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October 11, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Ecuador: back to coup-niversity?

In 2008, activist and author of the bestselling Confessions of an Economic Hitman, John Perkins warned Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa that the jackals were circling. Indeed, after the Honduran military stormed Manuel Zelaya’s presidential palace in June 2009, Correa told MSNBC about intelligence reports suggesting, “after Zelaya, I’m next.” The events of Thursday 30 September 2010 may have proved him right.

What began as a localised protest of 500 police officers in Quito spread across the country, engulfing 40,000 people by the day’s end. Armed forces stormed Congress, blocked roads, lit fires outside barracks and took control of Quito’s international airport. Banks in Quito and Guayaquil were looted. From Quito’s central barracks, Correa declared a state of emergency, daring troops to attack him, while tearing at his shirt
shouting, “If you want to kill the President, here I am! Kill me! … But we will continue with one policy, one of justice, dignity, and we will not take one step backwards!” While fleeing the barracks, a teargas canister exploded near his face and he was taken to the hospital.

Protestors surrounded the hospital while popular movements took to Quito’s streets. Correa spoke with regional leaders, reporting that he had been “kidnapped” and that his life was in danger. Bolivian Prime Minister Evo Morales summoned an emergency UNASUR meeting in Buenos Aires, while Peru and Colombia closed their borders in solidarity. Under the cover of darkness, loyal security forces (what Latin American studies expert James Petras calls Ecuador’s “elite military”) stormed the hospital, removing Correa amid heavy gunfire that killed two and injured 37. Three Ecuadorian police colonels now face criminal investigation for rebellion and attempted assassination in connection with the events.

The justification proposed for the unrest was legislation endorsed by Correa limiting salary increases for police and military employees. As the legislature reached an impasse, Correa suggested dissolving the Congress, a legally possible but politically controversial path. He claims to be battling public spending, and his
legislation has been targeted by some as an austerity campaign. Paradoxically, legislation passed by Correa
since his 2006 election has replaced an antiquated system of police condecoration (a form of honour-based incentive to balance out their incredibly low wages) with significant salary increases (from $150 to $650 a month).

Ecuador has denied claims of spontaneous protest, pointing at the degree of coordination and the speed of its spread. Correa has blamed supporters of former president and army colonel Lucio Gutierrez, who was removed by Congress in April 2005 after a week of demonstrations (notably by indigenous organisation CONAIE) regarding a neoliberal policy agenda, particularly signing a Letter of Intent with the IMF. Guttierrez appeared on Colombian television hours after the events, with former CIA agent Carlos Alberto Montaner claiming there had been no coup, but a police protest.

Washington is also yet to use the c-word, although Secretary of State Clinton did issue a two-sentence statement supporting Correa and the “institutions of democratic government in Ecuador”. Ecuador has been
the subject of increasing condemnation in American politics after joining the political alliance ALBA, a trade
bloc comprising Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia among others. Honduras left the group after its coup in June
last year, and destabilisation remains an attractive option to undermine the resource-rich socialist bloc. A report from Ecuador’s Defensive Minister Javier Ponce in October 2008 gave some scope to the protest, revealing how “US diplomats dedicated themselves to corrupting the police and the Armed Forces”.

The leftist agenda of ALBA has surely threatened capital, and some level of collusion is likely to emerge in the pending trial. Correa’s promised “citizen’s revolution” has moved toward national control of the country’s hydrocarbon reserves and enshrined a Constitution recognising multi-ethnicity, establishing rights for nature and forbidding foreign military bases. International capital markets responded poorly after Ecuador defaulted on $3.2 US billion of sovereign debt in 2008 (publicly declared “illegitimate”) and Correa suggested the country get its own currency (adoption of the US dollar in 2000 surrendered Ecuador’s monetary policy). Both Correa’s audacity in these recent events and Chavez’s majority in the Venezuelan legislative elections four days prior indicates the bloc’s strength, and, in the eyes of capital, the need for action in the region to ensure that markets remain open.

Meanwhile, as police and armed forces receive a payrise of $35 million annually (a coincidence, according to Ponce), these events may ultimately galvanise national support for Correa. Enduring this episode while already garnering an approval rating of 67 per cent in Quito could paint him as an organic nationalist hero. There remain legitimate protests by trade unions regarding Correa’s austerity measures, and he is poorly received by CONAIE, but by weathering an episode so eerily similar to the standard ploy to gain access to Third World resources, Correa may have caused the plan to backfire, bolstering his populism much like Chavez in 2002.

Photo by Andrew Miller

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