Ecuador's Coup That Wasn't

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Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa was rescued last night from the Police Hospital in Quito by operatives from the military and police special forces. He had been held for over twelve hours by several hundred officers from the national police force. Yet while yesterday's events were indeed serious, the claims by Correa and some other Latin American leaders of a coup are overstated. Washington should remain wary of attempts by Correa's regional allies to inflame the situation.

The days leading up to the crisis had been fraught with conflict, with President Correa expressing repeatedly the desire to dissolve the National Assembly after a large group of elected officials defected to the opposition and threatened to block ambitious legislation.

Upon this backdrop, Ecuador awoke on Thursday to a national police strike. Across the country the police locked themselves in their barracks, demanding the rescinding of the Public Service Law, promoted aggressively by Correa and passed by the majority pro-Correa National Assembly.

The law is not without merit. It seeks to, among other things, harmonize compensation packages across the Ecuadorian civil service. However, one clause of the legislation eliminates police bonuses and extends promotion time horizons. The police are demanding that the law be abolished or the offending clauses be removed.

Correa, in a misguided attempt to end the strike, went in person to the main police garrison in Quito, the capital. Far from resolving the crisis the president, well known for his fiery rhetoric, exacerbated the situation. During a heated exchange from the window of the garrison offices, he shouted to hundreds of demonstrating police outside "if you want to kill me, kill me, but I will not desist" and told the police "there, out there is the country, destroy it if you will." Enraged, the police assaulted the president as he went from the offices back to his convoy. He was taken immediately to the police hospital to be treated for teargas inhalation -- where he was held. In a rally in the early afternoon at the Presidential Palace, the Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño called on the citizenry to "march on the hospital to free the president." The government declared a state of siege and forced all private TV stations to run only the government's signal. The police, in turn, hardened their positions around the hospital.

Externally, the situation was complicated by Ecuador's membership in the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA); the organization sponsored by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. In a phone call with President Chavez, Correa declared that he was in the middle of a coup sponsored by the political opposition -- naming former President Lucio Gutierrez. Mr. Chavez immediately called upon the citizens of Ecuador to protect their president and convened the Union of South American States (UNASUR) which this morning condemned energetically the "attempted coup" at a meeting that took place in Buenos Aires. He also suggested that the revolt was the work of "dark forces" -- namely the United States.

The United States should be prepared to take the brunt of the blame. Blaming the "empire" to the north has become part of the rhetoric among the ALBA. In a September 30th statement Secretary Clinton said, "The US deplores violence and lawlessness and we express our full support for President Rafael Correa" -- carefully avoiding the charged word "coup". Perhaps having learned from last year's fiasco surrounding Honduras' political upheaval, the United States is keen not to fall again into any trap laid by Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA). The United States should work instead on strengthening ATPDEA (a free trade agreement) and working through other forms of assistance which will help the long-term stability in the region while avoiding being provoked by the political machinations of the ALBA.