The Sept. 30 attempted coup in Ecuador that killed three and held the elected president hostage serves as a warning. Democratic transitions remain fragile and incomplete in Latin America and some of the boldest moves away from colonialism and toward inclusive societies are being met with reactionary force. As the Ecuadorean police uprising shows, nations could lose the important gains that have been made over the past decades.
Facts support the thesis that what happened Sept. 30 was a coup attempt–albeit a clumsy and poorly planned one. The police rose up in arms not only in the capital city of Quito, but also simultaneously in departments throughout the country. President Rafael Correa was held captive until national security forces were forced to stage a military operation to free him. Correa was physically attacked and his supporters were fired on with tear gas and rubber bullets. He later stated that the armored car he rode in during his rescue was riddled with bullet holes.
In a special session of the Organization of American States (OAS), members unanimously resolved to support President Correa and Ecuadorean democracy. An OAS press release on Sept. 30 called on governments to “stop the coup d’état from becoming a reality”. UNASUR and nations throughout the region also immediately issued statements denouncing the coup attempt.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement saying, “The United States deplores violence and lawlessness and we express our full support for President Rafael Correa, and the institutions of democratic government in that country.” Although the State Department fell short of calling it a coup, spokesperson P.J. Crowley noted that “to some extent, [it] did represent a challenge to the government.”
After order was restored, the OAS praised “the civic demonstration by the Ecuadorean people who peacefully and en masse rejected the coup d’état, which constitutes an example to all of us of how all democrats are compelled to defend democracy with all our strength.”
The international right and much of the mainstream media have opposed any characterization of the Sept. 30 events as an attempted coup, to avoid associating the rightwing with the bungled attack on democracy and to deny Correa the hero aura of a coup survivor. A Washington Post editorial on October 20 even went so far as to trivialize the kidnapping of the president and the violent deaths, calling the day-long confrontation a “dust-up” with police.
But precise definitions are important. When the Obama administration waffled on naming the Honduran coup d’état that took place on June 28, 2009, at first it seemed like a question of semantics. In the end, that deliberate lack of definition made it possible to avoid strong actions in Congress and block restoring President Manuel Zelaya–another ALBA member– to office. The success of the Honduran coup, first in remaining in power and then in staging elections for its successor, set a dangerous precedent. Many Latin American leaders warned that it could encourage other attacks on democracy in the region. The Ecuadorean coup attempt confirms those fears.
Thankfully, President Correa has returned to office and his government has initiated investigations and prosecution of those responsible. As things calm down in Ecuador, some lessons emerge for the Andean nation and for the U.S. government, which, for better or worse– and usually the latter–considers itself the umpire of democracy in the region.
Inside Ecuador, the coup attempt revealed the strength and desperation of economic elites living under progressive governments–the source of the Latin American backlash. But it also exposed a complex set of divisions and tangled power lines. According to a Gallup poll in 2010, President Correa enjoys a 63% approval rating among the population, but that number hides the strength of growing opposition from the left and the right.
For the right, the new Ecuadorean Constitution that recognizes a plurinational state and rights of nature, strikes a blow to the heart of their model of economic integration that would open up the world and all its resources to transnational exploitation. In principle, indigenous peoples are given a say in resource use in their territories.
The Correa government has also made some bold moves to cut back on the looting of Ecuador’s natural resources and the environmental destruction of the past. The historic decision to ban oil exploration and exploitation in the Amazonian Yasuni National Park that recently received the support of the United Nations put billions of dollars in oil reserves outside the grasp of oil companies. Ecuador proposed to protect the park and called for compensation from the international community to keep the oil in the ground. In many ways, the example set by the Yasuni plan presents even more of a threat to Big Oil and fossil-fuel consumer societies than the plan itself.
Moves to regulate and tax foreign exploitation of natural resources, to default on billions of dollars in foreign debt ruled illegitimate, to prohibit the presence of foreign armies (after closing the U.S. Manta base), and to ally with the Venezuela-led ALBA group challenge neoliberal free trade and investment regimes and the ability to control access to natural resources through military power. These moves have galvanized opposition to the Correa government among powerful national and international economic elite and sectors of the U.S. government, especially the Pentagon.
On the other hand, the broad-based indigenous organizations that helped bring Correa to power have become increasingly disillusioned with his presidency. They charge that the rush to promote mining, oil and agrobusiness ventures violates the new Constitution and the indigenous rights he promised to fight for. Although Correa has required companies to pay a larger share of profits to the government as mentioned above, he promoted the extractive model of national development that encroaches on indigenous lands and rights and has led to massive environmental destruction.
The well-founded criticisms of the indigenous organizations provoked unfounded accusations that they were involved in or supported the coup attempt against Correa. The indigenous ECUARUNARI spelled out its position of neither relinquishing its demands on the government nor supporting rightwing efforts to overthrow it.
“We have no doubt that this political crisis is a right-wing reaction against the 2008 Constitution, adopted by the affirmative vote of 64% of Ecuadorians, and is therefore a clear threat to democracy, Plurinationalism, and the Sumak Kawsay (living well).
“The vast majority of popular organizations that resist dictatorships and neoliberal policies of the pro-imperialist Ecuadorean oligarchies, in spite of having deep disagreements with the national government and several of our leaders prosecuted under the charge of “terrorists”, say this is no reason to place ourselves on the side of our historic enemies. Behind the police protest and their wage demands lies the intent to annul the Constitution in which we achieved recognition of many of our proposals and historic struggles…”
The ECUARUNARI statement claims that Correa’s concessions to the right and business interests are in part responsible for the coup attempt. It calls for a “great plurinational dialogue” to build national consensus. Organizations including the CONAIE noted that the divisions that have grown up between the president and his former base among grassroots organizations emboldened the right to make the Sept. 30 attempt on his government. In Ecuador, one lesson that grassroots organizations hope will come of this is that Correa will reach out to his base and enter into dialogue, eschewing what many have called an increasingly authoritarian style.
ECUARUNARI ends by saying “We have suffered too much from dictatorships. Honduras is a fresh wound. Not one more dictatorship in Latin America.”
Their conclusion brings the discussion back around to broader issues of democracy and the U.S. role in the region.
U.S. government actions allowed the Honduran coup to stand after condemning it, and subsequently assisted in installing its successor. As the OAS still refuses to recognize the Lobo government, the State Department is actively pursuing reinstatement of Honduras with no efforts to condemn the on-going human right violations. Recently Congressman Sam Farr and 29 other members of Congress circulated a “Dear Colleagues” letter calling for suspension of aid to Honduras and not to reinstate the country in the OAS pending a human rights investigation and an end to impunity for crimes committed during and after the coup. So far, the State Department has not indicated its intention to heed the call.
In Haiti, the Obama administration is supporting elections that exclude powerful opposition parties, including the country’s most popular political party, Famni Lavalas. Members of Congress have called on the State Department to reconsider its position. Elections that do not allow opposition parties to participate would be a far cry from a real exercise of democracy and would undermine reconstruction efforts.
Although members of the Correa government have stated that they do not believe the Obama administration was directly involved, they have expressed suspicions that rightwing forces in the U.S. played a role. Also, the U.S. government was actively involved in training the anti-narcotics unit and many of the police units that participated in the coup attempt, raising questions about the political content of that training.
This is good opportunity to review military and police training programs and the so-called “democracy promotion” programs that have so often been implicated in meddling in the affairs of foreign countries and encouraging opposition to governments deemed unfavorable to U.S. interests. There must be greater transparency and close citizen and Congressional oversight, leading to the elimination or re-orientation of these programs.
Ecuador now must recover from the coup attempt and deal with its own challenges. Meanwhile, U.S. citizens and their government must reaffirm a commitment to support democracy in Latin America, without politically motivated exceptions or hidden agendas.
LAURA CARLSEN is director of the Americas Policy Program in Mexico City. She can be reached at: (lcarlsen(a)ciponline.org).