Behind the coup in Ecuador

Sunday, October 10, 2010
Supporters of Ecuador's President Rafael Correa gathered in Quito within hours of the coup attempt. The large, quickly organised mobilisations shows Correa’s government still enjoys significant grassroots support.

The attempted coup d’etat in Ecuador on September 30 against the left-wing government of Rafael Correa was defeated by loyal troops and the mass mobilisation of Correa’s supporters. The event underscores the turbulent history of the small Andean nation.

It also exposes some of the weaknesses of Ecuador’s revolutionary movement, which is part of a broader Latin American movement against US domination and for regional unity and social justice.

The coup attempt was led by a small core of police and soldiers, whose rebellion was triggered by a public service law that cut some of their benefits. This has led some commentators to assert that recent events were simply a wage dispute, rather than a coup attempt.

Correa’s 2006 election victory — supported by the country’s powerful social and indigenous movements — came after almost two decades of political turmoil. Government after government dragged the country deeper into debt and greater poverty.

Between 1998 and 2005, three elected presidents were overthrown by mass uprisings, led in large part by the main representative of the country’s 40% indigenous population, the indigenous federation CONAIE.

Correa — a former finance minister — won the 2006 poll on a platform of radical social change.

He promised to lead a “citizens’ revolution”, using Ecuador’s oil wealth to eradicate poverty, deepen grassroots democracy and build a “socialism of the 21st Century”. These promises echoed similar process under way in Venezuela and Bolivia.

About 40% of Ecuador’s population of 14.5 million lives at or below the poverty line.

Upon taking office, Correa moved to raise social security payments and the minimum wage. He also increased funding for health and education.

The Correa government also fulfilled an election promise by convening a constituent assembly to draft a new progressive constitution, which was approved by 64% of voters in 2008 referendum.

The use of a democratic process to adopt new, progressive constitutions were also part of the processes of change in Venezuela and Bolivia, which came under intense opposition from US-backed elites.

In Honduras, an attempt by elected president Manuel Zelaya, at the initiative of grassroots movements, to open a similar process sparked the June 2009 military coup that overthrew him and installed a brutal US-backed dictatorship.

Ecuador’s new constitution contains laws guaranteeing access to clean water, giving groundbreaking legal rights to the environment and granting recognition to Ecuador’s indigenous peoples.

One of Correa’s greatest environmental achievements is the deal to protect the environmentally significant Yasuni-ITT National Park from oil mining in exchange for US$3.6 billion — half the oil’s value.

Ecuador has promised to leave the oil — nearly 20% of the country’s reserves — underground, protecting vulnerable rainforest. The deal prevents about 430 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, provided wealthier nations and individuals compensate Ecuador for the financial loss.

The money to keep the oil in the ground will be administered by a United Nations trust fund. It will pay for further conservation projects in Ecuador, as well as funding health and education in rural and indigenous communities.

Correa’s actions have angered the Ecuadorian oligarchy and its US backers.

Correa has clashed repeatedly with foreign oil companies in the Amazon, threatening to nationalise those that refuse to comply with legal reforms. This includes the recent nationalisation of oil reserves, which has allowed Ecuador to increase its share of profits from its extraction.

Correa has also dealt swiftly with Ecuador’s enormous foreign debt — built-up under dictatorships decades ago and once equal to more than half the country’s GDP.

Declaring much of the debt illegal and “illegitimate”, Correa defaulted on $3.2 billion of debt in 2008. He has announced that Ecuador will only pay as little as 35% of the total, infuriating creditors and international financial institutions.

In 2009, Correa also removed the US military air base from the coastal town of Manta.

Such reforms have made Correa Ecuador’s most popular president in decades, but he has also been accused of ignoring key provisions in the constitution relating to the environment and mining. In the process, Correa has alienated key allies.

Correa has repeatedly clashed with indigenous and environmental groups, particularly over mining, oil extraction and water.

Rather than negotiate, he has described these groups as “infantile” and a threat to the national interest.

Correa also attempted to close down the environmental advocacy group Accion Ecologica when it became too critical of his government, although he backed down after local and international protest.

Correa fired the president of the Constituent Assembly and former close ally Alberto Acosta, when they disagreed over the content and process of the drafting of the new constitution.

Acosta — a co-founder of Correa’s Country Alliance (AP) party — is widely respected in Ecuador for his links with the social movements.

The September 30 coup attempt, which left 10 dead and 275 wounded, highlights the contradictions in Correa’s administration.

During the coup, the CONAIE — which supported Correa’s election — issued a statement opposing the coup as an attack on democracy, but which was also highly critical of Correa.

The statement accused him of undermining the social movements while not weakening the forces of the state, and demanded he carry out his election promises.

Despite claims from some sectors there was no coup attempt, details are emerging of coordinated activities amongst the rebels. Police radio transmissions during the coup indicate there were plans to kill Correa when he was inside a hospital surrounded by police rebels.

A group called the Police Armed Group (GAP) has been identified, which circulated messages and posters among police in the days before the coup to stir up discontent.

Former president Lucio Gutierrez — who was overthrown by a 2005 mass uprising — has been accused of masterminding the rebellion.

Gutierrez, currently in exile in Brazil, denies any responsibility for recent events. However, one of his close allies, Fidel Araujo, was detained after footage revealed his involvement in the attack on Correa.

However, some analysts — including Acosta — argue the situation may not have spun so far out of control if Correa hadn’t directly confronted the mutinous police and worry Correa’s confrontational style will continue to hinder the “citizen’s revolution”.

Correa has announced the public service law that provided the spark for the coup will be reviewed to defuse the situation. But there remains a real risk of a follow up attempt.

The recent coup attempt seemed a poorly organised affair — perhaps a dry run for a future coup. The split between Correa and the CONAIE, as well as some other social movements, and their unwillingness to come directly to his aid during the coup attempt, indicates a potentially dangerous weakness.

However, the defeat of the coup on the back of large, quickly organised mobilisations shows Correa’s government still enjoys significant grassroots support. The coup’s defeat and the mobilisations present an opportunity to both deepen the citizen’s revolution, as Correa has promised to do, and also work to reconnect with those sections of the grassroots alienated from his government.

From GLW issue 856