The constroversy surrounding the 1981 death of Ecuadorian President Jaime Roldós has been resurrected by a new documentary film, “The Death or Roldos.” The film, directed and produced by Manolo Sarmiento and Lisandra Rivera, includes film footage from the brief Roldós presidency and interviews with those who knew him, including his children.
The film is the highlight of a documentary film festival currently playing in Quito, Cuenca and Guayaquil.
Although it is widely accepted that Roldás was assassinated – his wife and five others died in the 1981 plane crash near Loja when an on-board bomb detonated – it remains a mystery who was involved. U.S. State department papers released in the 1990s show that the CIA was aware of the plot to kill Roldás, although their actual participation remains in doubt. The Ecuadorian military, military dictorships of Argentina and Chile as well as international oil companies also had reasons to want him dead.
A populist, Roldós was elected in Ecuador’s “return to democracy” in 1979, following years of military dictorship. His hold on power was shaky from the start; the military let him govern, but considered themselves the country’s true caretakers. Roldós antagonized his own political party and its leader, Assad Bucarám, 20 days into his term by refusing to carry out their agenda, which he called a “continuation of the status quo.”
Instead, he assumed the role of providing a moral compass to Latin America, which, in the late 1970s was dominated by military dictatorships who showed little respect for human rights. Although he was elected as a member of a populist coalition party, running with a right-wing vice-president, his leaning was decidedly to the left.
He angered oil companies by demanding a greater share of profits, claiming that Ecuador needed the money to pull itself out of poverty.
Docmentary directors Sarmiento and Rivera drew on 80 hours of interviews, archival footage and documentary research. The film includes interviews with the Roldós children, and reveals documents allegedly showing a connection between Ecuador’s military at the time and the military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina.
Roldós antagonized neighbouring military governments and went out of his way to reveal evidence of the “dirty wars” in several countries.
In one widely reported incident at an international summit in Colombia, shown in the documentary, El Salvador’s Napoleón Duarte (a U.S.-backed dictator) accused Roldós of being young and inexperienced, to which Roldós responded: “I may be inexperienced, but my government perches on a mountain of popular votes, while yours is perched on a mountain of corpses.”
The documentary reaches no solid conclusions about who killed Roldós, pointing fingers at a broad array of military operatives, not only in Ecuador but elsewhere in Latin America, as well as suggesting links to the CIA.
Among those who believe in the CIA role in the assassination is John Perkins, former Ecuador peace corps volunteer and author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Perkins claims that the bomb that brought down Roldós’ plane was planted by an Ecuadorian miliatry agent with assistance from the CIA.
Photo caption: Roldós at 1981 speech in Cuenca.