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Ecuador moves to remove president

Opposition-led assembly close to 92-vote count needed to move forward by REGINA GARCIA CANO and GONZALO SOLANO The Associated Press | May 17, 2023 at 4:53 a.m.
Colleagues congratulate opposition lawmaker Viviana Veloz, right, after she addressed the National Assembly during an impeachment hearing by lawmakers seeking to try President Guillermo Lasso for embezzlement in Quito, Ecuador, Tuesday, May 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

QUITO, Ecuador -- Ecuador was locked in a showdown Tuesday between its conservative president and its opposition-led legislature that was turning the country into the latest Latin American nation torn between rival constitutional powers.

The opposition was widely expected to reach the 92 votes necessary to remove President Guillermo Lasso some time this week, but he could dissolve the legislature to keep his job and govern by decree. The Ecuadorian constitution would allow that until new presidential and legislative elections take place.

Whatever happens, the face off added political instability to the problems tormenting Ecuadorians, most recently an increase in drug-related violence, including several massacres in prisons over the past two years.

Many Ecuadorians feel the government is "totally disconnected from their most urgent needs," said Laura Lizarazo, a senior analyst covering Ecuador and Colombia for the global firm Control Risks.

"We anticipate that the progressive deterioration in terms of security that Ecuador has experienced in the last year will persist," she said.

Lawmakers accuse Lasso of not having intervened to end a contract between the state-owned oil transport company Flota Petrolera Ecuatoriana and the private entity Amazonas Tankers. The accusers argue that Lasso knew the contract was full of irregularities and cost the state millions in losses.

The president, who has had medical issues throughout his term, arrived Tuesday at impeachment proceedings in the assembly after they already began, holding onto a person's arm as he walked.

Lasso categorically rejected the accusations, insisting there was no proof or testimony of wrongdoing, and spoke with sarcasm about the impeachment proceedings.

"I would like to begin by extending my appreciation to the members of the Assembly... who have dedicated themselves to this unfounded process with so much spirit," Lasso said. "I want to deeply recognize them because ... they have stretched the limits of human imagination."

This is the second time the opposition has tried to impeach Lasso, but last year it didn't get enough votes.

Lasso did not immediately say during the hearing if he would dissolve the Assembly. He told foreign reporters in April that he would not hesitate to do so if his removal was imminent.

Tuesday's session could extend into today because it was expected to include hours of arguments from Lasso's accusers and defense, and 10-minute remarks from any of the 137 legislators who wish to speak on the politically charged case.

For more than an hour earlier Tuesday, assemblywoman Viviana Veloz presented videos and documents that she described as "irrefutable" evidence of the alleged irregularities, including freight rates. She said the damage to the state was estimated at more than $6 million.

Constitutional attorney Andre Benavides said the accusations against Lasso do not fit an embezzlement case because neither the damage to the state nor the alleged personal benefit of the president has been established.

Impeachment proceedings run separate from criminal investigations. Ecuador's Prosecutor's Office has opened a preliminary investigation, but Lasso has not been criminally charged.

In the streets of Ecuador, the political fight is breeding uncertainty.

Rodrigo Garces, an auto parts dealer, rejected the idea of removing the president. He characterized the Assembly as "useless" and said the instability created by the impeachment proceedings "harms everyone."

Meanwhile, retiree Luisa Coba said Lasso's departure would bring the country better days, "because he has done nothing" as poverty and crime increase and medicines become hard to find.

  photo  Ecuadorean President Guillermo Lasso speaks during a session by National Assembly where opposition lawmakers seek to try him for embezzlement accusations in Quito, Ecuador, Tuesday, May 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

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