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Anna Mae Yu Lamentillo

Jun 16, 2018

Jamil Mahuad and the Peru-Ecuador peace treaty

It was a Wednesday afternoon and our professor — Nobel Peace Prize nominee Jamil Mahuad asked us to sit as his cabinet members and navigate through the crisis of Ecuador in the year of 1998 – at the time when he was elected president. For eight hours, we learned from the man himself how he navigated the Ecuador-Peru border dispute — a conflict described by former United States President Bill Clinton as “the last and longest running source of armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere.”

When I went to Harvard Kennedy School this month, I never imagined our class would have had the opportunity to ask a president of his decisions and more surprisingly — take his shoes. Prof. Mahuad is many things to different people — but at that moment — he was neither his lawyer or propagandist — to us. He was a professor who taught the peace process, world politics and negotiation the best way he can – a simulation of a period when he might have gained the most realizations.

The situation was this — four days before his assumption of office — he was informed by his military that a Peruvian invasion right after his inauguration was imminent. At that time, troops from Ecuador and Peru had already occupied what was previously conceded to be a “demilitarized zone.” This was happening at a time when oil prices hovered at one of its lowest levels in a 40-year period. It is important for Ecuador as oil accounted for about half of its exports as well as of the government’s revenue. This problem was even exacerbated by the Asian Financial Crisis and the El Nino phenomenon, which caused extensive damage to vital infrastructure and agriculture.

And so he asked the class — “Given all the information — what would you have prioritized?” The majority said — peace.

Ecuador and Peru had a long standing border dispute which dates back at least five decades. Its “roots can even be traced to the 1532 precolonial Indian war for the control of the Inca Empire between Quiteño Atahualpa (now Ecuador) and Cusqueno Huascar (now Peru).” Several armed conflicts to have already erupted — the most recent of which was just in 1995, three years prior his assumption of office.

“An international war would have escalated our already critical situation into a desperate one. How could Ecuador face an international war with the economy already in shambles. I needed a definitive peace accord with Peru?” he told us.

In pursuing peace, Pres. Mahuad knew there must be a widespread belief among the majority that the war could be resolved. It was important that the project was not just a government issue. The citizens of both Peru and Ecuador must own the issue. It must be a “people’s project.”

The negotiation process is a gradual undertaking that requires equal regard for both process and substance. The small steps were as critical as the big ones. At the onset — no one might have foreseen that the unexpected meeting between Pres. Mahuad and Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori in Asuncion del Paraguay just four days after the former assumed office would eventually lead to the historic signing of the peace accord that would lay down the boundary points along a 50-mile border strip, ending a decades-long territorial dispute.

I will never forget the last eight hours we spent navigating on each decision point from the time the peace treaty was being negotiated to the point of his eventual ouster — not because it provided a better framework for analysis but rather because I saw a man who took risks for a country he deeply cared about.

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