People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 46

November 14, 2010

Ecuador: Democracy under Threat


Yohannan Chemerapally


PRESIDENT Barack Obama waxed eloquent about the need to promote democracy in Asia during his recent visit to India. He was in fact critical about the role India has been playing in this regard. But in many parts of the world, the US has been the bulwark for authoritarian regimes. In South America, the role of the Obama administration has been especially dubious. In the Honduras, last year, the Obama administration winked at a military coup and did nothing when the democratically elected government was replaced. Before the Obama visit to India, an attempt to destabilise yet another democratically elected government in Latin America was thwarted in the nick of time. Renegade elements in the Ecuadorian security forces held the president, Rafael Correa captive for over a day on September 30 in the capital Quito.


The president has described the incident as a failed coup d’etat. President Correa is among the group of progressive leaders who have been voted into power in the region. He has implemented radical policies that have alarmed Washington and angered the local oligarchy. He has nationalised large segments of the hydrocarbon industry and introduced radical economic reforms. He has doubled the government’s spending on healthcare. Last year, he made the Americans leave their only military base in the country. Before Correa took office in 2006, the country had eight presidents within a short span of ten years.




The latest political crisis in the country was triggered by the actions of a disgruntled segment of the police force. They were unhappy with a new law approved by the national assembly, which they claimed adversely affected their monthly emoluments. Correa had personally gone to talk to the protesting policemen in their barracks when he was attacked by tear gas canisters and heavy objects. He suffered a wound in the leg and breathing problems as a result of the tear gas attack. After he was taken to a military hospital for treatment, the president was held there against his will. Pressure was put on him to resign. Correa who was re-elected with a massive majority only last year, had refused to be cowed down by his captors. During the initial confrontation, Correa had dared the renegade policemen to shoot the democratically elected president. “If you want to kill the president, here he is. Kill him if you are brave enough”, he told them.


Later speaking by telephone from hospital where he was forcibly confined, Correa declared that he would only leave the hospital “either as a president of a worthy country or as a corpse”. In an interview with the Venezuelan channel Telasur from his hospital room which was under attack, Correa quoted a line from the poet Pablo Neruda---“they can cut down the flowers but they can’t stop the spring”. The president in a speech delivered on national television after his dramatic rescue, said that he “was ambushed” in a well planned “political trap” and that the “politically manipulated” people wanted to “kill” him. On the morning the incident took place, all the barracks were taken over by the mutineers and the country’s airports closed.


When the news spread that their president was being held as a virtual hostage, thousands of people spontaneously came out on the streets. In the late evening, an operation by the country’s special forces, succeeded in rescuing the president from the military. A major factor for the coup attempt failing was that Correa continues to have an approval rating of over 70 per cent. One of the special forces personnel participating in the rescue was killed by snipers. In all eight people were reported killed during the violence and looting that briefly ensued in the country. Correa has put the blame for the abortive attempt at a coup d’etat on a former president, Lucio Gutierrez. Gutierrez, a former army officer, had run against Correa in the last elections and had suffered an ignominious defeat last year. When Correa was forcibly confined in the military hospital, Gutierrez told the media that the “end of Correa’s tyranny” is at hand. He also demanded the immediate dissolution of the parliament and early presidential elections.


The US administration seemed to be hedging its bets during the initial hours when the Ecuadorian president was held hostage. While most of the Latin American countries were quick to condemn the actions of the renegade police elements, a spokesman for the Obama administration merely stated that the US was “closely monitoring” the situation. It was only after it became clear that Correa was back in control did the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton issue a three line statement of support in favour of the president. The Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, said that it was an attempted “coup” not only against the legitimate government but also against the regional grouping---the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). The regional grouping consisting of left wing governments wants to reshape the patron-client relationship between the US and Latin America. The coup in Honduras happened after Zelaya announced that the country was to join ALBA. “It’s a coup attempt against ALBA, the countries that have raised the banner of democracy”, said Chavez. He added that everybody knew that the “coup masters” were operating from Washington.


The role of the Obama administration in Honduras has been a warning to the progressive forces in the region. In 2002, there was an American backed coup attempt to oust president Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. The attempted coup in Ecuador therefore fits into a pattern. After the overthrow of Manuel Zelaya, the president of the Honduras, Correa had said that he had intelligence reports that showed that he was next on the hit list. In 2008, Correa had fired his defence minister, chief of intelligence, and the commanders of the army, air force and navy. The president had said at the time that the country’s security and intelligence services were “totally infiltrated and subjugated to the CIA”.




A noted American commentator on security issues, Jacob Hornberger, had warned two years ago in his column that Correa “may not be long in this world, both in a political sense and in genuine life and death sense”. Hornberger wrote that other rulers around the world have learned the hard way that “bucking the CIA is a real no-no that sometimes leads to coups and assassinations”.  In 2008, a Canadian journalist, Jean Guy-Allard had meticulously traced the infiltration of the Ecuadorian police by the US embassy in Quito through the “payment of informants, training, equipment and operations”. The report said that police units “maintain an informal economic dependence on the US for the payment of informants, training equipment and operations”. Correa had sacked the police chief in 2008, accusing him of showing greater loyalty to Washington than to Quito. In retrospect, it is not surprising that the coup attempt was carried out by elements in the country’s police force. Ecuador’s army chief, Gen Ernesto Gonzales, strongly backed the president during the crisis.


The US ambassador to Ecuador, Heather Hodges claims that Washington’s cooperation with Ecuador’s security forces is related to “the fight against drug trafficking”. Hodges was previously America’s top diplomat in Moldova, where she was implicated in the abortive “colour revolution” that sought to overthrow the pro-Moscow Communist government there. Before that, as a senior state department official, she was closely involved in Latin American affairs. As deputy director in the office of Cuban affairs in the early nineties, her brief was to undermine the Cuban government. She later served in Nicaragua in the mid-nineties, to help the pro-American government that had come to power after the ouster of the Sandinistas.


Hodges was sent as ambassador to Ecuador in 2008 with the express purpose of ensuring that Ecuador does not follow the same radical route as countries like Venezuela and Bolivia. The Obama administration has increased the USAID’s budget for Ecuador to $38 million. A significant chunk of the money goes to NGO’s and indigenous groups which oppose the policies of the government. A lot of US funds are also channelled through the US National Endowment of Democracy (NED). Like in Venezuela, the major media outlets are privately owned and are virulently right wing and pro-American.


The events in the last week of September seem to have forced a rethink in the top echelons of Ecuadorian government. President Correa has re-assured the police that the reforms he is planning will not necessitate salary or pension cuts. The president has also indicated that he will not be implementing all the tough austerity measures that were previously announced. He has given up plans to dissolve the assembly, which had stymied some of his major economic proposals. The Ecuadorian constitution gives the right to the president to rule by decree for a specified period before calling for elections. President Correa seems to have realised that there is an urgent need for tempers to cool.


The recent events have further bolstered president Correa’s popularity. His bravado of personally confronting the large number revolting policemen, unarmed, has boosted his image among his countrymen. But the American educated Correa, who has an economics PhD from an Ivy League University, has a tough task ahead of him, as he seeks to transform his resource rich country from a debtor nation to a self-sufficient one. At present, the government has a budget deficit of around $4 billion. Last year, Ecuador made news by defaulting on $3.2 billon in global bonds. This has made the country ineligible for funds from multilateral lenders like the IMF and the World Bank.