An apparent coup attempt against Ecuador's left-wing president, Rafael Correa, appeared to have failed when elite troops rescued the president from rioting policemen late Thursday, September 30.
Early that morning, about 400 police officers, possibly backed by some air force personnel, took over the airports in the capital, Quito, and other places, stopping all air traffic into and out of the country. The police were mobilized against the government based on a rumor that it was going to make changes in policies covering promotions, bonuses and medals.
Later in the morning, President Correa went to remonstrate with the police at the airport. The police responded by throwing water and tear gas grenades at him. Correa was injured by the tear gas and taken to a nearby police hospital. At that point, the police surrounded the facility. However, Correa was able to communicate with the outside world, and his calls for support produced swift results.
Thousands of ordinary Ecuadorians poured into the street to confront the police. Video streams on the websites of Telesur and other international media showed the scene as the police burned tires in the streets to block traffic and fought off a counter uprising with tear gas and smoke bombs in Quito and other cities.
The Ecuadorian armed forces leadership issued a statement of support for Correa's government, originally elected in 2006 after a long period of instability and then reelected in 2009 under a new constitution. UNASUR, a major grouping of South American nations of which Correa is the President pro-tem, was set to meet Friday in Buenos Aires, but the group announced that instead, all the heads of state might head to Ecuador in solidarity with Correa. The rebellion was also denounced by the Organization of American States, by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and by virtually all governments in the region, including not only the left-wing governments of Cuba and Venezuela, but also the right-wing governments of Chile, Peru and Colombia.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement expressing "our full support for President Rafael Correa" and the constitutional order in Ecuador, and calling for a peaceful resolution.
That evening, Ecuadorian military forces drove off the rebelling police and rescued Correa from the hospital, with a toll of two police officers killed.
Correa later made a public appearance to thank the Ecuadorian people and military for their support. He blamed the uprising on sedition organized by wealthy interests and his predecessor in the presidency, army Colonel Lucio Gutierrez . Gutierrez called for the dissolution of the national legislature and new elections. Ironically, Correa had already been considering such a move, permitted by the Ecuadorian constitution, because of an impasse over budgetary plans.
It would appear that the coup has failed due to lack of popular, military and international support. But the sudden event reverberated in the minds of many Latin Americans still reeling from aftershocks of the June, 2009, coup d'état that overthrew Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. Like Ecuador, Honduras was a member organization of the regional left-wing bloc, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA, for its Spanish initials). Honduras left ALBA after its coup, and there has been violent repression of labor leaders and Zelaya supporters. Many in Latin America blamed the United States for the success of the Honduras coup, so there was immediate worry about what international forces might be behind the police uprising in Ecuador, and if the goal might be to knock Ecuador out of ALBA as well.
Correa's government has seen its share of troubles. Like most other countries in the region, Ecuador was hit by the world financial and economic crisis. Besides the dispute with the police, Correa has had friction recently with two sectors of his own support base. Indigenous groups have clashed with Correa over plans for economic development of the Amazonian forest region, but that dispute appeared to be on the way to being resolved. More recently, budgetary cuts Correa wanted were blocked in the legislature by members of his own National Alliance Party.
Correa has butted heads with international creditors because he had forced them to renegotiate Ecuador's debts downwards by threatening to simply not make payments. He has also had a running battle with petroleum transnationals whose reckless operations have caused massive ecological damage in the Amazonian forests. He has annoyed the United States by forcing the closing of the U.S. military base at Manta. He had a very tense relationship with former President Uribe of neighboring Colombia, though the new president, Manuel Santos, has recently made peace gestures.
As of press time, there is still martial law in Ecuador, and steps are being taken to remove rebellious police from their positions, as well as to investigate who else might have been behind the incident.
Photo: Marchers in support of President Correa yesterday, September 29, in Quito. http://www.flickr.com/photos/municipiopinas/5041292637/in/photostream/