Quito . 1st October 2010
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. Still, 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, and while Correa is not mentioned by name, it is evident that he is the one implicated. General Gonzalez also suggests that the legislation be amended or shelved, 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 it is valid to ask why it took from around three in the afternoon, when Gonzalez made his declaration of support, 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 (at the time it was said only two policemen and one soldier died- although more recent figures put the overall total at 8 dead and 193 injured). 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 clearly not the result of a dispute over a piece of legislation.
Today 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 and 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, tells me he´s never seen so much tear gas.
I had my own stories. I was punched to the ground when I tried to intervene to save a man being attacked by about seven policemen; I later had to escape when police charged with guns drawn firing live ammunition into the air, at least as far as we could tell. There wasn’t much point in hanging about to make sure. So we all ran, like hell. I later saw one man lying on the ground surrounded by a few friends, looking seriously injured, although from where I was at that point there was no way to tell. At that moment police reinforcements arrived: a phalanx of motorcycles that began chasing the crowd into the park, while I took shelter on the other side of the street.
My neighbor has his own account. He is 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 who had returned triumphant. “We said we were going to stay and die there, or wait till Correa came back.”
I was also in the Plaza de Independencia, 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 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 group of Correa supporters, ‘a palos’ as they say, .
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 all on his side. However, 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. But that does not make them Correa supporters, they don’t like him that much. His major support can be found 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 there have been 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 mid nineties. The opposition on the other hand, 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. That 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? In the long term the rebellious elemants, the kidnappers, have to cleared out and dealt with. But in the short term it’s hard to imagine that 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 and 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. However, 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 that will bring people in from all parts of the country. Correa himself is still very popular nationally, with approval ratings over sixty percent, 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 confrontational approach would seem the wisest course of action.