By Marc Becker
On September 30, 2010, Ecuador was once again plunged into a political crisis as troops seized Quito’s international airport and stormed the Congress. In response, Rafael Correa declared a state of emergency and denounced what he termed a coup attempt orchestrated by the opposition and some members of the military and police. Correa was hospitalized when a tear gas canister exploded near him when he went to talk to the protesting police officers. Ten hours later, loyal troops stormed the hospital, where police had continued to hold the president hostage.
To outside observers, it seemed yet another potential extra-constitutional transfer of power in Ecuador’s tumultuous political history. The events seemed to be a replay of the June 30, 2009, military coup that removed Manual Zelaya from power in Honduras. When a massive march of Correa’s supporters descended on the hospital and later rallied on Quito’s central plaza after his release, observers saw a repeat of a popular uprising in April 2002 that reinstated Hugo Chávez in power after a failed coup attempt in Venezuela.
From the perspective of Ecuador’s social movements and in the context of that country’s recent history, however, the events of September 30 begin to look much more complicated.
First, the crisis began as a police protest against cuts to their bonus payments. Correa came to power on the strength of his denunciation of neoliberal economic policies, but yet as president he was implementing the same austerity measures he had pledged to defeat.
Second, the march in support of Correa appeared to be organized by his political party, Alianza País, rather than a spontaneous grassroots response as occurred in Venezuela in 2002. In fact, many of Ecuador’s strong and well-organized social movements stood aside with some of the most radical political parties even coming to the defense of the labor demands of the police.
Ecuador’s powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), for example, complained that Correa brought these problems upon himself because while he continued to attack social movements he had done little to weaken the power of oligarchical structures. While they stated that they did not support a coup attempt, they criticized the president for acting in a way that opened up possibilities for a right-wing reaction that would roll back the positive gains social movements had made in Ecuador.
Third, while the heavy hand of the United States was clearly apparent in the coups in Honduras and Venezuela as well as one in 2004 that removed Jean-Bertrand Aristide from office in Haiti, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quickly announced her full support for Correa. For those who follow Ecuadorian politics this came as no surprise because in June she had a very warm visit with Correa designed to pull him into her orbit.
Similarly, the conservative presidents Juan Manual Santos and Alan García from neighboring Colombia and Peru also came to Correa’s defense. In part, this is the result of the successful efforts of the Organization of American States (OAS) to take a strong stance against extra-constitutional changes of power in the hemisphere, but it also indicates that external powers do not view Correa as a threat. Furthermore, Ecuador has never been under the heavy hand of United States imperial control as are countries located in the Caribbean basin. In 2009, for example, Correa refused to renew the United States’s lease on the Manta Airbase, and the United States left without a complaint.
The September 30th events are best understood in the context of class and political divisions within Ecuador, rather than as a result of the imposition of foreign imperial interests. Indigenous activists complained that Correa had formed alliances with right-wing groups to extract the country’s natural resources while attacking social movements that opposed such moves. Correa’s failure to work closely with social movements created spaces for reactionary sectors to move against his government. While social movements had deep disagreements with Correa’s administration, they said that they would never ally with their historic enemies in the oligarchy, they would oppose any moves toward dictatorship, and they would continue to fight for a plurinational democracy as promised in the new and progressive 2008 constitution.
Marc Becker is professor of Latin American history at Truman State University and the author of Pachakutik: Indigenous Movements and Electoral Politics in Ecuador. He can be reached at email@example.com