As this article goes to press, Ecuador is in a state of surreal uncertainty and political purgatory. Until just moments ago, President Rafael Correa sat injured in a Quito hospital, where he was essentially a prisoner, but the military High Command consistently affirmed their loyalty. In other words, this was a coup that was not a coup. While Correa’s eventual rescue by loyal soldiers means that crisis has been momentarily averted, and despite the flowery rhetoric of the victory speech he is giving as I pen this, an underlying crisis remains and if the correct lessons are not gleaned, the conditions for the permanent overthrow of the Correa government will remain.
Specifically, what we are witnessing in the Ecuadorean conflict is the collision between three wagers, three clashing sectors playing a high-stakes game with the future of Ecuador, and what will matter more than anything else is what role will be played by the popular masses who represent the vast majority of the country and the continent. In the days and months to come, it will be their intervention, or failure to intervene, that will make all the difference in the world.
The Golpista Wager
The long-simmering conflict over government cuts to the public sector was ignited while Correa addressed a crowd of police officers in Quito who were protesting government cuts which would allegedly affect salary increases and benefits paid to police. Suddenly, the stakes of the struggle were raised exponentially we some furious police officers opened fire on the president with tear gas canisters. Correa, nursing an injured knee and wearing a gas mask, was carried off to the nearby National Police Hospital. Once inside, Correa began to receive medical treatment, but the hospital was quickly surrounded by the very same police who had just attacked him, and as reports began to pour in of occupied military bases, police seizure of the National Assembly, and burning blockades from Quito to Guayaquil, the president declared that a coup was in progress.
There’s an old saying: possession is nine tenths of the law, and the same is often true of political power. Thus in this coup as in coups past, especially in Latin America, it is the initial push that matters most: in an intricate dance between the de facto and the de jure, coup plotters (golpistas) attempt to gain ground and seize control before a sufficient response can be mounted either domestically or internationally. They strike hard first, knowing full well that, if successful, they will later be able to negotiate from a position of strength.
Recall last year’s coup in Honduras, an explicitly illegal and unconstitutional action that nevertheless resulted in a sort of stalemate: after removing from power democratically-elected Manuel Zelaya, the only legitimate claimant to the leadership of the country, coup leaders entered into an internationally-brokered process of “negotiation” between the two sides. Where there had been only one side, there were now two, and an otherwise plainly illegitimate government, simply by virtue of being in power, became an equal participant in a return to the constitutional order (which, of course, excluded the possibility of Zelaya’s return).
If events in Ecuador do indeed become a full-blown and declared coup in the coming days, if Correa’s rescue does not serve to diffuse the conflict, this will be the wager, but if the golpistas are to succeed they will need to move quickly.
These would-be coup leaders have already shown some familiarity with the golpista playbook, and as was the case with previous coups in Venezuela and Honduras, the attack on Correa was immediately accompanied by an attack on the media, and the radical TeleSur network in particular. In a published statement, TeleSur president Andrés Izarra revealed that his reporters on the ground in Quito had been repeatedly attacked and detained by the police for simply attempting to cover events on the ground.
Izarra knows better than most the crucial role that the media plays in times like these. He himself was employed by the notoriously anti-Chávez television station RCTV during the fateful April 2002 coup, resigning his post after being ordered from the highest level not to do his job of reporting on actual events. In scenes that would be familiar to Izarra, Ecuadorean opposition leader Pablo Guerrero was spotted by eyewitnesses participating in a physical attack on public TV reporters attempting simply to report on the coup.
Speaking dramatically to the press from his hospital bed, Correa took a hard line against both the arguments and the tactics of the police. This is not about wages or benefits, Correa insists, ruthlessly lashing out at the “ungrateful bandits” among the police, who he claims have been treated better by his regime than any other.
But, he insists, this is not really about the police at all, pointing the finger of guilt squarely at ex-president Lucio Gutiérrez, who came to power in 2003 with the support of Ecuador’s poorest masses, only to be thrown out shortly thereafter by the same. According to Correa, a certain sector of the Armed Forces has always remained loyal to Gutiérrez and his right-wing populism, and this sector is now rallying around the ex-president’s call for early elections (despite the fact that Correa was re-elected with a significant majority in the first round of elections just last year, and is due to serve until 2013).
Holed up in the National Police Hospital, Correa insists that he is at risk of being kidnapped by the police gathered outside, evoking images of both the brief 2002 coup against Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and the regrettably successful removal of Honduran president Zelaya just last year. Speaking in front of the National Assembly, foreign minister Ricardo Patiño urged the gathered crowds to descend on the hospital to rescue their leader. Police initially blocked this effort, violently attacking the pro-Correa crowds, but the siege would later be broken, with Correa supporters breaking through police lines, and soldiers finally rushing in to rescue the president.
It was from this position, under siege in a hospital surrounded by concentric rings of presidential security, insurgent police officers, and enraged citizens rushing to the defense of their president, that Correa issued a challenge to the rebels: “If you want to kill the president, here he is! Kill me!” The wager was clear: Correa was betting on the Ecuadorean people, betting that they would come to his defense before the coup forces managed to remove him from power and even possibly from the world of the living. This is a wager whose importance extends far beyond the president’s brief detention in the Police Hospital of Quito.
The Radical Wager?
Whether Correa will prove successful in the long run will depend on the third wager, perhaps the most dangerous and unpredictable of them all: that of some ostensibly radical sectors of the Ecuadorean population.
The radicals I refer to do not include the self-professed “radical” former journalist turned political activist Carlos Vera, who has been attempting to recall Correa since shortly after his 2009 election, and who today calls on his countrymen to join the police in their rebellion. And nor do I refer to the clearly irrelevant Communist Party of Ecuador (MLM), which has released a statement dismissing the entire conflict as an intra-bourgeois split, comically insisting that: “Neither Correa nor the opposition, Maoism is the revolution!” No, the radicals in question pose a more serious challenge to Correa since they come from what is ostensibly his support base.
The Pachacutik Movement, a leftist electoral alliance bringing together indigenous and non-indigenous Ecuadoreans, has taken a particularly hard line. Despite playing a significant role in Correa’s electoral victories, Pachacutik has become estranged from the government in recent months in years, recently declaring its “frontal opposition to Rafael Correa’s government and its fake revolution.” Faced with the police rebellion, a Pachacutik leader and assembly member, Cléver Jiménez released a statement accusing the president of having a “dictatorial attitude” and “violating the rights of public servants and the society as a whole.” According to Jiménez’s statement, the Pachacutik Movement called for the formation of a broad Popular Resistance Front to demand Correa’s resignation through a constitutional motion in the National Assembly and ultimately replace him.
In this view, shared by some sectors of the Ecuadorean left, what occurred was not in fact a coup attempt, but instead a justifiable response to the neoliberal policies of the Correa government. Some are actually claiming that, in demanding their salaries and benefits, the police in fact represented popular demands against a neoliberal state. But anyone who assumes that the police and sectors of the military will spontaneously position themselves on the right side of history is naïve to say the least, and when it’s a question of Latin America, this naïve self-deception becomes pathological.
Right or wrong, however, such declarations should be read as a symptom of a deeper danger for the Correa government, especially when combined with the resistance Correa has confronted from within his own party, resistance which has prompted him to threaten to dissolve the Assembly pending new elections. It has been an open secret for some time now that Correa’s government is the weakest among the radical leftist projects in the region, precisely for the tense character of the relations Correa has maintained (often by his own fault and the nature of his policies) with the social movements that brought him to power.
These movements have shown, in the case of ex-president Lucio Gutiérrez (who was also supported by Pachacutik), their willingness to remove leaders as quickly as they bring them to power, and Correa needs to learn sooner rather than later that he needs them to survive. Without this powerful foundation, Correa is and has been in danger.
But as should be clear by now, those radicals on the left who are demanding Correa’s resignation are making a wager of their own: that it will be they, rather than the far right, who will control the outcome of the chain of events sparked by the police strike. It seems clear that, in this instance, the radical wager is simply not worth the potential dangers it might unleash.
This danger is reflected in the more sober tone of a statement released by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), which insists that the nascent rebelliousness among the police and the military is more of a danger than an opportunity for popular sectors. While the CONAIE was instrumental in both the establishment of the Pachacutik Movement and Correa’s election as president, its relationship with both the president and Pachacutik has been patchy at best (although it has recently been critical of efforts to recall the president). Consequently, the CONAIE insists on both a “rejection of the government’s economic and social policy, and we also reject with the same energy the actions of the right, which surreptitiously constitute part of an attempted coup d’état.”
Losing the Masses, Losing the Revolution
In his seminal history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James seeks to explain the tragic fate of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the great Black leader who led the revolution but was unable to see it through to its conclusion. Toussaint’s error? He lost the support of the masses. According to James, “Toussaint destroyed his own Left-wing, and with it sealed his doom.” This is a historical lesson that has been repeated time and time again in the past as in the present, and it is a historical lesson that Correa would be well-advised to heed.
Without the masses, Hugo Chávez would never have been returned to power on April 14th 2002, and it was in many ways Honduran president Manuel Zelaya’s lack of support from an established and organized mass movement that facilitated his removal in 2009. And in both cases this was not merely a question of innocently taking to the streets: Chávez’s return was only guaranteed by the existence of revolutionary networks of armed militants which predated his presidency, emerging from a history of nearly 50 years of struggle against corrupt democracy and neoliberalism.
These popular masses are not behind the coup in Ecuador, despite the all-too-easy analogy by some on the radical left between the salary demands of the police involved and popular struggles against neoliberal structural adjustment. But it will be their decision to act or not to act, and which side to take, that will prove the most decisive factor in determining the outcome of the attempted coup. Hence the optimistic solidarity chant heard in the streets of Caracas:
Correa, aguanta, el pueblo se levanta!
Correa, hang in there, the people are rising up!
The danger is not so much that the majority of Ecuadoreans will at some point join a coup against Correa, but that they might not resist it vigorously enough.
If we know that moments such as these are often dangerous turning points, they are also potent with the promise of a better future, sharpening and revealing tensions and often strengthening those governments lucky enough to survive them. For the moment, Correa’s luck seems to have held, and he has survived one effort at his removal. But then again, this is not a question of luck at all.
GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Drexel University. He can be reached at gjcm(at)drexel.edu.