September 30, 2010 will be remembered as a historic day in Latin American and Ecuadorian history.
Sadly, a new attempt at a coup d’état took place in democratic Latin America, this time against President Rafael Correa’s twice-elected government in Ecuador. Happily, the coup d’état failed and democracy in Latin America prevailed.
Early yesterday, hundreds of police officers hit the streets of Quito and other large Ecuadorian cities such as Cuenca and Guayaquil to, at first appearance, protest against a law recently approved by Ecuadorian parliament that cuts some of their pay bonuses and modifies promotion rules. When rebels from the national army joined them and seized Ecuador’s largest army barracks and Quito International Airport, followed by an attack on President Correa — causing him minor injuries and near-asphyxiation from teargas bombs thrown at him by rebel cops and soldiers, before he was held under siege at a nearby hospital surrounded by the rebels — it became more than clear that this was an attempted coup.
“If you want to kill the president, he is here. Kill him if you want. Kill him if you can. Kill him if you are brave enough, instead of hiding in the crowd,” President Correa viciously exclaimed to the rebels and opposing protesters outside the hospital, after angrily ripping open his suit-tie and collar, baring his chest, in response to their insurgent chants.
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Ten hours later, amidst much tension and gunfire, President Correa was rescued by a loyal police special operations unit and driven to the presidential palace, where he addressed the tens of thousands of supporters waiting for him outside and then addressed the nation live on television.
Latin America has a horrific past when it comes to coup d’états: Pinochet in Chile, Videla, Massera and Agosti in Argentina, Stroessner in Paraguay, and more. For quite a substantial number of years now Latin America has enjoyed democratically-elected governments. But the increasing popularity of a new wave of left-leaning governments in the region have started to frustrate far-right opponents.
Pluralist policies benefiting the vulnerable, human rights policies trialing and punishing men who kidnapped, tortured and executed political opponents and media law reforms removing excessive power from large media corporations to balance out the media landscape are starting to anger and frustrate some political opponents and their interests in many countries of South America like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia and, you guessed it, Ecuador.
They cannot knock them down at the ballot box, so they force their way into power. Salvador Allende was a victim of this in Chile, 1973 when Augusto Pinochet and his CIA funded army tore down the world’s first ever democratically elected socialist government.
As was the trend in 1970s Latin America, it seems to be happening again today. But the political paradigm has most certainly changed over the past 40 years. The great wall of Berlin has fallen, the Castros in Cuba are not as frightening to the US as they were when Moscow was the capital city of the USSR. Pinochet, Videla, Galtieri and Somoza left their respective countries in tatters, with economic disasters, famine, ignorance and thousands of disappeared people. Because of this, it is no longer as easy as it was decades ago to violently overthrow a democratically elected government.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the man repeatedly referred to as a Soviet-style nutcase dictator by Western mainstream media — even after winning 15 of the 16 elections or referendums that have taken place since he rose to power in 1999 (the one referendum he lost, the constitutional reform referendum of 2007, was only by a 0.5% margin) — has also been a victim of a failed coup d’état in April 2002. Chavez was illegally imprisoned by the military for 47 hours. The National Assembly and the Supreme Court was dissolved. The military in accomplice with the privately-owned media lied to Venezuelans that Chavez had resigned, when in fact he had not. When it became apparent that Chavez had not quit, hundreds of thousands of Chavez supporters, of which most were poor Venezuelans from the peripheral barrios, made their way to the presidential palace demanding the liberation and reinstatement of their President immediately.
One Latin American President that did not survive a coup d’état in recent times was Honduras’s Manuel Zelaya on June 28 last year. The military of Honduras, acting on the orders of the Supreme Court, kidnapped and expelled President Zelaya from the country, thus removing him from the presidency, following his decision to incorporate the country into the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America or ALBA, an organisation founded by Chavez.
Yesterday, President Correa was the victim of this perverse way that some have to break into power. Fortunately, he had the popular backing that his Venezuelan ally had eight years before and democracy remained in place for the good of Latin America and its people. However, the golpistas, who many thought were down and out after their despicable practices decades ago, are still around ready to tear down democratically elected governments by the people.
*Leo Codutti is an Australian radio and television producer in Argentina, where he has lived for over five years