A Very Ecuadorian Coup
Saturday October 16, 2010 23:00 by Chris O’Connell
Amid the hum of words spoken and written here in Ecuador and further afield about the events of Thursday, September 30, two are easily discernible: “coup” and “democracy”. Yet it can be argued that neither concept had much to do with what unfolded on that day.
It would be easy to say that the convulsions that gripped Ecuador on that day were just more of the same. This is a country, after all, that has deposed three elected presidents by different means (none of them impeachment), and at one stage could count 9 different presidents in 10 years.
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But the dramatic and violent nature of events that pitted the police force of the country against its armed forces in order to save its president was unprecedented, and the fact that its most dramatic moments – President Rafael Correa pulling on his tie and roaring at his opponents to “Kill me!”; scenes of rampant looting and chaos; and the incredible scenes of Correa’s rescue by the military amid the sound of automatic weapons’ fire – were all broadcast around the world, make this unlike anything that has come before.
But the question still on many lips is: what actually happened?
Examining the wealth of coverage of that day, including national and international mainstream media, plus the hundreds of bloggers that are suddenly paying attention to Ecuadorian politics, three basic “theories” have emerged:
1. That it was an attempted coup d’etat coordinated (or at least funded) by both elements in the United States and right-wing politicians in Ecuador; that Correa was kidnapped and held in the hospital, and possibly that the plan was to kill him; that large-scale popular protests in favour of the government helped to face down this threat, along with the dramatic but necessary military rescue operation; that it was a good day for “democracy” in Ecuador.
2. That this was not in fact a coup, but rather a protest by the police against the government plan to remove bonuses (despite having raised salaries); that it was worsened by Correa’s confrontational attitude which led to his being attacked; after he had gone willingly to the police hospital, some elements wished to take advantage of the moment and oust him, necessitating a military rescue; that Ecuadorian democracy is under threat from Correa himself.
3. That all of it was a stage-managed, made-for-tv event dreamt up by the Correa government.
Let us take a look at the events of September 30 in order to decipher which, if any, of these theories is correct.
The day began normally; from my house in Guayaquil you can see the Bridge of National Unity that links the city – Ecuador’s largest and its commercial hub – to the Andes and capital city Quito, but apart from noticing slightly more traffic than usual, nothing seemed unusual. However, within an hour of getting to work, rumours started to fly about a police strike, about roadblocks and traffic chaos, and about a total breakdown of order on the streets. Everyone in Ecuador reached for the tv set.
There we saw grainy images of police blocking the Bridge of National Unity and other major arteries, police burning tyres on the street, police generally looking angry. What immediately concerned people at that stage (particularly in Guayaquil) was not politics or the President, but rather personal security. Stories were everywhere of rampant crime: buses, banks, shopping malls held up at gunpoint; ATMs pulled out of walls; entire shops looted down to the shelving.
Context is everything: the tactics employed by the striking police officers are familiar here; similar to those employed many times by the indigenous movement during their large “levantamientos” (uprisings), and by other dissatisfied groups in the past. It was not the methods employed but rather that these were police officers striking that worried Ecuadorians. Those citing the closing of major roads as evidence of itself of an attempted coup are extrapolating too far.
It was not until news came out that members of the armed forces had occupied the airport in Quito that people started to think that something more sinister might be taking place. It was then when the absence of the armed forces up to that point hit home, and people began to ask themselves: where was the army?
The Armed Forces
The military in Ecuador has always enjoyed a high level of public support and trust , perhaps related to the relatively peaceful nature of the country’s military dictatorship, which did not lead to the kind of repression and violence that took place in other countries in the region. Instead, public opinion surveys generally find it to be among the most trusted institutions in society, after the Catholic Church.
This high level of respect it has maintained during the past two decades of political turbulence and instability in Ecuador, mainly by astutely judging the direction of popular opinion. Thus in both 1997 with the ouster of President Abdala Bucaram, and again in 2005 with the protests against former colonel and then President Lucio Gutierrez, the armed forces simply removed support from unpopular leaders, leaving each with little option but to abandon office.
It was a little different in January of 2001, when the armed forces, together with the indigenous movement, formed a junta led by Lucio Gutierrez to oust President Jamil Mahuad in the face of a huge banking crisis and bailout that should now be all-too-familiar. But the overall message has always been the same: no government changes without the involvement or acquiescence of the military. While the 2008 Constitution removed the official status of the armed forces as the “guardians of democracy,” in practical terms this is still the case.
Many were waiting for the appearance of the armed forces to restore some order on the streets on September 30, but they were conspicuous by their absence until the sudden appearance of members of the Air Force on the runway at Quito Airport. At that stage, things began to look ominous for President Correa.
And yet somehow it never turned out that way. What happened? According to a source from within the armed forces, the early part of the day, when they were notably absent, was spent in negotiations.
In the days prior to September 30, all police officers and members of the military received “information packages” through the post, purporting to detail the ways in which the government’s new Public Service Law would negatively affect their pay and bonuses. It is not yet clear who was behind sending these packages, although Correa clearly believes that Lucio Gutierrez and his Patriotic Socialist Party were involved.
The Correa government – smart enough to know the importance of keeping the military happy – had made strong and reasonably successful attempts prior to the passing of the law to persuade members of the hierarchy of the financial realities (it is true that both soldiers and police are far better rewarded under this government than any before). However, it appears that they were not successful in all cases, and do not seem to have concerned themselves nearly enough with ensuring that the upper echelons of the police force got the message.
Accordingly it seems as though the strike action took many by surprise, and revealed unexpected fissures within the Armed Forces: those that “took” Quito airport were acting in solidarity with the police officers (as well as being concerned about their own bonuses).
Hours of negotiation both within the military structure and with the government followed, according to the source from within the Air Force. Once it was established that the military hierarchy was standing with Correa, the “mistaken” colleagues occupying the runway were persuaded to return to barracks.
For the rest of the afternoon, however, the armed forces were not seen again apart from on one occasion, here in Guayaquil on the Bridge of National Unity. The source mentioned above was one of those dispatched to clear the bridge, still held by the police who – it is rumoured – were charging citizens a $1 toll to walk across. When the army arrived at the bridge they found a group of drunk, aggressive policemen waving their pistols around, but seemingly sober enough to recognise when they were outgunned. The bridge was cleared.
This incident aside, members of the military remained in barracks for the rest of the day. When I questioned my source as to the reason for this, his reply was simple: Correa ordered them there.
To repeat: everyone in Ecuador knows you won’t remove a government without the support or at least consent of the armed forces. While it seems clear that there was a coordinated attempt to turn both the police and military against the government via misinformation packages, can we really call this an attempted coup?
Given the importance of the military, any attempt to influence them is clearly done with a view to destabilising the regime, but a postal campaign seems a long way from overt hostile action, no matter what the long-term intention of the misinformation may have been.
So if the police force do not and will never have the power to oust a president (neither in terms of firepower nor in terms of public legitimacy), and the armed forces would not seem to have strayed too far from the government, how did the situation get as fraught and dangerous as it did?
The Correa Factor
President Correa has an image problem. Internationally he always appears a conundrum: presented either as a “leftist” or “socialist,” and frequently as a “Chavez ally” (i.e. anti-US) by some sectors of the media; elsewhere he is presented as a charming, handsome “US-trained economist” that is favouring the poor over the traditional elites.
But within Ecuador his public image is far less schizophrenic. Both critics and supporters tend to focus first on the same issue: “I don’t like his style,” most will say. While this may seem a minor quibble when compared to the shortcomings of previous presidents of Ecuador – to each of whom one at least of the following names could be applied: “crooked,” “corrupt,” “stupid,” “ineffectual” – it is not viewed as such by many in this nation where manners and presentation count for a lot.
However, on Thursday September 30 Correa’s style nearly got him killed.
Since taking power in early 2007, Correa has been putting people’s backs up and insulting all comers with a frequency that beggars belief. While on the stump and during the early stages of his presidency his vitriolic attacks on “los de siempre”, the elite that has traditionally controlled the country, and the “partidocracia” (the corrupt political parties that enabled this control) won him widespread favour.
But as he has since turned his vitriol on other social actors, the general public has begun to lose its taste for Correa. Attacks on social movements such as the environmental groups and the indigenous federation CONAIE – he has called them “puerile” and “idealists” – were followed by similarly harsh criticism of the media. Correa has even managed to fall out with his own brother Fabricio, who has now become one of his most vocal critics.
However, on September 30 at the barracks of Police Regiment Quito Number One, he met opponents that would not be bullied or cowed by his angry words. When he confronted a large group of aggrieved, adrenaline-pumped and possible drunk policemen with a challenge to see who had the bigger “cojones,” to kill him if they were brave enough, he finally went too far. Here was a group ready to take up his challenge.
The scenes of the president of the country being buffeted, punched, pulled, hit with tear gas canisters as he tried to escape the clutches of the mob while using a cane to support his bad knee will do no one good service in the future. And of course it led directly to his “kidnapping” and subsequent “rescue,” to the unnecessary loss of lives, and brought Ecuador once again to the brink of chaos.
It has been widely acknowledged that Correa went to the police hospital of his own volition in order to receive medical treatment for his injuries. After that the scenario becomes more complicated.
It seems clear that there were aggressive elements of the police force outside the hospital, who may have desired to continue the physical confrontation with the president. At this time too negotiations were still being held with the armed forces, therefore calling them in immediately may not have been an option. And unsurprisingly there were undoubtedly elements of the opposition that were suddenly viewing the situation as an opportunity to oust Correa.
But it seems highly unlikely that this was part of some master plan, nor does it really seem to be the case that Correa was “kidnapped” at all.
The first thing that struck most of us that were watching events unfold on the national tv station (at this stage the government had imposed a “cadena nacional” whereby private tv stations’s frequencies were taken over by the state channel) was that Correa was giving frequent and long telephone interviews from the hospital. How is it that a kidnap victim is able to give television interviews, we thought?
Doctors from the hospital have denied that Correa was ever forced to stay there, that he was treated like any other patient and was free to leave when his treatment was administered. Looking later at the language Correa and his advisors used, it was very clever. He said things like “it is as if I am kidnapped” or “I feel trapped.”
There is no doubt that there was some threat. Correa advisor Oscar Bonilla has described the presence of drunk, armed and hostile police men outside the hospital, and the fear they had (understandable after the earlier violence) about leaving. “We felt trapped inside the hospital and threatened by the men outside,” Bonilla is quoted as saying.
Yet despite these claims for several hours after the negotiations with the armed forces were successfully concluded no order came from Correa to rescue him. Instead the “cadena nacional” continued, broadcasting interviews with both Ecuadorian (including strong opponents) and international leaders expressing support for Correa and desire for the situation to end peacefully.
The real battleground now was the airwaves.
The Media and Public Opinion
From the moment that he hired Vinicio Alvarado as his campaign director and media strategist, Correa’s candidacy and later presidency has been the most media-savvy and aware of any in the history of the country. Alvarado has crafted superb television advertisements that present an intoxicating vision of a unified country where indigenous, mestizo and black all strive in harmony in honour of the “patria” (fatherland).
This, it is clear, is a government that has learned much from that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Correa has a weekly television/radio show that he broadcasts from different parts of the country, and for which he usually saves his best insults and put-downs. The government also makes frequent (weekly) use of the “cadena nacional” to take over all commercial channels with some new message, and of course spends plentiful amounts of public funds on advertising.
Furthermore, another essential part of what some have called Correa’s “permanent campaign,” is constant polling, as Correa seeks to have his finger on the pulse of the nation and to talk directly to the people at all times.
While the attacks Correa has consistently mounted against his perceived critics have worked in a short-term way – witness the divided nature of the indigenous movement, the drop in public confidence in the media - they have soured many previous supporters’ opinions of the president. Further, by seeking this “unfiltered” contact with the people, Correa has ensured himself of no organised support mechanisms whatsoever. The events of September 30 showed this all too clearly.
First to what Correa and his government did right. Someone in the government has clearly studied the contents of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” the Irish-made documentary about the failed coup against Chavez in 2002. Thus once Correa was in the hospital, the “cadena nacional” ensured that there was just one channel broadcasting and as such in a television-dominated environment, just one source of information.
The effect was to focus all information on Quito and Correa (rather than, say, the widespread crime and violence in Guayaquil) and of course to control the message. And the message was: the world supports Correa and democracy. We were told that “huge crowds” had gathered in Independence Place outside Carondelet, the Presidential Palace in Quito. Footage was broadcast of a small portion of what was assumed to be a much bigger crowd in the square.
There would be, it appeared, no coup d’etat, no “president interrupted” today. But another lesson had been learned from the Chavez experience of 2002: failed coups make for popular presidents; the real show was just about to begin.
Without warning the “cadena nacional” ended and two of the commercial tv channels – Ecuavisa and Teleamazonas – were suddenly back on the air. Just in time to broadcast extraordinary scenes of a full-scale military operations to rescue President Correa. We saw footage of armed soldiers running toward the hospital, and then the repeated sound of gunfire, over and over. Surely, those of us watching live were thinking, Correa does not walk out of this?
After some moments an ordinary-looking SUV almost casually entered the frame from left to right, drove up and reversed to the door of the hospital. Gunfire seemed to intensify, although the footage rarely showed anyone actually firing a weapon. Then the car left the scene, the soldiers withdrew, and minutes later Correa was being presented to a raucous crowd from the Carondelet balcony.
Was this a made-for-tv movie? Not entirely. Footage and evidence have shown that there were snipers shooting at the military forces as they approached, presumed to be police force. Would they have been firing had the armed forces not begun the aggression? Certainly by that time the President had been secured, members of the police special forces (GOE) having earlier entered the hospital reputedly by feigning support for the police cause, and there were no regular police left in the hospital when the rescue began.
It also turned out later that most of the shots fired by the military used rubber bullets, although when some police officers began firing with live ammunition, the soldiers received the order to do likewise. This explains the relatively low number of casualties from what Correa referred to as a “bloody” incident.
Could Correa have walked out safely? Reports later alleged that police radio transmissions calling for Correa to be killed were intercepted. The image of drunken, aggressive policemen outside the hospital suggests some danger, although not the kind to warrant the reaction it received. Other reports have suggested that the police were preparing to allow Correa to leave when the attack started. Either way, it certainly made great television.
As for the “large crowds” that went onto the streets to support Correa, this is far from clear also. A source from the social movements has said that the crowd was not very large, and that not all of them were in support of Correa. In fact, in one of the most bizarre incidents of a bizarre evening, crowds of “Lucio supporters” were shown forcing their way into the offices of the state broadcaster (this has been cited by bloggers as more “evidence” of a coup).
But when they got in, rather than armed men trying to shut things down, we witnessed a sprightly female university student pick up a microphone, hop up on a stool next to the presenters, and proceed to explain that they were just there to let the general public know that not everyone in the square was pro-government.
So where were the large numbers of people in support of Correa? No report at the time or since has even estimated a number, and the footage on the state channel did not provide much evidence of huge numbers of protesters. How could it be that a president who enjoys fairly constant approval ratings of between 50-60% could not muster more help in his time of need?
Those from the social movements would say – do say – that Correa’s inability to make any formal links with them means that he does not have any organisation to call on when in need. This is certainly true, and although the main branch of the indigenous movement, CONAIE, stayed largely silent on the day, elements of what was formerly its political wing, Pachakutik, publicly called for Correa’s ouster when he was in the hospital.
But, some would say, Chavez did not have any organised movement behind him in 2002, yet large numbers took to the streets. How can Correa be so popular and yet not be? Maybe it is because Correa leaves no space, allows no political involvement for anyone. Furthermore, while the majority admire his achievements and believe him to be a good president, it is a grudging respect.
In short, they don’t really like him. When faced with the possibility of Vice-President Lenin Moreno – a dignified and universally respected man – as their leader instead of the loudmouthed brawler Correa, perhaps many decided to stay home and see what happened next. And as they watched an enraged Correa vow vengeance against those who opposed him from the balcony of the Presidential Palace, what did they think then?
What Happens Next? Ecuadorian Democracy Stuck in Neutral
“The president’s own temperament is partly responsible for this situation. Even after being gassed, he insisted on returning to the scene after his bodyguards had removed him. That error put our democracy at risk.” These were the words of former government minister Gustavo Larrea, and whatever his motivation it is hard to disagree with the first part of his statement.
Correa did contribute to the situation he eventually found himself in, and not only by his conduct on the day. As his “Citizens’ Revolution” has ploughed on, now nearing the end of its fourth year, citizens seem to have less input than ever. The social movements have been discarded, the media discredited; Alberto Acosta has been run off, along with several others; and paranoia about a return to the party politics of the past have led Correa further and further down an authoritarian path.
Part of the cause – the “pretext” according to some - of the strike/coup of September 30 was Correa’s heavy-handed use of the presidential veto on several proposed new laws whereby he shot down legislation that had been approved by the Assembly, and his recent talk of invoking the clause in the constitution that allows the President to rule by decree for a time.
It is not hard to understand or feel Correa’s frustration: despite progress Ecuador’s economy remains weak, and the social problems Correa was elected to solve – poverty, inequality, poor education, sanitation and health care – remain (almost) as intractable as ever. Meanwhile he has opened fronts all over: against the traditional elites, the oil companies, the social movements, trade unions, the media, and now, of course, the police.
But the fact remains that his government exists only by the grace of the armed forces. A great day for Ecuadorian democracy? As long as the military get their salary raises, promotions and bonuses (which were put in place days after what is now being described in many places as a “police mutiny”) and don’t get “misinformed” again, perhaps so.
Where is the respect for democracy in Ecuador? Clearly not among the police (considered no better than thieves by much of the populace). Nor among some elements of the opposition that were at the very least intent on destabilising the elected government by underhand means.
Can there truly be said to exist a respect for democracy among the social movements? CONAIE put out a sombre statement that piously called for democracy to be defended, but within days were rejecting the “dictatorial democracy” of the government. This is also the organisation that was heavily involved in deposing at least two democratically elected presidents by illegal means, and basically wrote the textbook the police followed on how to paralyse a country with protests.
And Correa? Does he respect democracy? He respects elections results, it would appear. And public opinion. But has little or no regard for basic tenets like the separation of powers, judicial impartiality or certain human rights, and at times not even the constitution he himself helped to put in place.
When none of the main social actors in the country seems prepared to take that most fundamental step – compromise – then democracy in Ecuador will continue to be a zero-sum game, a winner-takes-it-all and might-is-right regime that will keep the country where it has been for so long: on a razor’s edge of instability, and wholly dependent on the armed forces to decide its fate.
Correa has achieved more in terms of redressing not only historical injustices, but also correcting many of the institutional problems the country has long grappled with (this is probably the first Ecuadorian government to ever collect taxes effectively) than any other leader in living memory. But by continuing the tradition of failing to respect any power other than that of the “pueblo,” he propagates an atmosphere of “anything goes” that is infectious.
Unless Correa himself is prepared to address this issue – and that seems highly unlikely – then expect more days like these.
“Whether Ecuador will succeed in overcoming the worst defects of its populist inheritance, and consolidate and genuine and functioning democracy, is still an open question.” These words, from a book appropriately titled “Ecuador: Fragile Democracy,” date back to 1988. The question, depressingly, remains open.
Chris O’Connell is a LASC member, and lives and works in Guayaquil, Ecuador.