On September 30, about 1,000 Ecuadoran national police officers took to the streets, blocking key intersections and taking over public space, in protest of a new law that eliminated their bonuses and other benefits.
Even though the protesting police represented a small fraction of the 42,000-member force, things quickly spun out of control. A small number of low-ranking Air Force soldiers shut down airports, the police occupied Congress, and they held Correa hostage in a hospital for more than 10 hours until a mixed Special Operations team rescued him. The unrest left 10 dead and 274 injured.
The police rebellion began after Correa used line-item vetoes to change certain parts of the Public Services Law, which reportedly aimed to streamline Ecuador’s public sector by doing away with certain bonuses and forcing many public servants into early retirement. The president’s line-item veto power is provided for under the country’s 2008 constitution, and the president has often used it to overrule Congress.
According to Edwin Bedoya, vice president of the Ecuadoran Federation of Unitarian Working Class Organizations (CEDOCUT), the version of the Public Services Law that Congress originally passed was crafted in negotiations between Correa’s Alianza PAIS party and public servants. “But we saw in the second round of voting that the president had vetoed the agreements and had gotten rid of certain workers’ rights,” Bedoya said. When Congress, including some members of Alianza PAIS, balked at Correa’s changes to the legislation, the president threatened to use his right to dissolve Congress to pass his version of the Public Services law.
But the ensuing rebellion, Correa and others have emphasized, was not a spontaneous uprising. While still being held hostage, Correa declared: “It is a coup attempt led by the opposition and certain sections of the armed forces and the police.” Many Latin Americans, still rattled by the successful coup against leftist President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras last year, feared Correa would be next. Others argued that calling the unrest a “coup” is an exaggeration, or even that Correa kidnapped himself in order to increase his popularity and political power.
Yet the protests took place in at least four provinces in Ecuador, casting doubt on their spontaneity. And as Correa pointed out, the protests were “coordinated with the closure . . . of the airport, coordinated with the attacks on the [state television’s] relay antennas, with the invasion of [government-owned] Ecuador TV’s studios,” and the police takeover of Congress.
Moreover, video footage of the striking police during the operation that freed Correa clearly demonstrates that the police were shooting to kill. Correa told the press that the armored vehicle that drove him away from the hospital was shot multiple times.
While police held Correa hostage, former Ecuadoran president Lucio Gutiérrez—an outspoken critic of Correa—gave interviews from Brazil, hailing the police rebellion as a coup. “The end of Correa’s tyranny is at hand,” he said, and called for the “dissolution of parliament” and “early presidential elections.” Former president of Congress Alberto Acosta, a Correa supporter turned critic, reported that “ex-soldiers and ex-police, the very people that make up the fat of the Lucio’s party,” were seen in barracks in multiple cities. When police briefly occupied Congress, Acosta added, the representatives who are members of Gutiérrez’s Patriotic Society Party entered and exited freely, while members of other parties “had trouble entering.”
Both Correa and former National Police commander Freddy Martínez, who resigned after his failure to control his troops, argue that outside instigators infiltrated the police, misled police about the austerity measures in the Public Service Law, and provoked the uprising. Labor and indigenous organizations in Ecuador, however, have taken a more nuanced line. The police rebellion occurred, they argue, because Ecuador’s right wing is taking advantage of weaknesses created by Correa’s alienating governing style. Although they opposed any coup attempt and demanded that constitutional order be respected, they also criticized Correa for marginalizing his natural allies in the social movements and leaving himself vulnerable to attacks from the right.
A joint statement from four of Ecuador’s largest indigenous organizations rejected the “right-wing’s actions that in an undercover way form part of the attempted coup” and called upon its members to “be on alert and ready to mobilize.” However, the statement criticizes the Correa administration for violently repressing mobilizations against transnational mining, oil, and agro-industrial companies. The organizations argued, “The social crisis that was let loose today was also provoked by the authoritarian character and the unwillingness to dialogue in the lawmaking process. We have seen how laws that were negotiated [with social sectors] were vetoed by the President of the Republic. . . . This scenario nurtures the conservative sectors.”
Labor leader Bedoya says that on September 30, the CEDOCUT called on all sectors to hit the streets to restore constitutional order. However, like his country’s indigenous organizations, he qualified his organization’s defense of Correa: “We do believe that part of the blame for what is happening lies with not accepting dialogue with social sectors.”
Acosta, who co-founded the Alianza PAIS with Correa, echoed this. “The president and his government don’t know how to dialogue,” he said. “They impose their laws, without even respecting the criteria of the assembly members of their own block.”
Even worse, argued indigenous organizations on the day of the coup, the Correa administration has repressed them just as right-wing governments have. “Faced with the criticism and mobilization of communities against transnational mining, oil, and agro-industrial companies,” wrote the CONAIE, the ECUARUNARI, the CONFENIAE, and CONAICE, “the government, instead of creating a dialogue, responds with violence and repression. . . . The only thing this type of politics provokes is to open spaces to the Right and create spaces of destabilization.”
Bedoya shares this analysis: “Of course the right takes advantage of this, and takes advantage of the most powerful sector, which is the national police and the military, and it begins to sow discontent . . . but the government’s behavior is making that possible.”
Acosta hopes that his former ally will learn from the police rebellion. “History has given to President Correa, once again, the opportunity to reacquaint himself with the origins of the revolutionary process, to rectify. Hopefully he understands it that way.”
“A Citizens’ Revolution,” argued Bedoya, “implies a respect for the rights of all people, of the workers, of organizations’ collective rights, and to establish a dialogue to reach a minimum consensus with the social sectors.”
Kristin Bricker is a NACLA Research Associate.