Via IPS News
By Gonzalo Ortiz
QUITO, Sep 30, 2010 (IPS) – With the backing of large crowds of supporters in the streets and of statements from presidents throughout Latin America, the Ecuadorian government of Rafael Correa is attempting to quell a riot by hundreds of police protesting a cut in their benefits which has thrown the country into chaos.
As soon as news reports on the crisis in Ecuador began to came out, statements of support for Correa started to roll in, from the governments of Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and others.
The Organisation of American States (OAS) Permanent Council immediately called an emergency meeting, and expressed its “repudiation of any attempt to alter the democratic institutional system” in Ecuador, and also its “firm” support for the constitutional government.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement: “We are closely following events in Ecuador. The United States deplores violence and lawlessness and we express our full support for President Rafael Correa, and the institutions of democratic government in that country.
“We urge all Ecuadorians to come together and to work within the framework of Ecuador’s democratic institutions to reach a rapid and peaceful restoration of order.”
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other regional leaders are on their way to Buenos Aires for an emergency summit of the Union of South American Nations.
The national police began to protest Thursday, demanding the repeal of a public services law approved by the legislature Wednesday that would end the practice of granting soldiers and police medals and bonuses with each promotion, and would extend from five to seven years the period between promotions.
The situation has rapidly spiralled out of control. The president is under the protection of the highest police authorities in the police hospital, where he was taken after the first incidents broke out at a police station on the north side of Quito. But the hospital remains surrounded by police protesters.
In the meantime, the Plaza de la Independencia in front of the seat of government has filled up with Correa’s supporters.
In the face of the chaos caused by the police riot, the government declared a state of emergency “to guarantee the protection of citizens,” minister of internal security Miguel Carvajal reported.
The government also ordered all radio and TV stations to carry an uninterrupted national broadcast.
The airport was shut down by the air force, and all incoming and outgoing flights have been cancelled. The public TV station reported that this shows that not only the police are involved, but that the movement has also had ramifications in the armed forces.
From the balcony of the presidential palace, foreign minister Ricardo Patiño urged Ecuadorians to “peacefully and courageously take to the main streets of the cities to express your support for the government and oppose the coup d’etat.”
He also asked the crowd in the square outside the seat of government to march to the police hospital and “rescue the president.”
Patiño and several other ministers who addressed Correa’s supporters also instructed some groups of demonstrators to stay in the plaza to safeguard the presidential palace.
Alexandra Ocles, government secretary of social movements and citizen participation, said groups of supporters were on their way to Quito from the provinces to help protect democracy.
The uprising that began in the early hours of the morning caused an unprecedented lack of police patrols in the streets, traffic problems, a suspension of classes in schools, and the closure of airports. The public radio station reported looting in Guayaquil and bank robberies in Quito and other cities.
Shortly after the crisis broke out, banks and businesses shuttered their doors to avoid problems.
The rioters hunkered down in their police stations behind armoured vehicles, while family members and sympathisers burnt tires around the buildings.
“We have to stop the coup”
Simón Pachano, director of the political studies programme at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO), described the situation as “extremely complicated.” In an interview with IPS, he said the president “did not leave any alternative but the use of force” and that he “put his head in the lion’s mouth” by visiting a police station Thursday morning, where things grew tense.
Economist Alberto Acosta, who was president of the constituent assembly that rewrote the constitution in 2008 but is now distanced from Correa, told IPS that “this is an attempted coup, and it has to be stopped.
“There are forces that are taking advantage of the situation,” he maintained.
“The demands set forth by the members of the police and the armed forces might be justified, but this is not the right way. They can’t use weapons to demand labour conditions,” Acosta said.
“What must be defended are democracy and the constitution, although that does not mean we should put up with the president’s domineering,” he added.
Pachano, however, does not see what is happening as a coup. “This wasn’t planned,” he argued.
He predicted, instead, that Correa might dissolve the legislature, under a provision laid out in the constitution.
“Correa would thus have a long time to run the country however he wished, if he manages to get the security forces under control, because the constitution requires that all parties go through the registration process anew, which means it would be many months before new elections could be held,” he said.
“Kill me if you want”
On Thursday morning, Correa went to the Regimiento Quito, one of the main police stations in Quito, to try to persuade the protesters in person, addressing them from a second-floor balcony. He argued that he had increased their wages, which was why the bonuses were being cut.
The police gathered below the balcony shouted back that it was not true, that their wages had been increased by former President Lucio Gutiérrez (2003-2005), which angered Correa, who began to argue with the protesters.
Correa repeated several times that the law would not be repealed. “Not one step backwards,” he said over and over again.
This further angered the police, and when the president attempted to leave, some of the protesters doused him with water and threw objects at him.
Correa then challenged them: “Here I am, kill me if you want.”
Two tear gas canisters then exploded, while the presidential guard (which depends on the army) removed him from the police station and bundled him off to the police hospital nearby.
He was taken there with difficulty because he is on crutches after undergoing knee replacement surgery on Sept. 20.
In an interview later with the public radio station, the president said he was on a drip.
He also said the hospital was surrounded by police and that police officers were trying to get into his room, over the roof and from the hallways, to kidnap him.
In the interview, he emphasised that he had significantly raised police and military salaries since taking office in 2007, and accused the opposition of plotting a coup and taking advantage of the misinformation spread among the armed forces and the police.
In remarks from Cuenca, 400 km south of Quito, the head of the armed forces, General Luis Ernesto González, said the military backed the government and that it was “on alert to protect the security of the country” and would intervene if necessary, after evaluating the situation.
Members of the police who appeared with facemasks or with their backs to the cameras on several TV stations insisted that they would only call off their protests when the law was overturned.
The public services law, whose original version was introduced to Congress by the government in August, was discussed in two debates and slightly modified by the legislature. But Correa vetoed four of its provisions and sent it back to Congress, which finally passed it on Wednesday, approving three of the president’s four vetoes.