Ecuador: Air Force and Navy Reluctantly Backed President

(IPS) – Besides the hundreds of police who were rioting, Ecuador’s air force and navy were the biggest headaches for the government of Rafael Correa in the 11 hours that the president was held captive on Thursday, Sept. 30, IPS was told by civilian and military sources close to the action.

The uprising ended at 9:30 PM local time when the president was rescued from the police hospital where he was being held, next to the police station he visited that morning after hearing that a revolt had broken out, where he was insulted and attacked by angry police.

The media reported that 10 people were killed and 274 injured that day, although the government says five people died. The uprising, or attempted coup — the heated debate on which one it was continues — also left doubts as to how strong a grasp the government has on the security forces.

The rescue, which was broadcast live to the world, was carried out amid gunfire by elite soldiers and police loyal to the government.

A high-level government source who asked to remain anonymous told IPS that “while the army showed loyalty to Correa from the very start, things were more complicated in the other two branches, and it was necessary to negotiate.”

However, Defence Minister Javier Ponce said in an interview with IPS that “I spent the entire day with the military brass, but without negotiating a thing. We evaluated the situation as the hours went by, and then we focused on planning the rescue operation.”

Ponce expressed surprise when IPS told him a senior official had stated that “The defence minister was the second person held captive on Thursday.”

The defence minister said “That’s not true; the high command were meeting with me, and I decided not to leave their side, not even for a moment,” said Ponce.

But he acknowledged that “There were problems of misinformation among the air force and naval troops.”

The stated reason for the revolt, which included police barricades around Congress and roadblocks, was the approval the day before of a law on public services that eliminated some of the bonuses that accompany police and military promotions, and extended the period between promotions from five to seven years.

But journalist Juana Ordóñez, assistant director of the economic publication Gestión, told IPS that Correa “was right when he said he has doubled police wages, because rank-and-file police earned 355 dollars (a month) in 2006, and today they earn 750 dollars.”

By comparison, the minimum monthly wage is 240 dollars.

The defence minister, who confirmed on Tuesday, Oct. 5 a raise for captains, majors, sergeants and corporals in the armed forces and the national police, insisted that there was no relation between the Sept. 30 police mutiny and the salary adjustments, which he said were being studied since August.

But an army colonel who did not want to be identified said “It was obviously one of the measures demanded in Thursday’s negotiations with the military brass. (The authorities) had offered the salary increases several times, but they were taking too long to implement them, and there was discontent.”

The salaries in question will be increased by between 400 and 570 dollars a month. Captains, who previously earned 1,600 dollars a month, will now earn 2,140 dollars. And a major’s salary will go up from 1,870 to 2,280 dollars. The raises are retroactive to January.

The salary increase “was the officers’ and non-commissioned officers’ problem,” the military source told IPS. “The main problem for the troops in the navy and air force was the question of promotion bonuses.”

“The revolt by the air force technical experts was completely different from the police uprising,” Correa said in a press conference with foreign correspondents Wednesday.

“That was a peaceful, apolitical demonstration. Their signs, which had been made earlier, clearly stated ‘We are not against the government’,” the president said.

But air force personnel shut down the airport in Quito, which receives 75 percent of the country’s international passengers, and all flights were cancelled.

And although the protest by the air force technicians “was different, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be investigated,” Ponce said.

“The army promotions had already taken place, and the air force promotions are due in October, and worries had spread that the public services law had eliminated the bonuses for promotions and medals,” the defence minister said.

But the bonuses remain in place in the 2010 budget, he clarified. The same reason seems to have been the source of difficulties in the navy, where promotions will take place in December. “That’s why the troops and the non-commissioned officers had different but parallel demands,” the military source said.

The tardy broadcast of armed forces chief Luis Ernesto González’s message of loyalty to the government, which was not reported until the afternoon, was due to “an error of coordination among the press,” Ponce said. “That statement was recorded much earlier, and I don’t know why it wasn’t broadcast then.”

Some sources say the delay was due to internal negotiations in the Defence Ministry.

One sign of problems with the armed forces was the lack of military patrols — while the police were rioting — until the middle of the afternoon in the rest of the country and until nightfall in Quito.

“The state of emergency was declared by the president at 1:50 PM. Until then we couldn’t do anything,” Ponce said. “It was immediately arranged for troops to take to the streets, and in Guayaquil (a city in the southwest), for example, they already had the entire city under control by 3:30 PM.

“The decision (as to when the rescue should take place) was completely in the hands of the high command,” the minister said.

“At first the idea was to wait for the armoured vehicles, but they were taking too long to get here,” because they were coming by land from cities over 100 km away, he added.

“The tanks that were coming from Riobamba (165 km from Quito) were kept from arriving because the police had blocked the Pan-American highway by placing buses, anti-riot vehicles and trailers across the road,” Ponce said.

“After ruling out waiting for the armoured vehicles, the scheduling of the attack for 21:00 was entirely the decision of the operation’s commanders,” he reiterated.

Ecuador went through eight presidents in the decade before Correa was first elected in December 2006. The left-leaning U.S.-trained economist was re-elected in 2009, in elections held under the new constitution.