candidates trailing behind. It was widely assumed that Borja was assured of victory in the runoff. However, a combination of Febres' effective populistic campaigning and Borja's over-confidence helped contribute to a narrow victory by the former.

This led to four years of avowedly conservative government under President Febres—the period of so-called "national reconstruction." Borja rededicated himself to strengthening his party, and especially to building organizational strength and popular support in the port city of Guayaquil, where he and his party had been overwhelmingly rejected by the electorate. By 1988 he and the ID were prepared for yet another electoral effort to win national power, and on this occasion Borja was successful. His first-round victory was anticipated, but few expected his opponent in the runoff to be the outrageously outspoken former mayor of Guayaquil, the populistic Abdala Bucaram. Following a bitterly acrimonious struggle marked by exceptionally vulgar exchanges initiated by Bucaram, Borja proved victorious by a margin of 47 to 40 percent (the remainder being null or blank votes). In August of 1988 Rodrigo Borja was therefore inaugurated as president of Ecuador.

Borja ascended to power at a particularly difficult time for the nation. His administration was confronted by high inflation, a severe economic recession, a huge foreign debt, and declining oil prices on the international market. Despite his status as a leader of social democracy in Latin America, Borja found himself forced toward economic austerity and a reduction of state activism. Responding to international pressures, he necessarily gave highest priority to a reordering of the nation's finances.

In pursuit of his expressed desire for a truly national and nonpartisan government, the new president negotiated with leaders of both the Christian democratic DP (Popular Democracy) and the Marxist sectors, especially the communists. Borja thereby sought to create a progressive force which would back his policies while countering the vigorous opposition of the political Right. It was his intention to restore public faith in basic freedoms of speech and expression, to reorder public finances, and to respond to the calls for social justice and popular welfare which, he had argued during the campaign, had been too long ignored by public officials.

Borja was notably active on the international front. As a prominent social democratic leader, he strengthened personal and political ties with such figures as Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Perez and the Peruvian chief of state Alan Garcia. He also collaborated with leaders of other Andean nations in the subregional effort to curb drug trafficking, although carefully keeping his distance from Washington and the Bush administration. By the halfway point of his administration Borja was still struggling with financial and economic pressures which restricted his efforts to achieve domestic reform and greater social justice.

Both Borja and Izquierda Democratica understandably suffered a drop in popularity. However, the ID remained better organized than any other party in the country, although still weak in Guayaquil and other coastal centers. Borja left office in 1992, honoring the constitutional ban against a second presidential term. He remained the leader of the ID, eventually sharing that role with Andres Vallejo Arcos. In historic terms, Borja stood among the most prominent figures in a new generation of leaders who sought to lift Ecuador from traditional patterns in the effort to modernize the system and introduce reforms on behalf of the poor and the dispossessed.

Further Reading on Rodrigo Borja Cevallos

At present there is no significant biography of Rodrigo Borja Cevallos. However, there are informative discussions of both Borja and the Izquierda Democratica in more broadly based studies. See John D. Martz, Politics and Petroleum in Ecuador (1987); Nick D. Mills, Crisis, conflicto y consenso, Ecuador: 1979-1984 (1984); and David W. Schodt, Ecuador; An Andean Enigma (1987). For a summary of Borja's political views, prepared for the 1984 elections, see Rodrigo Borja, Social-ismo democratico (1984). An excellent survey of national politics through the 1970s by a political scientist and former president (1981-1984) is Osvaldo Hurtado, Political Power in Ecuador (1980).