It felt strangely like a film, a very long film. It was exciting, at times dangerous, and had a good ending. The good president (Rafael Correa) was rescued after a gun battle between the army and the police, returned triumphant, and denounced the evil ex-president (Lucio Gutierrez) as being the influence behind police units that took him hostage. So at ten o‘clock, when it was all over, I switched off the television and went to bed.
This morning it doesn’t seem quite so clear cut. On the radio I can hear talk about the next time, about the police and the military joining up with the civil servants affected by the new legislation that supposedly sparked yesterday´s insurrection. A friend warns me: “in Latin America,” he says “these semi coups are often followed by real ones.” He’s probably thinking about Chile in 1973. It was a long time ago though, and things have changed. Maybe. His words are worth pondering.
On the radio I can hear a repeat of yesterday’s pronouncements by the head of the joint military command, General Ernesto Gonzalez. He’s saying that the fault lies with the imposition of the legislation. Correa is not mentioned by name, but it’s evident that he’s the one implicated. General Gonzalez also suggests that the legislation be amended or shelved. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the government or a condemnation of the police. On another station, someone asks why the military took so long to act. We don’t know. It could have been nothing more than logistics. But the question is valid. It took from the time for the general’s declaration, around three in the afternoon, until about eight at night for the special forces to get to the hospital where the president was being held.
Once there, it has to be said that they did their job well. There was a lot of shooting. A lot. In total the confrontation lasted about five hours. Some members of the military were taken hostage by the police. But there was little bloodshed (only two police and one soldier died). The president was successfully rescued, “carried out like a corpse” as he put it later. And if anyone seriously doubted that this was an attempted coup (at least by some elements of the police), then the long drawn out gun battle needed to get Correa out of the hospital must have put those reservations to rest. There seems no other explanation. This was not the result of a dispute over piece of legislation.
Today, Friday, there is some police presence on the streets, but little evidence of the military apart from the odd helicopter flying overhead. Things are quiet. Relief is the general sentiment. People are talking, exchanging stories, commenting on the events of the day before: the looting and bank robberies in Guayaquil; the robberies in Quito, where two banks were also broken into; the aggression of the police.
A friend who took part in the march to the hospital where Correa was being held, says he´s never seen so much tear gas. I had my own stories. I was knocked over when I tried to intervene to save a man who being attacked by about 10 police; I later had to escape when police charged with guns drawn and firing live ammunition into the air, as far as we could tell. There wasn’t much point in hanging about to make sure. So we all ran, like hell. I saw one man lying on the ground surrounded by a few friends. He looked seriously injured. There was no way to know; at that moment the police reinforcements arrived: a phalanx of motorcycles that chased the crowd into the park. I took shelter on the other side of the street. My neighbour has his own account. He’s about 65, works as a carpenter´s assistant and can only be described as having humble origins. He tells me he was in the main square until eleven at night listening to the president when he returned triumphant. “We said we were going to stay and die there or wait till Correa came back” he tells me.
I was also there, but earlier in the day. The square was full, and most of the people were like my neighbour, working class, although that’s a bit of a misnomer. Most of them likely don’t have full-time work, are sub-employed, as they say. The same thing couldn’t be said for the people I met a little later outside the National Assembly. They were evidently protesting and the red flags led me to think, somewhat naively, that they were Correa supporters. But no. These were judicial workers, also affected by the new civil service legislation, and they were also angry, and all well dressed. The flags belonged to the Marxist Leninist party and its political wing, the MPD, which seemed to be behind the demonstration. I asked one woman if they supported the police. She said yes. The world was off its axis. I shook my head and walked away. On television I saw images of other MPD supporters confronting “a palos”, as they say, a group of Correa supporters.
For Correa this is part of the problem. In his four years in office he has made a lot of changes , mainly for the good, but also a lot of enemies. He has never courted the social movements and they’re not on his side. Despite what the woman said to me outside the National Assembly it seems unlikely that the unions, the indigenous groups, the environmentalists , the majority of teachers , or even the majority of civil servants, actively support the police. There is general agreement that they are dangerous, often in league with thieves and recently the subject of accusations of Human Rights violations made by the Truth Commission [Editor’s note: The Truth Commission was set up in 2007 to investigate human rights abuses]. But these groups definitely don’t like Correa that much. His major support is amongst the poorest, least-organized sectors, and that could be a bit of problem if it comes to another confrontation.
A lot of people have been affected by Correa’s confrontational, steamroller style. He´s a man in a hurry. And that causes problems. But because of it there have major positive changes. He far outshines the other do-nothing governments I’ve know. The country is no longer the banana republic it was, for example, in the time of President Bucaram, in the mind 90s. But the opposition, of whom many previously spent a lot of time calling for governability, doesn’t seem to understand that in a democracy the ruling party implements its agenda, and there is little the rest can do about it except shout. Or maybe they do understand. They just don’t like it. Which is fine, but even for them actions such as yesterday’s can hardly be called democratic. The police have no business taking control of the streets.
For their part, the media are calling for more democracy, more dialogue, although it’s hard to understand what that means, unless you take it as a call for Correa to implement what the opposition wants. And for better or worse, “dialogue” is not Rafael Correa´s strong point. As for the agents of law enforcement, no one seems sure of what will happen. What do you do with a group of armed and dangerous people in uniform? It’s hard to imagine that in the short term much can, or even should, be done. No one wants a repeat of yesterday, and that is still a possibility. It´s still a delicate situation. There is undoubtedly a lot of resentment. There is also the question of relations between the police and the military. The police will undoubtedly feel aggrieved that their “legitimate” protest was put down by the army. But if the police do decide to take to the streets again, there is a feeling that the support of the military may not be that firm the next time around.
The most important point is that government is back in control. Plans will likely include a large-scale march of support for the president, bringing people in from all parts of the country. Correa himself is still very popular nationally, with approval ratings over 60 per cent , and this may help to dissuade any further troublemaking. But things do need time to cool down. And for the time being at least, a more rational, less confrontation approach would seem the wisest course of action.
Gerrard Coffey is a Canadian independent journalist based in Quito. He is the former director of ‘Tintaji’, a Spanish language bi-weekly published in Quito from 2002 to 2006, and has written for Red Pepper, Lainsignia.org, Terra Incognita, and Alborada.net. His blog, La Lineade Fuego, is in Spanish and English, and can be read here.