Violence and Institutional Chaos in Ecuador

Last Thursday I left home at 7:50am to do a radio interview. Little did I know that I would not be able to get back to work that day until 3:00pm because the national police would block the main avenues and bridges in my city, Guayaquil, Ecuador.

The police went on a national strike burning tires and openly disobeying the government. Grocery stores, drugstores, banks and other shops were sacked for most of the day as a result.  Some disgruntled members of the air force, who sympathized with the police and are in charge of running airports, shut down a few airports including the one in Quito, the capital.

President Rafael Correa was quick to call this a coup d’état attempt. But it was not. All of the military high command expressly supported the President from the beginning. It was a police strike that got out of hand mostly because the authorities with the power to have toned down the situation did the opposite. The policemen were demanding the repeal or reform of a law that reduced their compensation. The President or his ministers could have offered to negotiate the controversial provisions within that law. But the President went to the police barracks and provoked the policemen yelling “If you want to kill the president…here he is … kill him now!”

The policemen physically assaulted the President, throwing a teargas bomb at him among other objects, and he went across the street to the police hospital. There he received treatment and visits from his ministers and top aides, gave cell phone interviews and was at all times protected by his security team. Mary O`Grady in today’s Wall Street Journal and others credibly point out that the president was never kidnapped as he claims.

The political crisis that led to the police strike did not begin on Thursday. Ecuador has lived in constant political tension since before the year 2000, a situation that only intensified with the arrival of Rafael Correa’s government in January 2007. That year, his government was behind the forcible and illegal removal of the democratically elected opposition in Congress in order to approve a constitutional referendum that would give Correa more power. The press then discovered Correa’s Minister of Government holding a secret meeting with alternate congressmen, who serve in place of elected congressmen in case these cannot serve. After this meeting, with the support of the alternate congressmen, Correa got a majority in Congress that he did not have before.

When the Constitutional Court reinstated the opposition in Congress, Correa encouraged his followers to make the Constitutional Court “understand” the popular will and he ordered the police not to provide security to the Constitutional Court. An angry mob then physically assaulted the members of the court. Nevermind, Correa’s new majority in Congress removed the members of the Constitutional Court as they were in the way of a referendum that was clearly unconstitutional. The referendum asked if Ecuadorians wanted to hold a Constitutional Assembly of “unlimited powers” to draft a new constitution. A sizeable majority voted ‘yes’ and Correa’s majority at the Constitutional Assembly began its use of unlimited power by dissolving Congress in 2008.

After regularly disregarding the Constitution and the law for almost 4 years, it should come as no surprise that the policemen woke up one day thinking that, they too, could disobey the law and demand changes by force.

The 30th of September was a sad day for Ecuadorian democracy. The government ordered all media to broadcast state TV programming. We Ecuadorians were forced to watch government officials and sympathizers most of the day until two TV stations disobeyed the order at 9:00pm to show our military opening fire against our policemen, and rescuing a supposedly “kidnapped” President from the hospital. That day there were almost 300 wounded persons and 8 deaths that, most likely, could have been avoided.

There is nothing to celebrate. There is still no rule of law in Ecuador. While the President was celebrating a “victory for democracy” from the government palace’s balcony, the shooting between the military and policemen continued for 20 more minutes and the order to broadcast state TV was still in force. Naturally, state TV was only showing Correa’s address.

The damage is great. We have lost respect of our policemen and our government authorities, who act as if their power has no limits. The Ecuadorians of my generation have never seen this level of violence. We have also never been subjected to such an extreme state control of information, as we were that day.

The Organization of American States was quick to denounce the police uprising and express its support of democracy. But where have the OAS and other supposed defenders of democracy been when Correa has systematically violated the rule of law and undermined democratic institutions?

The institutional vacuum created by Correa’s government has led our society to unacceptable levels of violence. We hoped that the violent toll of the events on Thursday would have made the government change its authoritarian ways. So far, all evidence points to a radicalization of the government, which was already stigmatizing the opposition and harassing the independent press, and now seems set to exploit the day’s events to further undermine democracy.

What will it take for the OAS to denounce violations of the rule of law under Correa’s government?