In June of last year, when the Honduran military overthrew the social democratic government of Manuel Zelaya, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador took it personally. "We have intelligence reports that say that after Zelaya, I'm next," said Correa.
Yesterday it turned out to be true. Some analysts are still insisting that what happened was just a police protest over possible benefit cuts that got out of hand. But to anyone who watched the prolonged, pitched gun battle on TV last night, when the armed forces finally rescued President Correa from the hospital where he was trapped by the police, this did not look like a protest. It was an attempt to overthrow the government.
The coordinated actions in various cities, the takeover of Quito's airport by a section of the armed forces - all of this indicated a planned coup attempt. And although it failed, at various points during the day it was not so clear what the outcome would be.
The government pointed a finger at former president and army Colonel Lucio Gutierrez, and he was on television yesterday calling for the ouster of Correa. He accused the president of everything from supporting the FARC (the guerrilla group fighting Colombia's government) to wrecking the economy.
The coup might have had a chance if Correa were not so popular. Despite his enemies in high places, the president's approval rating was 67 percent in Quito a couple of weeks ago. His government has doubled spending on health care, significantly increased other social spending, and successfully defaulted on $3.2 billion of foreign debt that was found to be illegitimately contracted. Ecuador managed to squeak through 2009 without a recession and is projected to grow about 2.5 percent this year. Correa, an economist, has had to use heterodox and creative methods to keep the economy growing in the face of external shocks because the country does not have its own currency. It adopted the dollar in 2000, which means that it can do little in the way of monetary policy and has no control over its exchange rate.
Correa had warned that he might try to temporarily dissolve the Congress in order to break an impasse in the legislature, something that he has the right to request under the new constitution - it would have to be approved by the Constitutional Court. This probably gave the pro-coup forces something they saw as a pretext. It is reminiscent of the coup in Honduras, when Zelaya's support for a non-binding referendum on a constituent assembly was falsely reported by the media - both Honduran and international - as a bid to extend his presidency.
Media manipulation has a big role in Ecuador too, with most of the media controlled by right-wing interests opposed to the government. This has helped build a base of people - analogous to those who get all of their information from Fox News in the United States, but proportionately larger - who believe that Correa is a dictator trying to turn his country into a communist Cuba.
The U.S. State Department issued a two-sentence statement from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton late yesterday afternoon that urged "all Ecuadoreans to come together and to work within the framework of Ecuador's democratic institutions to reach a rapid and peaceful restoration of order." Unlike the White House statement in response to the Honduran coup last year, it also expressed "full support" for the elected president. This is an improvement; although it is unlikely that it reflects a change in Washington's policy towards Latin America.
The Obama Administration did everything it could to support the coup government in Honduras last year, and in fact is still trying to convince the South American governments - including Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina and the collective organization of UNASUR - to recognize the government there. South America refuses to recognize the Lobo government because it was elected under a dictatorship that did not allow for a free or fair contest. The rest of the hemisphere also wants some guarantees that would stop the killing of journalists and political activists there, which has continued and even become worse under the "elected" government.
As the South American governments feared, Washington's support for the coup government in Honduras over the last year has encouraged and increased the likelihood of right-wing coups against democratic left governments in the region. This attempt in Ecuador has failed, but there will be likely be more threats in the months and years ahead.
This column was published on The Guardian Unlimited (UK), on October 1, 2010