José Velasco Ibarra

José Velasco Ibarra
José Velasco Ibarra

The "father of Ecuadorian populism", José María Velasco Ibarra was the country’s president five times from the 1930s to the 1970s. A gifted orator, charismatic and mercurial, he is perhaps best known for his boast, "Give me a balcony, and I will be president!".

Beginning with his campaign for his second term (1944–47), Velasco Ibarra cultivated a large personal following, mainly among coastal urban dwellers, by employing a host of modern campaign techniques that included radio, public address systems, and mass-produced leaflets.

In subsequent years, he forged a national state far more activist and populist in orientation. Pitching his appeal principally to the urban working and middle classes, he alienated many of the country’s traditional landowning and military elite while leaving traditional relations of power and privilege largely intact.

In keeping with broader 20th-century trends in Latin America, he also promoted the expansion of internal infrastructure and public works (especially roads); implemented universal suffrage; and used nationalist discourse to bolster his own popularity and unify his compatriots vis-à-vis other countries. The populist legacy he bequeathed continues to shape Ecuador’s political landscape.

Born in Quito on March 19, 1893, to a middle class family, he graduated from the capital city’s Central University law school and soon established a reputation as one of the country’s leading writers and intellectuals. In 1932 he was named president of the House of Deputies and in 1933 won the country’s presidential election.

Serving only a year before being overthrown by the military, he went into exile in Colombia and Argentina. From exile he built a formidable following, returning in 1944 to wide popular acclaim, mobilizing strikes and protests and forcing the resignation of the sitting president.

As provisional president he supervised a constitutional convention and triumphed in the 1944 presidential election that followed. His populist policies alienated many of his elite supporters, prompting his overthrow by the military in 1947.

Again going into exile, he returned for the 1952 presidential campaign and won in a landslide. He was reelected in 1960, only to be overthrown by the military a year later; the same sequence unfolded in his election of 1968 and overthrow in 1972.

Like most populists of the era he was also a nationalist, and his emphasis on Ecuadorian national sovereignty prompted him to enforce the 1952 Declaration of Santiago among Ecuador, Chile, and Peru, which extended these countries’ territorial waters 200 miles into the Pacific to protect their rich fishing grounds.

The United States, the Soviet Union, and other countries recognized only a 12-mile limit. The result was the so-called tuna war of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the Velasco Ibarra regime impounded U.S. tuna boats that had not paid the requisite average $10,000 special fee, prompting a cutoff in most U.S. aid.

His populist policies, causing a growing economic crisis and fiscally unsustainable, prompted his final overthrow in 1972. He died on March 30, 1979, leaving a complex legacy of heightened political mobilization, resurgent nationalism, and unmet political and economic aspirations on the part of the country’s poor majority.