Ecuador: between rebellion and coup

A confrontation between police and president in Ecuador reveals the flawed governance of an unsettled country, says Carlos de la Torre.
Carlos de la Torre
4 October 2010

A police force that goes on strike, a failed coup d’ etat, a president who wants to represent the people but excludes civil society from the decision-making process. Ecuador is again on the edge of political crisis.

The immediate events are dramatic enough. They also reflect problems in Ecuador’s governance that must be addressed if a troubling situation is not to escalate out of control - as has happened on several occasions in Ecuador’s turbulent last decade and a half (see Guy Hedgecoe, "Ecuador: protest and power", 28 November 2006).

The epicentre of the current crisis was a direct confrontation on 30 September 2010 between members of the police force and Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa. Policemen stop working in an effort to preserve benefits they will lose under the government’s austerity programme; Correa arrives in their midst to try to convince them to end their action; they refuse, and amid rising tension “kidnap” the president by forcibly detaining him in a room at Quito’s police hospital; the government organises a demonstration to rescue him; in the turmoil, two people die and hundreds are injured; students and public employees join the striking policemen; a few opposition politicians call for a rebellion to overthrow the president.

In the area of Latacunga, a self-proclaimed “citizens’ group” deposes the governor; in the absence of police there is sporadic looting, increasing robberies, and a generalised feeling of insecurity. Then, by 10 pm on a tumultuous day, Ecuadorian military and elite police forces rescue the president.

Rafael Correa’s government and his regional allies in the Alternativa Bolivariana para las Americas (Alba) group are calling this a coup. They are certainly right about that: after all, policemen sprayed teargas on the president before holding him prisoner. The government is also saying (though without presenting any evidence) that the opposition Patriotic Society party, made up of former members of the police and military, is behind these events.

A raw collision

But this was not just a failed coup. It was a protest by police that got out of hand because those involved felt that there are no available institutional channels to process their demands. Rafael Correa and his government are pursuing a project of state formation that involves imposing new regulations on associations and groups of civil society that he labels “corporatists” led by “particularist” interests. Ecuador’s national assembly had already changed the law governing public servants, but without involving civil society in the debate. Moreover, the president vetoes laws that incorporate the voices of the opposition. As a result the assembly is perceived to be an institution that is subordinated to the executive (see Guy Hedgecoe, "Rafael Correa: a political journey", 29 April 2009).

The Ecuadorian state has, since the 1930s, promoted, organised, and (later) awarded privileges to (among others) state employees, workers’ unions, and indigenous people. These groups negotiate with the state over their respective benefits, thus entrenching disparities of income and privilege between groups and across society. Correa’s administration seeks to put some order into this mess by removing “corporatist privileges”, a strategy experienced by many of those affected (in this case the police) as a straightforward removal of their benefits. In a context with no institutional mechanisms to take their demands into account, the government’s project could only lead to conflict.

The conflict with police is the latest in a series in which teachers, public employees, trade unions, and indigenous people have also been mobilising. All their accumulated grievances came to the fore with the police strike. Many others who resented the government’s infringements seized the opportunity to protest.

This time, it was policemen who were using available techniques of collective action more commonly associated with students or indigenous groups: building barricades, burning tires, presenting their demands as a section of “the people” against a government they claim treats them with disrespect. But the police also forgot that they are not just any other group: they are armed, and in charge of public security and legal order. This made their actions an abuse of their prerogatives and a violation of democracy.

But the president’s bad judgment also inflamed the situation. Rafael Correa is a leader who feels that he is and must be in charge of everything that happens to the nation, and possesses the charisma to do just that. But when he went in person to the police barracks to try to calm the situation, rather than delegating this task (and at a time when he was recovering from knee surgery), he responded to being booed by losing his temper. This is not the first time that Correa has directly confronted demonstrators. It is the logic of a kind of populism, where the president acts as if he incarnates the will of the people and claims to be making a revolution in their name - but has no place for their direct, self-willed participation.

Ecuador’s populist traditions also measure democracy by the numbers of supporters that can be mobilised on behalf of a leader. In this case, counter-demonstrations were organised in defence of the president, democracy, and the revolution - headed by Ecuador’s foreign minister. It was sheer luck that the opposed forces did not collide, which might have resulted in more tragedy.

A slow crisis

The regime’s proclamation that the police protests were a coup in the making allows Rafael Correa’s administration to tighten its political grip over the opposition and infringe on the rights of free expression by limiting the output of privately-owned radio and TV channels. The latter are obliged to broadcast news provided by the state’s media outlets.

The short-term result of this uprising that turned into a coup is likely to be an increase in the popularity of the president. Many Ecuadorians, even a majority, will read his macho display in confronting the police as the symbol of his altruistic struggle for the nation. This will further strengthen his highly personalist regime and efforts to make state institutions an instrument of his political goals.

Thus the events will fuel Correa’s confrontational style and negative attitude to dissent. Perhaps a restructuring of the police will lead to greater professionalism in combatting rising levels of crime and insecurity - though the force might also become more ideologically attuned to the president and his movement.

The bitter protest that became a failed coup is a difficult episode in Ecuador’s ongoing political troubles. It is also a warning to the international community, that the country is led by a government that assails liberal freedoms and pluralism. Ecuador’s crisis is unfinished.

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