Applause fills the radio studio when the host mentions the tens of thousands of Ecuadoreans who poured into the streets in protest, withstood clouds of tear gas and eventually forced President Lucio Gutierrez from office.
“A minute of applause. For whom? For you,” program chief Luis Pozo told listeners Thursday, holding the microphone close. “In eight days of protests, we’ve been able to get rid of Lucio Gutierrez!”
His alternative radio station, La Luna 99.3 FM, played a key role in crystallizing public disillusionment with Gutierrez and galvanizing protests that brought down his government Wednesday.
Gutierrez was still in Ecuador on Friday and was believed to be stranded inside the Brazilian ambassador’s residence waiting to leave for Brazil, which has granted him asylum. Dozens of protesters blocked the compound’s two main gates.
While the protesters chanted “Lucio, turn yourself in!,” La Luna listeners called in to congratulate the radio station for coordinating a triumphant protest movement.
The station had backed Gutierrez when the ex-army colonel was elected in 2002 on pledges of doing away with corruption and helping the poor. But its left-leaning directors, along with many in Ecuador, grew to revile Gutierrez as they perceived him to be taking on dictatorial powers while turning a blind eye to corruption and not fulfilling his promises.
In recent weeks, commentators on La Luna – which means “The Moon” – began demanding Gutierrez’s ouster and opened the phone lines to angry callers, who said street protests were the only solution. The station promoted protests with nightly themes: marchers banged on pots and pans one night, popped balloons in the streets the next and then hurled toilet paper.
The protests received strong backing from La Luna director Paco Velasco, who called Gutierrez a “traitor” and “dictator,” predicting his government would soon fall.
The cause resonated with a wide range of people, from retirees to housewives with children, who all took to the streets. Past uprisings in the South American country usually have been led by unionists, students or indigenous groups.
“For the first time in Ecuador, there were protests without leaders,” Pozo said. “It was people’s indignation against all of the politicians, against traditional politics.”
Protesters drew their main slogan from Gutierrez’s own words. After opponents shouted insults outside his home last week, he called them “forajidos,” or “outlaws.”
The radio station embraced the term on the air, and T-shirts began to appear with the slogan “I’m an outlaw.” A banner on the studio wall reads, “We are outlaws.”
Velasco, a 46-year-old former university professor, said he has paid a high personal price, as he and his family received repeated death threats. He sent his family into hiding, and he began sleeping at the station or with friends.
“These last eight days have been bitter,” Velasco said. “I haven’t been able to sleep.”
Dozens of government supporters descended on the station with torches April 15, shouting insults that led to a scuffle. No one was injured. But as anti-government protests persisted, station employees noticed interference in the signal.
Pozo said it seemed the military was trying to jam broadcasts. The transmitter’s power also mysteriously went out, but the station kept broadcasting.
Government supporters accused La Luna of fomenting violence, while its defenders insisted peaceful protests promoted by the station were vital to ousting Gutierrez.
“It wouldn’t have been possible without this radio station,” said Jose Manjarrez, a 63-year-old sign-maker who joined the marches with his wife and children.
“This station is like the voice of the people,” said Ataulfo Tobar, 51, the station manager who also wrote many of its protest songs.
La Luna’s managers say the station is funded through advertising and has maintained its independence.
Years ago, Velasco used the station to help lead opposition to another president, Abdala Bucaram, who was accused of corruption and removed from office by Congress in 1997 for “mental incapacity.”
When Wednesday’s news came that Congress voted to remove Gutierrez from office, hundreds of revelers crowded outside the radio station waving flags, witnesses said. Inside, people hugged and broke into singing the national anthem.
“I cried when Lucio was overthrown,” Pozo said. “I usually don’t cry, but the tears just fell as I sang the national anthem.”
Ian James, The Guardian