Thursday’s scenes from Quito could have been ripped from the silver screen. Tall and defiant and cornered by disgruntled cops, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa stood at the window of a police hospital, clutched a microphone, and yanked his tie loose. “If you want to kill the president, here I am!” he bellowed to a crowd-filled street misted with tear gas. “Kill me if you want! Kill me if you are brave, instead of hiding in the crowd like cowards!”
Hours earlier, the besieged Correa, recovering from knee surgery, had limped through the crowds surrounded by a clutch of bodyguards, gasping into a gas mask. It was the volatile climax of a day that started badly. Police took to the streets against a new law that curbed their benefits and wages. By afternoon, it escalated to clashes among cops, Army troops, and enraged civilians. Demanding redress, the cops surrounded the hospital, where Correa had gone for treatment after inhaling tear gas, and blocked a rescue helicopter from landing. Correa emerged 12 hours later, after Army troops burst into the hospital, firing shots. Three people died in the tumult.
For many Ecuadorans, the afternoon of Sept. 30 was a jarring reminder of the bad old days when social unrest convulsed this impoverished Andean nation with disturbing regularity. In the last 13 years, three Ecuadoran presidents have either fallen to military coups or been impeached, often to the whiff of cordite and tear gas. And Correa wasted no time in attributing Thursday’s uprising to golpistas, or coup makers.
Ecuador’s neighbors, the Organization of American States, and the U.S. joined him in condemning the uprising. Correa’s closest ally, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, decried a plot by “fascist beasts.”
The reality is far more complicated. Though Ecuadorans overwhelmingly comdemned the rogue police as reckless and dangerous, evidence of a coup d’état was scant. No one took to the streets to back the mutiny. No rival politicians took to soapboxes. And, most tellingly, no generalissimo was waiting in the wings to take charge. On the contrary, by the time the smoke cleared the police commander had stepped down and his rebel officers were detained. Correa declared a state of emergency and ordered television and radio to “indefinitely” suspend normal broadcasts to prevent the media from aggravating tensions.
A dashing, hard-driving populist, Correa has leveraged his charisma, appeals to the labor and the poor, and indigenous pride to radically overhaul Ecuadoran society and rewrite the Constitution along the lines of Chávez’s “Bolivarian” revolution to establish a 21st-century version of socialism. To his credit, Correa has largely avoided the missteps of his Bolivarian allies—Bolivia to the south and Venezuela to the northeast—whose countries are riven by political violence and economic turmoil. However, by tapping his popularity in order to rewrite the Constitution and push new laws through Congress, he has frightened investors, thereby straining the national budget, and also deepened class divisions and stirred demands that have proved difficult to manage.
While Correa’s backers rallied, his critics charged that he was pulling a “self-coup”—overreacting to the tumult to tighten his hold on society and cow the media. “We didn’t elect a king, we elected a president,” said Diego Oquendo of the online journal Ecuador en Vivo. For his part, Correa seemed undaunted. He emerged from his ordeal Thursday night a bit haggard but resolute, declaring he was weighing dissolving Congress and calling for new elections. The ill-advised police uprising was one overheated example of the tensions bundled up in the Bolivarian project. It may not be the last.