Sunday, October 10, 2010

Coup Attempt or Police Strike

In the aftermath of last week’s events Ecuadorians remain in the dark over what exactly happened, whether it was simply a police strike or in fact a more serious measure—a coup attempt, as President Correa is calls it. Rumors are swirling on the streets of this tiny Andean nation, a country that has experienced more political stability under the rule of Correa than with other president in decades. Correa harbors an interesting mix of conservative and socialist political views. Similar to Hugo Chavez, the controversial leader of Venezuela (and one of Correa’s closest political allies), Correa grew up in poverty, which the popular class deeply appreciates. But unlike Chavez, Correa escaped poverty via scholarships to the country’s top schools. His studies led him to Europe and the United States where he finally earned a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Illinois. As such, his intellectual credentials have made him appealing to the upper classes as well. Prior to becoming president in 2007, Correa was Minister of Finance for five years and followed a typical, conservative fiscal policy that did not waver from the neo-conservativism popular through Latin America. It was not until he became President that Correa’s leftist socialist leanings became apparent.

As president, Correa has distanced Ecuador from Washington and aligned himself with other leftist leaders in Latin America like Chavez, Morales of Bolivia and Castro of Cuba. For example, he kicked the Americans out of a primary military base they had established in Manta, a coastal port, more than forty years ago. This move was extremely controversial internationally, as it was a key base for Americans in the region. He also defaulted on $3 billion of loans from the World Bank, claiming that such debts were “irrelevant” and only reified the imbalance of power between the “third world” and developing nations. These actions have somewhat alienated Correa in the global political field and his increasingly close ties to Venezuela have made Washington very nervous. Also to the chagrin of Washington, Correa has lowered the penalties for drug possession, trafficking, and consumption, allowing many traffickers to go free. He has instituted some radical policies like raising pensions dramatically for the poor and he rewrote the constitution to protect the rights of individuals who identify as transgender and gay. In fact, his policies on gender are more radical and progressive than any other country in the region, and most definitely than those in the United States.

Even though Correa has been coolly received internationally, his radical policy changes have won him much local support. Things began to change this year when he began alienating the factions most loyal to him: the indigenous parties, environmentalists, teachers, etc. He has reneged on some of his promises against mining for example and overhauled the “Law of Education” to hurt the benefits of longtime teachers and professors. Many people view him as interfering too much, that the state is starting to control too many parts of civil society. For example, recently he also decreed that all radio stations are required to play a certain percentage of national songs during their airtime.

People who call the police uprising a coup attempt recognize that Correa has reached the pinnacle of his unpopularity in recent weeks—that the military was “testing out” the situation to see if a future coup will be successful. Since the popular masses remained firmly in support of the president, the top ranks of the military had no choice but to also back Correa. But the rumors claim that the military and police were testing the waters to see if they could actually overthrow the president. Despite the return to normalcy, there are still many frustrated national policemen in the ranks. Members of the military, supposedly those with less power and control, have formed an unofficial alliance with contentious factions of the police. Obviously, this is a very dangerous situation for Correa and he realizes it.

Reminiscent of terrorist discourse in the United States, Correa talks about “weeding out” members of the “opposition” and indeed, many members of the police force have been thrown in jail over the past week. But can Correa really remove all voices of dissent in the police and armed forces? Would this be a move to ensure democracy, as he calls it? Or will these silent forces continue to brew, preparing themselves for the next uprising, in which they hope to gain more popular support? Only time will tell, but for now, we must cope with a significantly larger military presence in the streets (I’ve been shocked by the huge army tanks, complete with officers carrying machine guns), due to the continued unrest within the national police forces.

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