On September 30, Ecuador descended into chaos as a protest by sections of the police force and army turned into a potentially bloody coup against left-wing President Rafael Correa.
At about 8am, sections of the Ecuadorian Armed Forces and the national police went on strike, occupying police stations and barracks in the capital Quito, in Guayaquil and in at least four other cities. They set up road blocks with burning tyres, cutting off access to the capital.
They also stormed and occupied the National Assembly building and took over the runway at Quito’s Mariscal Sucre International Airport.
Schools and many businesses in Quito shut down early, as opposition protesters attempted to take over and sabotage broadcasts from television station Gama TV.
The protests were in response to a new public service law designed to harmonise income and benefits across the Ecuadorian civil service. Many police and troops, however, believed the law would remove their benefits and bonuses, as well as delay promotions.
In an attempt to end the strike, Correa went in person to the main police garrison in Quito to convince the police there was a misunderstanding — and their benefits were safe and their wages would in fact increase.
The situation spiralled out of control when a number of rebel police pointed their guns at Correa and threatened him. A tear gas canister was thrown, exploding only centimetres from the president’s head.
When Correa donned a gas mask, it was ripped from his head.
Stunned and overcome by the gas, the president was rushed to a nearby hospital. The hospital was soon surrounded by rebel police and opposition protesters. The rebels refused to allow anyone to enter or leave the building — imprisoning the elected, constitutional president.
As news got out, tens of thousands of Correa’s supporters took to the streets across the country, chanting “Correa, hang in there, the people are rising up!” and demanding that Correa be freed.
Rebel police attempted to force their way into the hospital through windows and the roof.
In a phone interview with Radio Publica from the hospital, Correa said he would refuse to negotiate with the rebels, despite the danger to his life, for as long as they held him captive.
Correa insisted he was still the president and the “citizen’s revolution” of social justice reforms that began with his 2007 election would continue — with or without him.
“I'm not going to back down”, Correa said. “Kill me, but as [Chilean poet] Pablo Neruda said, ‘You can cut all the flowers but you cannot hold back Spring’.”
Correa blamed the attempted coup on Patriotic Society Party leader Lucio Gutierrez, a former neoliberal president overthrown in a popular uprising 2005.
The Army Chief of Staff declared his support for Correa. However, the president refused to call on the army to rescue him until he discovered that government supporters outside the hospital were under fire from the rebel police.
A state of emergency was declared and loyal sectors of the army finally launched an attack on the hospital, forcing their way through the protesters and rebels, and freeing the president.
During the day’s violence, at least five people were killed and about 200 injured. Bullets were fired into the hospital room where Correa was holed up. Bullets also hit the army vehicle carrying Correa after his rescue.
After his release, Correa was greeted by a crowd of thousands of supporters chanting “the people united will never be defeated”.
Speaking from the Presidential Palace that evening, Correa said there would be "no pardon or forgiveness" for those involved in the coup and promised a deep “cleansing of the national police".
The national police chief General Freddy Martinez has already resigned, citing the insubordination of junior officers.
Some analysts have argued the incident was merely a protest that got out of control. Correa and his government, however, insisted it was a coup attempt — including an attempt to murder the head of state.
Prominent opposition leader and Guayaquil Mayor Jaime Nesbot denied any involvement in the protests. However, foreign minister Ricardo Patino joined Correa in accusing Gutierrez of initiating a coup d’etat.
Gutierrez, who implemented polices favourable to US corporations during his time in power, described the accusation as “totally false” in an interview from Brazil.
However, Gutierrez said “the end of Correa’s tyranny is at hand”. He called for the National Assembly to be dissolved and early presidential elections as a “solution” to the “crisis”, for which he blamed Correa.
The United States has also been accused of involvement in the attempted coup against Correa.
After the US-backed 2009 military coup in Honduras against elected left-leaning president Manuel Zelaya, Correa claimed to have intelligence that “after Zelaya, I am next”.
The initial reaction of the US to the coup attempt was non-committal, as it was during the Honduras coup. Other countries, such as France and even Colombia, immediately condemned the actions against Correa, but a US state department spokesperson merely said the Obama administration was “closely monitoring” the situation.
A statement in support of Ecuadorian democracy was made only several hours later.
Correa was elected in 2006 promising to lead a “citizen’s revolution” to eradicate poverty, deepen grassroots democracy and build a “socialism of the 21st Century” — echoing his allies Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales.
All three oppose US domination of the region and support Latin American unity and integration.
As in Venezuela and Bolivia, the Correa government opened the way for a constituent assembly to draft a new progressive constitution then approved by popular vote.
In 2009, Correa removed an unconstitutional US military air base from the coastal town of Manta, removing US forces from the country.
Correa had offered the US government, which wished to keep its presence, a choice: the US military could stay if Ecuador was allowed a military base of its own in Florida.
However, US presence in Ecuador continues, mainly through two key sources of US government funding for Ecuadorian non-governmental organisations — the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
Both are run out of the US Embassy and have been implicated in coup attempts against Chavez and Morales.
Correa has also repeatedly accused the US of infiltrating his security and public services.
Journalist Jean-Guy Allard said an official 2008 report from Ecuador’s defence minister Javier Ponce revealed how “US diplomats dedicated themselves to corrupting the police and the Armed Forces” — including providing independent training, funding and equipment.
US infiltration of the Ecuadorian military has a long history. Thousands of Ecuadorian officers have been trained at the infamous US-run School of the Americas (SOA), which has been involved in military coups and dictatorships across the continent for decades.
Interior minister Miguel Carvajal said: “We're faced with a process of destabilisation of the national government and democracy in Ecuador.”
The attempted coup in Ecuador took place in a volatile regional context. On September 26, pro-Chavez forces won hard-fought parliamentary elections in Venezuela against the US-funded right-wing opposition.
The following day, Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba, a strong proponent of a peaceful resolution to Colombia’s decades-long civil war, was dismissed as a senator by Colombia’s inspector general, on the basis of falsified evidence.
The violence in Ecuador appears to be part of a regional offensive to roll back the gains of Latin America’s progressive movements and governments.
The rebellion also exposes some of the weaknesses of Correa’s “citizen’s revolution”.
Ecuador’s powerful indigenous federation, the CONAIE, issued a statement strongly condemning the coup attempt and declaring its support for democracy. But the CONAIE was also highly critical of Correa, accusing him of undermining the social movements while not weakening the forces of the state that oppose them.
“While the government has dedicated itself exclusively to attacking and delegitimising organised sectors like the indigenous movement, workers' unions, etc.”, the CONAIE said, “it hasn't weakened in the least the structures of power of the right, or those within the state apparatus.”
Correa has clashed repeatedly with the CONAIE — who supported his election — over a number of issues such as mining, indigenous rights and water.
The CONAIE, which represents Ecuador’s forty percent indigenous population, helped lead the overthrow of the three Ecuadorian presidents before Correa.
Correa’s popular support is likely to increase as a result of the coup attempt, giving him an opportunity to drive his reform agenda further. However, the ambiguous position of the CONAIE underscores the weak relationship Correa enjoys with Ecuador’s important social movements.
If Correa fails to keep them on side, a better coordinated coup attempt may well be successful, and the revolutionary project in Ecuador could falter.