The relative calm of Rafael Correa’s three-year presidency was shattered yesterday when protests by police officers paralysed the country and took a nasty turn when the president was injured and taken to hospital.
In response to austerity measures implemented by President Correa on Wednesday evening, hundreds of police officers lined the streets of Quito and other major Ecuadorean cities on Thursday morning and blocked airports and roads across the country. The new measures include a law passed by Congress which will reportedly affect the granting of medals, bonuses and promotions as part of a vain attempt by the government to cut expenditure. Around 300 members of the armed forces, who are also affected by the law, joined the protest and stormed Quito’s main airport, preventing flights from entering or leaving the airport for up to nine hours.
Things turned from bad to worse when Correa visited a military barracks. As he stood addressing the armed forces around him, the President shouted “If you want to kill the president, here he is. Kill him, if you want to. Kill him if you are brave enough.” Moments later he got what he was asking for when he was physically attacked by protestors and sprayed with tear gas. After being taken to hospital, the President was reportedly trapped inside for several hours while a gun battle waged between protestors led to several people being killed and dozens injured.
He was smuggled back to the safety of Carondelet palace by members of the army. Having previously declared a state of emergency, since his rescue, Correa has described the protest as an attempt to overthrow him.
Certainly Ecuador is no stranger to political coups: three of its presidents have been ousted over the last 13 years. Correa was in fact the first president to win two terms when he was re-elected for his second term last year. However, his popularity has declined dramatically over the last year following certain controversial decisions. His decision that the country would default on $3.2 billion of “illegitimate” international debt made its sovereign debt one of the riskiest in the continent and provoked widespread fiscal problems. In February 2009, his decision to expel two US diplomats was rejected by Washington. In July this year he implemented a new oil law which enables the government to nationalise oil fields if a private operator fails to comply with local laws. Given that oil is one of the country’s main selling points, many fear that such a move may deter foreign investors.
Although Correa faces little challenge from the opposition, he has earned a surprising contender to his presidency in the form of his brother Fabricio and the tensions between the brothers have done much to discredit Rafael’s presidency in recent months. In 2009 the pair was embroiled in a corruption scandal when Ecuadorean newspaper Diario Expreso revealed that Fabricio’s engineering business had experienced suspiciously unprecedented growth since his brother took office.
Since one of Rafael’s main goals throughout his presidency has been to fight corruption, these allegations, although unfounded in the end, were enough to taint Rafael’s political career irrecoverably. In a vain attempt to reduce the impact of the scandal on his reputation, Rafael subsequently signed a decree preventing public entities from entering into advertising contracts with media outlets.
Although the brothers initially supported one another throughout the allegations, relations quickly soured and Fabricio has since expressed his wish to stand for the 2013 elections. In contrast to the relatively peaceful Miliband struggle for Labour leadership across the Atlantic, this brotherly contest looks set to be less than amicable.
This, combined with the fact that Rafael has received much criticism for his handling of events over the past few days, puts the future of his presidency in doubt. Many people, including leading Ecuadorean journalist Rubén Darío Buitrón, refute Rafael’s claims that he has been the victim of a military coup and warn that he may use the situation to galvanise support. It is difficult to say how this week’s events can be resolved, but it is certain that worse is yet to come.