Friday, October 1, 2010
Ecuador, Sep. 30th 2010: Reflections on a People's Victory...
I was drinking my usual morning coffee at around 9am when I got a call from a fellow Canadian living here in the city. "Are you watching the news?" was the first thing she said to me, and I knew at that point that, just from the sound of her voice, that something big had happened. The perceived sense of stability that the current government had instilled here led me to believe that there had been a terrorist attack in North America, or perhaps even political unrest in another country close by, but when I switched on the news and saw police burning tires in the streets just blocks from my apartment, I realized then that something huge was happening right here.
The police across the country had decided to suddenly protest against a public servants law that had just been passed by the government. It is not clear how many police were involved in the protest, as the country has about 40,000, but reports say that there was some division between them. Looking deeper into the grievances of those police involved, it seems that there indeed was misinformation and shortsightedness involved in many of their decisions. The new law would have canceled some bonuses and made it two years longer before they could receive promotions, but it would have also raised their salaries. The President mentioned that before this insurrection took place, the police generally agreed that his administration had done the most to help police than any other administration in the past. It is because of this disinformation being spread amongst the police that many people were led to believe that this was much more than just a common police protest but rather an attempted Coup D'etat by powerful forces from the right.
I went downstairs and passed by the security guard, he told me that five banks had been robbed already with the absence of police. I began walking around my neighborhood, passing banks with at least ten heavily armed security guards standing outside. Slowly as I came back around to my apartment, I could see that businesses were starting to close. Indeed the reports this morning show video footage of banks and supermarkets being looted, but the reality is that such incidents were isolated and not widespread across the city or the country.
I came back home and was joined by my room mate and some of his business partners, and the other Canadian that had called me that morning. She had been living in Ecuador for the last eight years, and she had never seen anything so serious happen here before. It was tense in the apartment, all eyes were posted on the news. It was an odd feeling being a foreigner here, I almost feel guilty about the thought processes going through my head. I was thinking, "what will this mean for my job here?", when sitting right beside me was someone who was likely thinking "what will this mean for my life?".
We had learned that the President was attacked by police while giving a speech at a military barracks. Images of him speaking fiery words, ripping at his shirt shouting "If you want to kill me, here I am!". They then shot tear gas at him and and tried to rip off a gas mask that he had put on. Eventually he was taken to a hospital where he was basically locked in a room under guard of dissident police who were trying to force him to revoke the law that they were against. It was at this point that people began to say that the President had been kidnapped and that a Coup was underway, but no one knew where the military stood at this point - they were still remaining silent.
The smell of smoke and the sound of chanting began to creep into our 16th floor apartment, we decided to go downstairs to investigate. Down the street on the Malecon people were beginning to gather to show their support for democracy and for the President. This gathering grew as the day carried on, people from all strings of society, from different political affiliations, all showed up to show solidarity in this time of crisis in their country. The city was shut down by now, everything was closed, only the street vendors were out in full force taking advantage of the masses beginning to fill the street. We ventured back home to check the news, we saw that thousands of people had begun to gather outside of the presidential palace in the capital Quito and outside the hospital where the President was being kept. Finally, the leader of the military forces in the country said publicly that he will defend democracy and follow the orders of the constitutional government. This was a huge sign of relief in a way, because we knew then that the President had not been abandoned, but the potential for violence had just escalated as the chances of a battle between the police and the military were very real.
We went back down to the streets and saw that the military had arrived and were securing the area where the democratic supporters were gathering, it had now turned into a full rally. The military had also moved to secure the public news station, the only channel broadcasting, that was in danger of being taken over by the police. The crowds were growing in both the capital Quito and here in Guayaquil, it was clear at this point that the people were not going to permit a Coup D'etat in their country. Although we can consider the declaration of support by the armed forces as the turning point of the events that day, I believe that the earlier silence by them was a sign that they were making a decision. If it hadn't been for the thousands of people that took to the streets in support of the President, perhaps they would not have decided the way they did.
We spent the rest of the evening drinking local liquor and watching the news with a group of friends here in our apartment. Everything was still uncertain, the President was still a hostage, and until his freedom was secured anything could have happened. It was at that point that I witnessed the most dramatic hour of live news footage that I have ever seen in my life. Journalists were stationed both inside and outside of the hospital where the President was being held, and the cameras were running as a military force moved in on the building preparing for a rescue attempt. The footage was constantly shaking and blurry, as those filming were in serious danger. We watched a gun battle between police guarding the hospital and military moving in, meanwhile a journalist on the inside of the hospital was reporting what was happening. He said he couldn't recognize who was police or military, there was smoke and gunfire everywhere, and bombs going off. After about half an hour of this shaky footage we saw an SUV leaving the hospital surrounded by soldiers, one soldier seemed to have been shot and toppled down in front of the camera. We quickly learned that the President had been rescued. My Ecuadorian friends were ecstatic, cheering and shouting at the television. Five minutes later the camera switched to the Palace where thousands of chanting people waited. All of a sudden the cheer went louder and there was a frantic rush of everyone as the President appeared on the balcony of the Palace. It was a magical moment for everyone in that room with me, and I'm positive that every person across the country was sharing that moment with us.
Democracy and the constitutional order had been saved, and any attempt at a Coup D'etat had failed. My personal opinion was that this crisis did not begin as a Coup attempt, but that opportunists against the government used the unrest to attempt to bring the government down. The people of this country had been through so much political turmoil before the administration of Correa had arrived and brought some semblance of stability in the country, to lose that would have been to lose everything that they have been struggling for. As a foreigner I can only speculate on the feeling of joy and relief sweeping across the masses in Ecuador, but it has undoubtedly been an incredibly special event to be a part of. It was an unequivocal statement by the people of Ecuador that they will not stand for a breach of their democracy, that only they the masses will remove a President from power.
I have yet to venture into the streets, but I look forward to hearing the conversations that will take place, and to seeing the way this clear sign of solidarity will propel a peoples movement in this country.