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The state of democracy a year after Ecuador's coup

Ecuador is still debating whether an attempted coup occurred on Sept. 30 last year, but the revolt has nonetheless had profound changes on three institutions in the Andean nation.

By Irene CaselliContributor / September 30, 2011

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa gestures during a press conference in Quito, Ecuador, last week.

Dolores Ochoa/AP

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Quito, Ecuador

A year ago today, on September 30, 2010, Ecuador made international headlines when a police revolt over bonuses turned into what the government maintains was an attempted coup.

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Early that morning, President Rafael Correa rushed to the main police barracks of Ecuador's capital Quito to address rebel officers. After being booed, President Correa defied them to kill him: "If you want to kill the president, here he is. Kill him, if you want to. Kill him, if you are brave enough."

Police tear-gassed and pushed the president, who was then ushered to a nearby hospital. He was trapped inside for almost 12 hours by policemen who surrounded the building. Soldiers eventually rescued Correa after a shoot-out with the police. Five people died that day.

For the government and its supporters, September 30 was a failed coup, aimed at presidential assassination. For critics, the day was a labor dispute, albeit a violent one, that the government used for political gain.

Today divisions remain. The government will be marking the one-year anniversary with photo exhibitions, film screenings, and conferences to celebrate what they call "the day democracy triumphed.”

But for family members of the day's victims, as well as for many critics, there is little to be celebrating. "What has the country gained? When entire families have been destroyed, a country cannot gain anything," says Sandra Jiménez, sister of Froilán Jiménez, a policeman who died in the shoot-out outside the hospital.

Amid polarization, the day has also had profound changes on three institutions in the Andean nation, and to critics none of it bodes well for democracy.

Policing

Today the military is in Ecuador’s streets carrying out policing operations. Although Ecuador’s constitution, approved under Correa in 2008, puts the police in charge of internal security, the revolt created mistrust in the institution among the government and large sectors of the population. A judge ruled that the military could take some charge of domestic patrolling. In the meantime, Ecuador's legislature is currently reviewing a law that would grant the armed forces more power, while the Interior Ministry is drafting police reform. Some in Ecuador welcome this move, especially amid rising crime. But many security experts express concern over the army's lack of preparedness to fight criminality and urban violence.

The Media

Correa's relationship with private media also took a major hit. Following the revolt, and subsequent press coverage, Correa filed a lawsuit against El Universo newspaper for a column by former editor Emilio Palacio, in which the journalist called the president a "dictator," implying that he had ordered the military to open fire on the hospital and had caused the deaths of several people. The president won $40 million, while the newspaper's three directors and Mr. Palacio were sentenced to three years in jail. Human rights and freedom of expression organizations around the world strongly condemned the ruling, which could well lead the paper to financial bankruptcy and closure. Ecuador's legislature is also reviewing a draft for a media law that would create a controversial state panel to regulate media content.

The Courts

The country's judiciary is also undergoing major changes, after a referendum that Correa pushed for in the wake of the revolt, taking advantage of his climbing approval rating. In early September, the government declared a 60-day judicial emergency, which will allow a transitional body to carry out restructuring of courts and judges. While most in the country agree that the judicial system is in dire need of reform, critics are worried that Correa is seeking control over judicial appointments. Investigations into the deaths that occurred during last year's revolt are stalled, a further sign, according to critics, that the government is manipulating the institution.

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