Cloak and dagger

Print edition : November 19, 2010

SUPPORTERS OF PRESIDENT Rafael Correa gather outside the hospital in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, where he was held hostage for over 12 hours by rebel police personnel on September 30.-AFP/API

The coup attempt against President Rafael Correa in Ecuador in September seems to fit a pattern.

AN attempt to destabilise yet another democratically elected government in Latin America was thwarted in the nick of time. Renegade elements in the Ecuadorian security forces held President Rafael Correa captive on September 30 in the capital, Quito. The President has described the incident as a failed coup d'etat.

Correa is among the group of progressive leaders who were voted into power in the region. He has implemented radical policies that have alarmed Washington and angered the local oligarchy. He nationalised large segments of the hydrocarbon industry and introduced radical economic reforms. He doubled the government's spending on health care. Last year, he made the United States leave its only military base in the country. Before Correa took office in 2006, the country had eight Presidents within the short span of 10 years.

The latest political crisis in the country was triggered by the actions of some disgruntled members of the police force. They were unhappy with a new law approved by the National Assembly, which they claimed would adversely affect their monthly emoluments. Correa had personally gone to talk to the protesting policemen in their barracks when he was attacked with tear gas and heavy objects. He suffered a wound in the leg and had breathing problems as a result of the attack. After the President was taken to a military hospital for treatment, he was held there against his will. Pressure was put on him to resign. Correa, who was re-elected with a massive majority only last year, refused to be cowed down by his captors. During the initial confrontation, Correa had dared the renegade policemen. If you want to kill the President, here he is. Kill him if you are brave enough, he told them.

Later, speaking by telephone from the hospital room where he was confined, Correa declared that he would leave the hospital either as a President of a worthy country or as a corpse. In an interview with the Venezuelan television channel Telesur from his hospital room, Correa quoted a line from the poet Pablo Neruda: They can cut down the flowers but they can't stop the spring. In a speech delivered on national television after his dramatic rescue, the President said that he was ambushed in a well-planned political trap and that the politically manipulated people wanted to kill him. On the morning of the incident, all the barracks were taken over by the mutineers and the country's airports closed.

When the news spread that the President was being held hostage, thousands of people spontaneously came out on the streets. Late in the evening, an operation by the country's special forces succeeded in rescuing the President. One of the special forces personnel participating in the rescue was killed by snipers. In all, eight people were reported killed during the violence and looting that briefly ensued in the country. A major reason for the failure of the coup attempt was that Correa had an approval rating of over 70 per cent.

Correa has put the blame for the coup attempt on former President Lucio Gutierrez, a former army officer who ran against Correa in the last election and suffered an ignominious defeat. When Correa was being confined at the military hospital, Gutierrez told the media that the end of Correa's tyranny was at hand. He also demanded the immediate dissolution of Parliament and an early presidential election.

Correa speaking to the press at the government palace in Quito late on September 30 after his rescue.-PATRICIO REALPE/AP

The U.S. administration seemed to be hedging its bets during the initial hours when Correa was held hostage. While most Latin American countries were quick to condemn the actions of the renegade police elements, a spokesman for the administration of President Barack Obama merely stated that the U.S. was closely monitoring the situation. Only after it became clear that Correa was back in control did U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issue a three-line statement in his support.

Against ALBA

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said that the coup attempt was not only against the legitimate government but also against the regional grouping Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). The grouping, consisting of left-wing governments, wants to reshape the patron-client relationship between the U.S. and Latin America. A coup took place in Honduras after that country's President, Manuel Zelaya, announced that it was going to join ALBA. It's a coup attempt against ALBA, the countries that have raised the banner of democracy, said Chavez. He added that everybody knew that the coup masters were operating from Washington.

The role of the Obama administration in Honduras was a warning to the progressive forces in the region. The Obama administration has propped up the military-backed government that came to power after the democratically elected Zelaya was ousted in a coup in 2009. In 2002, there was a U.S.-backed attempt to oust Chavez. The attempted coup in Ecuador, therefore, fits a pattern. After the overthrow of Zelaya, Correa said he had intelligence reports that showed he was next on the hit list. In 2008, Correa fired his Defence Minister, chief of intelligence, and the commanders of the army, the air force and the navy. The President said at the time that the country's security and intelligence services were totally infiltrated and subjugated to the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency].

Jacob Hornberger, a noted U.S. commentator on security issues, warned two years ago in his column that Correa may not be long in this world, both in a political sense and in a genuine life and death sense. Hornberger wrote that other rulers around the world had learned the hard way that bucking the CIA is a real no-no that sometimes leads to coups and assassinations. In 2008, a Canadian journalist, Jean-Guy Allard, meticulously traced the infiltration of the Ecuadorian police by the U.S. embassy in Quito. His report said that police units maintain an informal economic dependence on the U.S. for the payment of informants, training equipment and operations. Correa sacked the police chief in 2008, accusing him of showing greater loyalty to Washington than to Quito. In retrospect, it is not surprising that the coup attempt was carried out by elements in the country's police force. Ecuador's army chief, General Ernesto Gonzalez, backed the President during the crisis.

The U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador, Heather Hodges, claims that Washington's cooperation with Ecuador's security forces is related to the fight against drug trafficking. Heather Hodges was previously America's top diplomat in Moldova, where she was implicated in the abortive colour revolution that sought to overthrow the pro-Moscow communist government there. Before that, as a senior State Department official, she was closely involved in Latin American affairs. As Deputy Director in the Office of Cuban Affairs in the early 1990s, her brief was to undermine the Cuban government. She later served in Nicaragua in the mid-1990s, to help the pro-American government that had come to power after the ouster of the Sandinistas.

CORREA, SITTING IN a wheelchair and wearing a gas mask, after he was freed.-DOLORES OCHOA/AP

Heather Hodges was sent as Ambassador to Ecuador in 2008 with the express purpose of ensuring that the country did not follow the radical route taken by countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia. The Obama administration has increased the budget of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for Ecuador to $38 million. A significant chunk of the money goes to non-governmental organisations and indigenous groups that oppose the policies of the government. A lot of U.S. funds are also channelled through the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy (NED). As in Venezuela, the major media outlets in Ecuador are privately owned and are virulently right-wing and pro-U.S.

The events in the last week of September seem to have forced a rethink in the top echelons of the Ecuadorian government. Correa has reassured the police that the reforms he is planning will not necessitate salary or pension cuts. The President has also indicated that he will not implement all the tough austerity measures that were announced previously. He has given up plans to dissolve the Assembly, which had stymied some of his major economic proposals. The Ecuadorian Constitution gives the President the right to rule by decree for a specified period before calling for elections. Correa seems to have realised that there is an urgent need for tempers to cool.

The recent events have bolstered Correa's popularity. His bravado in personally confronting unarmed the large of number revolting policemen has boosted his image among his countrymen. But Correa, who has a PhD in economics from an Ivy League university, has a tough task ahead of him as he seeks to transform his resource-rich country from a debtor nation to a self-sufficient one. At present, the government has a budget deficit of around $4 billion. Last year, Ecuador made news by defaulting on $3.2 billon in global bonds. This has made the country ineligible for funds from multilateral lenders such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

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