Ecuadorian President Roldos

So whats up with the Ecuador-U.S. relationship?

First they give Julian Assange – a man the US is upset with – asylum in their embassy. Now they are considering offering asylum to indicted “spy” Edward Snowden. And when we threatened to pull preferential trading rights with them if they granted Snowden asylum, they told us to go screw ourselves and waived the rights. Why? Where is all this hostility coming from? What did we ever do to them?

Well, here’s the thing, many Ecuadorians think we killed one of their presidents. The current President, Rafael Correa, may be among them.

Now I know every American reading this is probably groaning either out of disgust at the temerity to even suggest we would do such a thing or possibly out of the fear that we did it, so let me be clear up front that I have no idea if the accusation is true.

Furthermore, even those who see politics as the art of conspiracy have to acknowledge there is no smoking gun evidence of America’s involvement in any plot and even if the president’s death was a result of a conspiracy it could have just as easily been orchestrated by one or more ambitious Ecuadorian politicos furthering their own personal agenda. Then again, it all could have gone down exactly as the conspiracy skeptics would have you believe. Either way, the people of Ecuador are going to believe what they are going to believe and a lot of them believe America is responsible for the death of one of their presidents.

For some context it might be worth noting America’s treatment of Latin America through the years is akin to that Austrian guy who kept his daughter as a sex slave in the basement for her whole life – less than charitable. The U.S. military and intelligence services have been involved in overthrowing and killing a good deal of the heads of state – elected and unelected – of Latin America. And that’s when we don’t just steal the land and kill everybody in our way (sup Mexico?).

The process has played out from Guatemala to Panama, Honduras to Argentina, Chile to Bolivia  -  you get my point. Needless to say our full-throated denials of involvement in the death of another one of Latin America’s presidents have not been embraced as gospel by the people of Ecuador and elsewhere.

What Some Ecuadorians Actually Believe

Jaime Roldós Aguilera was President of Ecuador from August 10, 1979 to May 24, 1981, the day he died in a mysterious plane crash. Roldos was a populist reformer who made human rights a major foreign policy issue angering many American conservatives at the time who openly accused Roldos of seeking an alliance with the Soviet Union. If the Soviets gained influence in Ecuador they would not only be able to bolster Communism in the region they would also gain access to Ecuador’s considerable oil reserves – American interests were at stake. The quite public dispute culminated in Roldos refusing to attend President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inauguration. Roldos also forged alliances with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua (of Iran-Contra fame) as well as groups linked to the Communist Party of El Salvador (another proxy battleground for America in the 1980s). Needless to say the Reagan Administration and the American National Security establishment were not fans of President Roldos and likely considered him a threat to U.S. Interests in the region.

While there is no clear evidence that the Reagan Administration was involved in Roldos’ death, what is clear is that the 8 years of U.S. intervention in Latin America under the direction of the Reagan Administration left some bruises. U.S. policy in Latin America took a severe and aggressive right turn after Reagan came into office, nowhere more so than with the two countries Roldos publicly attempted to align with on human rights issues – Nicaragua and El Salvador.

The Reagan Administration’s conduct in trying to remove the Sandinista government in Nicaragua would break both international and American law. The behavior of the Anti-Sandinista groups known as the Contras was so horrendous in terms of human rights violations that the United States Congress, with the passage of the Boland Amendment, made it illegal to fund the Contras. The Reagan Administration bypassed the law and used money from illegal arm sales to Iran (seriously) to fund the Contras provoking a Constitutional crisis that almost led to President Reagan’s impeachment.

The Reagan Administration also broke international law when it placed explosive mines in harbors in Nicaragua as well as supporting the Contras against the recognized government of Nicaragua. Both the United States and Nicaragua agreed to have their case heard before the International Court of Justice which decided America had broken the law. The U.S. then claimed the ICJ did not have jurisdiction and used its influence at the United Nations to prevent having to make the reparations ordered by the court.

One of the arguments America presented during the case was that it was acting in defense of El Salvador, the other country whose left wing Roldos had aligned with. El Salvador was in a civil war which the Reagan Administration contributed to by increasing military aid to right wing forces. During the trial it was noted that the CIA had provided a manual to the Contras directing them to engage in terrorist tactics to destabilize the Sandinista government such as:

…selective use of armed force for PSYOP [psychological operations] effect…. Carefully selected, planned targets — judges, police officials, tax collectors, etc. — may be removed for PSYOP effect in a UWOA [unconventional warfare operations area], but extensive precautions must ensure that the people “concur” in such an act by thorough explanatory canvassing among the affected populace before and after conduct of the mission.

Not our finest hour.

The Crash

On May 24, 1981, four months after dis-inviting himself from President Reagan’s inauguration over foreign policy disagreements about Nicaragua and El Salvador, Ecuadorian President Jaime Roldos boarded a plane with his wife, his Minister of Defense, and six other passengers. It was the last flight they would ever take. Not long after taking off the plane crashed into the Huairapungo Mountain and left no survivors.

The first investigation was conducted by the Ecuadorian Air Force which attributed the crash to pilot error due to too much cargo. This did not sit well with relatives of those who died. The relatives and their supporters were able to successfully push for a parliamentary inquiry. The parliamentary inquiry found problems with the air force report but was unable to reach consensus on what happened due to lack of evidence.

And so people pointed fingers for awhile and hurled accusations but nothing really came of it. Ecuador retreated from launching any serious human rights initiatives as Nicaragua and El Salvador became Cold War hot zones. In 1984 León Febres Cordero became president and forged a strong bond with Ronald Reagan, even introducing pro-market reforms in Ecuador much to the benefit of American corporations, particularly Chevron. Rather than campaign for human rights President Cordero decided to violate them by engaging in torture and extrajudicial killings against political opponents.

Nonetheless all went quiet on the question of President Roldos’ mysterious death. That is until a strange figure emerged, an American, claiming first hand knowledge of what was reportedly an American orchestrated assassination. That man’s name was John Perkins.

Perkins claimed that after being screened by the NSA he worked as an “economic hit man.” Perkins’ cover (of sorts) was working as a consultant at an engineering firm but his real mission, according to him, was to bribe leaders of developing countries to borrow money in order to load them up with debt and force the country to become open to exploitation by multinational Western corporations in order to pay off the debt. Meanwhile the leader of the developing country and his close friends and family got rich by siphoning off funds from the loans taken out in the country’s name.

More to the point, Perkins claimed he offered President Roldos a bribe to take the form of lucrative World Bank and IMF loans if he would stop plans to reorganize the Ecuadorian oil industry. Roldos, according to Perkins, refused despite knowing it could cost him his life. Perkins says that a bomb hidden inside a tape recorder was put inside Roldos’ plane and that – not a pilot or mechanical error – is what caused the fatal plane crash.

If you are having trouble believing Perkins’ story, you are not alone. My personal bullshit detector is going wild primarily due to the inevitable question - if this is true how are you still alive? But Perkins has found a noteworthy audience for his self-proclaimed confessions. His book detailing the Roldos hit became a New York Times Bestseller and he has toured the world to speak to audiences receptive to his story. One of the places with a receptive audience was Ecuador. Perkins has made multiple appearances in Ecuadorian media including Ecuadorian TV giving his account of America’s involvement in the killing of President Roldos. Regardless of Perkins’ credibility, his story has likely helped solidify some Ecuadorians’ view of America.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. government has disputed Perkins’ claims calling them dubious. The government cites a lack of documentary evidence and Perkins’ own stated fondness for conspiracy theories as indicating a lack of credibility. Though it is unlikely this convinced any of those receptive to Perkins’ story on President Roldos’ death that he was wrong.


According to Ecuador’s current president, Rafael Correa, when he and his fellow Ecuadorians remember President Roldos:

“We remember the death of a young President, with which we opened the return to democracy. Ecuador was the first country to do so, in one of the darkest hours of our America, full of dictatorships. A President who lived and probably died for Human Rights.”

Maybe President Roldos did die for human rights – but then who killed him?

The crash happened over 30 years ago, any forensic evidence is likely long gone. Does President Correa want a Mossadegh style apology from President Obama? Would he extradite Snowden then? How long is too long to hold a grudge at the state level?

You do not have to accept or reject the validity of the charge that America had a role in the death of President Roldos to see that the charge has helped poison the relationship between Ecuador and the U.S. How would we feel about a country if we believed or even just suspected that they were behind the death of one of our presidents? If we did not have the means to attack them directly due to inferior force of arms we might go out of our way to strike at their reputation. For instance, we might offer protection to people that embarrassed them in hopes of encouraging more people to do the same.

Image by Manuel Felix Lara under Creative Commons license.