Jaime Roldós, the 33rd President of Ecuador, left an indelible mark on the country’s political landscape during his short-lived presidency. In Ecuador, he is remembered for his charismatic leadership and unwavering commitment to social justice, but elsewhere he is remembered for something else entirely.
The President’s life was tragically cut short in a mysterious plane crash, leaving behind unanswered questions and conspiracy theories. In particular, many suspect the CIA had a hand in the man’s death. But why would the CIA want such a popular leader dead? And would they stoop so low as to assassinate him themselves?
Who Was Jaime Roldós?
Jaime Roldós was born in Guayaquil on Ecuador’s southwestern coast on 5 November 1940. He came from a politically active family and studied law and social sciences at the University of Guayaquil. It was clear from this early point in his life that Jaime was destined to do something more, having proven himself an excellent student after winning various awards, medals, and scholarships.
His political career began in the early 1970s when he joined the Concentration of Popular Forces (CFP), a left-leaning political party in Ecuador. In 1978 at the age of 37, he ran for president for the first time. He received the most votes but not the 50% he needed to secure the presidency.
During the 9-month wait between the first and second rounds of the election, rumors swirled of a plot to assassinate him. It’s believed 8 people from the United States (who were later charged with archaeological relic trafficking, rather than attempted murder) had planned to take him out because of his left-wing policies. The plot was never proven.
Jaime won the second round of the election and entered office on 10 August 1979. At age 38 he was the youngest president in Ecuador’s history. His presidency was marked by reforms aimed at reducing poverty and inequality in Ecuador.
Jaime introduced land reform measures, expanded social welfare programs, and promoted national sovereignty in the face of foreign influence. He also sought to improve relations with other Latin American countries and advocated for regional integration.
His most important accomplishment, however, was his policy in support of human rights. In a time when many Latin American countries were either already in dictatorships, or lurching that way, Jaime worked hard to try to ensure the spread of democracy and basic freedoms throughout the region.
In the September of 1980, he met with the presidents of the Andean region (Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru), all democratically elected themselves, and proposed they all sign a “Charter of Conduct”. This was a document that highlighted the importance of universal justice and human rights and signaled that the protection of human rights was more important than non-intervention.
This charter didn’t make him very popular with the region’s military dictators, who openly mocked him for being young and inexperienced but secretly found him to be a threat. Importantly, his policies also made him unpopular with American conservatives who believed his charter was nothing more than an excuse to justify Soviet meddling in the region (Jaime was under suspicion since he had close ties to communist Cuba).
After Ronald Reagan was elected in the United States in 1980 relations with the US became increasingly strained. Jaime even refused to attend Reagan’s inauguration.
The Death of Jaime Roldós
Tragically, President Jaime Roldós’s presidency was cut short on May 24, 1981. He and his wife were traveling on a commercial flight from Quito, Ecuador’s capital, to Loja, a southern Ecuadorian city, when the plane went down.
The plane, a Beechcraft Super King Air, crashed into a mountain near the town of Guachanamá, located near Loja. Why the plane crashed remains a subject of controversy and speculation. Initial investigations blamed a combination of poor weather conditions and pilot error.
The official investigation conducted by Ecuadorian authorities concluded that the crash was accidental. Nevertheless, the circumstances surrounding Jaime Roldós’s death continue to be a topic of discussion and debate in Ecuadorian politics and society. In particular, various conspiracy theories still claim CIA involvement.
The suspicion of CIA involvement in the death of Jaime Roldós stems from several key factors but largely boils down to the fact that the US and its intelligence services don’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to Latin American politics. During the Cold War, the US made a name for itself meddling in the region’s politics as part of its war on communism.
At the time the United States was engaged in a global struggle against the spread of Communism. In particular, the CIA had a history of involvement in covert operations in Latin America whenever it perceived a supposed communist influence. This involvement ranged from propping up right-ring governments to overthrowing left-leaning leaders and interfering in the internal affairs of countries in the region.
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Jaime Roldós was left-leaning enough to be perceived as a potential threat. In particular, the US was worried that his insistence that human rights trump non-interventionism was a veiled invitation for Soviet interference in the region. There were concerns the “Charter of Conduct” would lead to the Soviets coming in, overthrowing the right-leaning dictatorships the US was propping and spreading communism.
Roldós’s policies also challenged the traditional power structures in Ecuador and advocated for social justice and national sovereignty. He opposed foreign economic exploitation and sought to assert Ecuador’s autonomy. It has been argued by some that these policies were a threat to the interests of multinational corporations and foreign powers like the United States.
Most conspiracy theories regarding the CIA and the president’s death claim that the intelligence agency somehow orchestrated the plane crash. Others imply more indirect forms of interference like the CIA encouraging other powers in Latin America or perhaps people within the Ecuadorian government itself to arrange the crash.
The President’s Final Speech
Those who believe President Roldós was taken out by the CIA because he was a potential obstacle to US influence in the region often point to his final speech as evidence. Just an hour before he and his wife died, Roldós gave a speech to commemorate the Battle of Pichincha and Ecuador’s independence from Spain.
The president used the speech as a chance to claim that Latin American countries were still fighting for independence from foreign involvement. In his speech, he argued that Ecuador shouldn’t become involved in “inconsequential involvements”, a veiled reference to the fact the US had pressured the country to move against leftist insurgencies in the region. Instead, his speech argued, Ecuador should pursue a humanist agenda that focused on improving the lives of its citizens.
So, did the US government and the CIA play a role in the death of President Jaime Roldós? No concrete evidence has ever been found to confirm that the CIA was involved, and the official investigation conducted by Ecuadorian authorities concluded that the crash was accidental.
But, in 2014 a CIA document was released that confirmed that Ecuador, along with other South American countries had been part of the US-backed Operation Condor from the 1970s until Roldós’s election in the 80s. Operation Condor was a particularly unsavory attempt at maintaining Latin America as the “backyard to the US” and containing the perceived threat of communism through state-sponsored terror and “eliminating subversive sectors of society”.
Just the kind of thing that Jaime Roldós was so vocally against. We may never know if the death of Roldós was an accident or something more sinister. What we do know is that plenty of people, including the CIA and the US government, had plenty of reasons to be happy when his plane went down.
Top Image: President Jaime Roldos died in a plane crash just after giving a speech which the US did not like. Source: Juan Serrano / CC BY-SA 2.0.