Ecuador coup attempt shows fragility of Latin American democracy

The standoff between Ecuador President Rafael Correa and police ended Thursday night but the alleged Ecuador coup attempt underscores the region's instability.

Dolores Ochoa/AP
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, center, was rescued from a hospital where he was holed up by protesting police in Quito, Ecuador, Thursday, Sept. 30.

President Rafael Correa of Ecuador was rescued from the hospital where he was trapped Thursday for 12 hours, but the political implications of the attempt to isolate the democratically elected leader will resonate for some time to come.

The end of the standoff may not put an end to fears that democracy is threatened across the region, a year after the president of Honduras was ousted from his post and sent into exile.

Ecuador was plunged into political turmoil Thursday after police, angered by austerity measures passed Wednesday that would affect their bonuses, took over barracks across the country and closed down highways and the international airport. The government declared a state of emergency.

President Correa, who was roughed up and injured by tear gas when he attempted to seek dialogue with disgruntled officers Thursday, was trapped in a hospital as angry protesters surrounded the building.

Army troops wearing gas masks stormed the facility late Thursday amid gunfire – at least two policemen and a soldier were reportedly killed in clashes – and eventually returned Correa to the presidential palace in Quito.

"What loyalty, what support,” Correa said to supporters who had gathered outside his headquarters. "This will serve as an example for those who want to stop the revolution not through the ballot box but with weapons."

Laura Carlsen, the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City for the Center for International Policy, urged the United States to vigorously oppose the actions in Ecuador to prevent repeat attempts to undermine elected leaders.

“The Honduran coup d’état, in which the international community failed to restore the elected president Manuel Zelaya to office in large part due to backroom maneuvers by the US government, provides important lessons,” she wrote in a statement Thursday night. “This case must never be repeated. Many warned that the success of the Honduran coup set a dangerous precedent and could lead to more antidemocratic acts of force in the region.”

The US, as well as presidents across the region and the Organization of American States (OAS), have given their full support to Correa, who was elected in 2006 amid promises to redistribute wealth and power to the poor.

Although his support has slipped, the country has been calm in the past four years, compared to earlier time periods. Ecuador is a politically unstable nation that had seen eight presidents in the decade preceding Correa's election, three of them toppled in protests.

On Friday, The Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR, agreed to send foreign ministers to Quito. In a statement they "energetically condemn the attempted coup and subsequent kidnapping" of Correa.

Correa, along with his ally, leftist president Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, claimed that the opposition was planning a coup against him. While no political group voiced favor of a government takeover, Ecuador is no stranger to such political chaos.

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