Although there is overwhelming consensus that there was never a coup attempt during last week’s police strike, President Rafael Correa refuses to give up the idea that the strike was an effort to destabilize his government. In his weekly television and radio address on Saturday, Correa claimed that political enemies attempted to take advantage of a volatile situation.
“There was never a coup attempt,” says retired University of San Francisco - Quito political science professor Carlos Espinoza. “There was a strike by some policemen that was made much worse by the president’s attempt to talk to them. Even though his intentions may have been honorable, it is never a good idea to go into a mob armed with guns and tear gas. That was a mistake that could have had tragic consequences.”
In his Saturday address, Correa expressed sadness for the five deaths that occurred when army forces rescued him from a police hospital in northern Quito. He also appealed for support for the police. “What happened Thursday was the result of the actions of a few policemen. The majority of police are good people, dedicated to protecting the citizens of Ecuador and this is something we cannot forget.”
Correa said that an investigation is underway and leaders of the strike, particularly those involved in violence, would be brought to justice.
According to Mauricio Vengoechea, a Latin American political analyst with Miami-based Newlink, Correa’s actions last week represent a Latin American tendency for political leaders to appeal directly to the people instead of working through democratic institutions to resolve problems. “Juan Peron in Argentina is probably the best example of it,” he says. “It’s a dangerous approach and it can lead to assassination.”
Michael Shifter, of the InterAmerican Dialogue Institute in Washington agrees, saying Correa’s actions used a formula that has benefited Latin American leaders for decades. “It’s an ego-driven, confrontational style that has emotional appeal,” he says. “Democracy is still evolving in the region and crazy things happen as the process continues.”
Shifter and Vengoechea say Thursday’s events probably strengthen Correa politically. “He is far and away the most popular president in Ecuador in the last 20 years, and this will make him more popular,” Vengoechea says. “The most recent polls give Correa a 55% to 60% popularity rating among Ecuadorians. “Compare that to the 13% popularity that (former Ecuadorian president) Lucio Gutierrez had when he was forced out of office in 2005.”
Vengoechea said that despite the deaths that occurred during Correa’s rescue, last week events perpetuate Ecuador’s reputation for being one of Latin America’s more peaceful nations. “From the 1970s to the overthrow of Gutierrez, more than a dozen presidents were overthrown – at one point the country had eight presidents in 11 years. During those events, however, very few people were killed and life continued normally in most of the country.” This stands in sharp contrast to presidential overthrows in other Central and South American countries, he says. “Thousands of people died in Panama, Peru, Nicaragua, Chile and Argentina because of political strife.”
Photo caption: Many claim that President Rafael Correa's confrontational style created a crisis during last week's police strike