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Improvisation, not plotting, behind Ecuador’s “coup”

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa says his detention by a group of rebel police officers was a politically orchestrated coup d’état attempt. Though it was in fact little more than a protest gone awry, the canny Correa will exploit the incident for his own political advantage.


The funeral of Juan Pablo Bolaños, a student killed during the September 30 violence in Quito. Photo: Presidencia de Ecuador.

Was it a coup attempt or wasn’t it? This has been the question on the lips of those who followed events in Ecuador on September 30, when a group of rebel police officers detained President Rafael Correa in a Quito hospital before he was freed by military special forces in a siege which, along with the day’s violence, left at least eight dead.

For Correa’s supporters, inside the country and outside it, this was classic proof of the dark hand of the country’s elite at play, and also the imperialist meddling of Washington.

Mike Gonzalez in The Guardian saw “broader forces” at work, namely the United States, but also neighbours Colombia and Peru. “Their declarations of support for Correa ring less than true,” he states.

Investigative journalist Wayne Madsen accuses the Obama administration of “using the standard CIA playbook on toppling democratically-elected governments in Latin America.” He goes on to identify Israel’s Mossad secret service as having played a role in the affair.

The facts, however, utterly belie these conspiracy theories. The events unfolded at a police barrack, where Correa had gone to make a speech. The National Assembly’s approval the previous day of a government proposal eliminating bonuses and privileges for the police meant tensions were high. Correa further inflamed the atmosphere, however, when he addressed his own disgruntled police force with the words: “Gentlemen, if you want to kill the president, here he is! Kill me if you want, kill me if you’re brave enough instead if staying there in the crowd, hidden like cowards!”

Minutes later, the president was escorted away from a jolting crowd after a teargas canister was fired in his direction. He was taken to a nearby hospital where a group of police kept him, effectively under detention -although he was able to use the phone and receive visits from ministers- for 11 hours. Correa, whose knee had been operated on days earlier, was wheeled out of the hospital after the army came to his rescue and freed him following a dramatic siege.

In a television interview afterwards, Correa said: “When the coup plotters’ strategy to destabilise the government failed, they turned to their plan B, which was to kill the president.”

Correa’s intention to use this “coup” to broaden his own substantial powers and weaken the (already feeble) opposition was clear and was echoed by Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño in an Orwellian statement of intent littered with medical metaphors: “This coup attempt is still not over. The situation has been overcome but we can’t relax. There might be an outbreak again and we will have to seek out those cells and destroy them. We are worried, the roots of the coup attempt are still in some people.”

Just another revolution?

Officially, therefore, this was a coup. For those who are convinced of this the proof is clear: Correa’s close relationship with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and a petroleum policy that has spooked international companies; his radical determination to redistribute income and hostile relationship with the country’s business elites; and the shadowy figure of former President Lucio Gutiérrez, himself a veteran coup leader, with influence in the armed forces and a well-publicised antipathy to Correa. With three presidents ousted by various popular and military uprisings since 1997, this, Correa says, was an attempt at a fourth.

But the truth is, this was actually just a protest by policemen angry at imminent spending cuts that got out of hand and went horribly wrong.

“It’s absurd to see this as a coup attempt because to try something like that against Correa right now doesn’t make sense,” Felipe Burbano de Lara, of the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Quito, told Iberosphere. “Who would carry out a coup against such a strong president?”

Indeed Correa’s high approval ratings buck the trend of the revolts against his hapless predecessors. Abdalá Bucaram, in 1997, Jamil Mahuad, in 2000 and Gutiérrez himself, in 2005, were all short of popular support and political capital when removed from office. Correa, meanwhile, continues to implement his big-state “civic revolution” on the back of impressive approval ratings and with a vice-like grip on the legislature.

Historically, Ecuador has been plagued by divisions: social, geographical and racial. Opposition groups, therefore, have struggled to unite enough to truly worry Correa, even in his hometown of Guayaquil, where business leaders (or “wig-wearing oligarchs” as the president calls them) are particularly unhappy about his economic policy.

Regarding the “kidnapping” incident itself, De Larra points to a simmering sense of unrest within the police in recent months. This was partly due to the new law, which, significantly, was approved the day before this incident and left lower-ranking members of the force angry at their superiors’ failure to defend their interests. Increasing pressure to tackle a surge in violent street crime in Ecuador’s cities only added to the disquiet.

Washington withdraws from the Andes

Citing the United States as the murky mastermind behind a chaotic sequence of events such as these is an extremely old-fashioned way of looking at Latin America. In the 1970s and 1980s the CIA was an active and destructive force in the region, with involvement in highly orchestrated coups such as that which toppled Salvador Allende in Chile. But however fractious Washington’s relationship with Cuba and Venezuela, the Andes are no longer some Cold War battleground-by-proxy. South America, which just a couple of years ago was governed almost entirely by leftists both radical and moderate, has seen a slight but notable resurgence of conservative influence, with Chile, Peru and Colombia being examples.

Hillary Clinton certainly didn’t seem to see Correa as an “enemy” when she made an official visit to his country in June. He may have passed controversial hydrocarbons legislation and ended the lease on the US airbase in the coastal city of Manta, but Correa (who has a PhD from a US university) nonetheless warmly welcomed the US secretary of state. Her visit, he said at the time “shuts up those who think that being friends with the United States means being a doormat and that not renewing the Manta base contract means breaking relations with the United States.” The day after the act of police insubordination, Clinton closed ranks with other American leaders and telephoned Correa to offer her support.

It is hard to overstate how dependent Ecuadorian politics is on improvisation. And improvisation, rather than malevolent international meddling or top-level domestic plotting, is the best explanation for the events of September 30 in Quito.  Such an apparently trivial issue as a new law affecting spending on the police force can, sadly, spark violence. When Gutiérrez was under barracks arrest weeks after leading the 2000 coup, he told me that the motive for his putsch was the corruption of the Mahuad government; but he also hinted that another, less noble, factor had played a role: the administration’s failure to stand firmer on a territorial dispute with Peru, therefore undermining the army by ceding a few miles of jungle to Ecuador’s neighbour.

The tragedy is that while Ecuador’s revolutions, however dramatic, usually pass without loss of life, this episode has killed eight people. For the families of the dead and Álex Patricio Guerra, a special operations officer who gave up his bulletproof vest to Correa during the siege after being shot and who is now paralysed, the idea that this was simply an overblown dispute between a firebrand president and some insubordinate police must be particularly hard to accept.


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