Report from Ecuador: Democracy Under Threat

Correa during teargas attack

Faced with an apparent attempt to oust Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa on Thursday, Ecuador received an outpouring of support from Honduras to the White House. Most Ecuadorian social organizations, many of whom have had serious differences with the Andean president in recent years, also condemned threats on the country’s democratic and constitutional order.

Faced with an apparent attempt to oust Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa on Thursday, Ecuador received an outpouring of support from Honduras to the White House. Most Ecuadorian social organizations, many of whom have had serious differences with the Andean president in recent years, also condemned threats on the country’s democratic and constitutional order.

Early Thursday, Ecuador awoke to police protests across at least six highland and coastal cities. Police burned tires, shut down a main bridge in the economic centre of Guayaquil, and neglected their posts giving way to some looting and robberies before midday. The police said they were protesting the Public Security Law passed Wednesday night, which they claim will retract certain economic benefits from the armed forces such as bonuses and medals.

When President Rafael Correa personally confronted police protesting at the First Regiment in the nation’s capital of Quito, police responded with tear gas. The President, who recently underwent knee surgery, fell and was carried into the police hospital.

Police who had been protesting started returning to work in other parts of the country by early afternoon, but tension continued in the capital while Correa remained in hospital.  State media dominated the airwaves, accusing the country’s right wing of an attempted coup and alleging involvement of the opposition Patriotic Society Party and the influence of ex-President Lucio Gutierrez who was overthrown in a popular ouster in April 2005. Correa reported that police told him he would not escape from his hospital room if he did not revoke the Public Security Law.

Popular mobilizations in support of the President grew throughout the afternoon and into the evening, with the political crisis persisting until shortly before 10 pm when a five hundred and fifty strong military and police operation returned the President to the government palace. One special forces officer was reported to have been killed in the operation and several others wounded.

Outpouring of international support

With the military-backed elite ouster of President Manuel Zelaya from Honduras in June 2009 still fresh in recent memory in Latin America, the democratically-elected President Correa received a quick outpouring of international support.

Honduran social organizations still reeling from the 2009 coup were among the earliest to send their messages of solidarity. Targeted assassinations and threats against social movements in the largest of Central American countries continue to be denounced on a monthly basis, the country has also become one of the most dangerous worldwide for journalists, and has yet to be reemitted into the Organizations of American States (OAS).

Latin American, European and North American governments also expressed support for the maintenance of democratic order in Ecuador. The OAS “repudiated” any attempt against the Correa administration and made a call to governments and multilateral institutions in the region to “stop the coup d’etat from becoming a reality,” urging them to act “in a unanimous way.” Statements were also released by the US Department of State and later in the day by Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, which remain important trade and investment partners for the oil-dependent Andean nation. The US urged Ecuadorians “to work within the framework of Ecuador’s democratic institutions to reach a rapid and peaceful restoration of order,” whereas Canada said that “it is concerned about growing unrest” and reiterated “support for the democratically elected government of the Republic of Ecuador.”

Indigenous oppose coup and call for greater democracy

Although indigenous and other social organizations in Ecuador have been in conflict with the Correa administration for the last few years, important groups such as the Confederation of Indigeous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and ECUARUNARI, the large highland affiliate of the CONAIE, made strong statements condemning all threats on Ecuadorian democracy.

The CONAIE and ECUARUNARI have led regular protests against various policy reforms taking place under the Correa government during the last year, for which their leaders have recently faced terrorist charges. At the local level, indigenous and non-indigenous communities protesting mining and oil expansion have also faced repeated repression and recent criminalization. Despite, however, calls from at least one political representative of the indigenous Pachakutik party to support opposition to the Correa government, these organizations maintained a firm stance in defense of democracy.

The CONAIE blamed Correa’s lack of openness to dialogue concerning current reforms and his failure to build strong alliances with Ecuadorian social movements as a source of vulnerability to attempts from the right to destabilize his government. “While the government has dedicated itself exclusively to attacking and delegitimizing organized sectors like the indigenous movement, workers’ unions, etc.,” the CONAIE observed, “it hasn’t weakened in the least the structures of power of the right, or those within the state apparatus.”

The CONAIE also credited the most reactionary right wing elements in the country with backing Correa’s ouster, anticipating that the policitical crisis could be used to legitimate right wing tendencies “from inside and outside the government… to justify their total alliance with the most reactionary sectors and with emerging business interests.” While stating their opposition to Correa’s support for expansion of oil and metal mining extraction and agro-industry interests, they energetically rejected this “disguised right wing support” for the attempted coup, saying they “ will continue to struggle for the construction of a plurinational state with a true democracy.”

ECUARUNARI also released its own statement blaming the right and imperialist interests with trying to organize Correa’s ouster in reaction to the country’s Political Constitution which was passed overwhelmingly in September 2008. The new constitution recognizes the human right to water, rights for nature, and Ecuador as a plurinational state. While ECUARUNARI held the Correa government responsible for making concessions to multinational corporations that “leaves those reactionary sectors free to act in this way,” they affirmed their opposition to  the coup attempt and put member organizations on alert to defend “the plurinational state.”

While Correa is likely to come out of Thursday’s political crisis in a strengthened position to continue legal reforms that have been centralizing power and leading to conflict with important social sectors, the Regional Advisory Group on Human Rights in Quito suggested that the crisis could be an opportunity for Correa to renew support for social groups that helped get him first elected in November 2006. In a written statement, they said, “we call upon the national government to set aside its arrogant attitude that is isolating it from the social bases. Together,” they continued, “we can build a country with dignity, peace and sovereignty, in which dialogue with social sectors is a daily activity that guides our path toward a country distanced from extractive policies and dependence on a development model based on the destruction of nature.”