To coup or not to coup

If Rafael Correa was not president of Ecuador, he would make an excellent footballer. When it comes to faking tackles, the man is a genius.

I know he is a genius, because only true genius could have distracted me for four whole days from the relentless, excruciating “Am I? Am I not?” phase of the whole baby-making business that has made me miserable for two weeks out of every month for six months now.

Correa got himself into a spot of bother last week when he misjudged the mood of rioting policeman and decided to pay them a visit. The police, furious at having their pensions and bonuses cut, had shut down the country’s major airports, blocked roads and left the way open for enterprising looters across the country to pay a visit to their local malls for five-fingered discounts.

Correa, a handsome devil when you stand him alongside his fellow Latin American leaders, started off with a conciliatory tone, but after constant heckling he lost his cool and ended up yelling at the police “Do you want to kill the president? Here I am, come and kill me!”

Unfortunately for the eight people who died and 278 people who were injured during the whole fiasco, some police decided to take Correa up on his offer. They closed in around him and fired tear gas canisters at hime. Correa, who had had knee surgery the week before, hobbled to a nearby hospital to seek refuge and then proceeded to call media and fellow politicians to say he feared for his life.

It’s a little embarrassing for a president to be attacked by his own security forces. Perhaps Correa truly believed the enraged police planned to depose him, or perhaps he saw the opportunity for political gain on a grand scale by staying put and rallying his supporters at home and abroad.

The president stayed cooped up in the hospital for 12 hours, sometimes appearing at a window to goad police further and rip off his tie to demonstrate he was not wearing a bullet proof vest.

Eventually army and an elite police unit moved in and rescued him amid a hail of bullets, and he returned to his presidential palace to tell thousands of supporters there would be no forgiveness for the perpetrators of an “attempted coup” he blamed on the opposition and sections of the military and police.

It’s true many police and military officers are cheesed off with the president, and dragged their feet in coming to his rescue. And it’s true that Correa has enemies – although popular, his leadership style tends towards the abrasive and at times authoritarian. Like his good friend Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s president, Correa loves nothing more than taking jabs at the United States or conservative leaders in the region, and is quick to air conspiracy theories.

God knows Latin America has had its share of coups, some of them backed by the US, and Ecuador has had more than most. But the coup theory on this occasion is wobbly on several fronts. The opposition leader Correa’s government accuses of planning the revolt was in Brasilia as events unfolded, and no alternative presidential figure emerged from the shadows at any point during the day’s events. There is also some question as to whether Correa was actually being held in the hospital by force, as he said – several hospital employees have since said he had the opportunity to leave.

Also, it was Correa himself who sparked an escalation of the rebellion with his impulsive deicsion to visit the rioters with very little personal security.

Watching it all unfold was a little like Woody Allen‘s spoof Bananas.

But there was, and is, a terrible human cost to it all  not just those who were injured or lost their lives, but for ordinary Ecuadoreans who have been living with volatility and turmoil for too long.

Correa will probably now enjoy a nice boost to his popularity at home, which might help him stitch back together tattered elements in his own party. And almost every president in Latin America, from the left or the right, came to his aid.

But unless he learns to make a few concessions to Congress and interest groups such as the police, he could risk facing another crisis before too long.


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