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October 16, 2010

Latin lessons

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October 16, 2010

Beset by fears about its future, Pakistan's fragile democracy has lessons to learn from Latin America. The way Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa braved a coup attempt on Sept 30 is one example worth learning from.
That day, Ecuador descended into chaos as a protest by sections of the police force and the army turned into a bloody coup against leftwing President Correa. Rebels occupied police stations and barracks in the capital Quito, in the port of Guayaquil and a few other cities.
They set up roadblocks, cutting off access to the capital. They also stormed and occupied the National Assembly building, besides taking over the runway at Quito's Mariscal Sucre International Airport. Educational institutions and many businesses in Quito shut down early when opposition protesters went on a rampage and attempted to sabotage broadcasts from the Gama TV station.
The police and military troops were protesting against a new public service law designed to harmonise income and benefits across the Ecuadorian civil service. Protesting police and troops claimed that the new law would confiscate their benefits and bonuses. In an attempt to end the strike, President Correa went in person to the main police garrison in Quito to persuade the police.
The situation went out of control when Correa was attacked and roughed up by the rebels. He was rushed to hospital. The hospital was soon encircled by rebel police and opposition protesters. From hospital, he appealed in a radio interview to his supporters to take to the streets. In response, tens of thousands of President Correa's supporters demanding his release took to the streets across the country, chanting "Correa, hang in there, the people are rising up!"
Following mass mobilisations, loyal sectors of the army finally launched an attack on the hospital, forcing their way through the protesters and rebels, and freed the president. During the day-long troubles, at least five people were killed and about 200

Some analysts have argued the incident was merely a protest that went out of control. President Correa, however, insists it was a coup attempt. The United States has also been accused of involvement in this attempted coup. In fact, after the US-backed 2009 military coup in Honduras against elected left-leaning president Manuel Zelaya, President Correa had said that "after Zelaya, I am next."
The initial reaction of the US to the coup attempt was noncommittal. It reminded one of the US response during the Honduras coup. As President Correa was holed up at a besieged hospital, US State Department spokesperson was telling the media that the Osama administration was "closely monitoring" the situation. A statement in support of Ecuadorian democracy was made by Hillary Clinton when the coup attempt fizzled out.
President Correa was elected in 2006, promising to lead a "citizens' revolution" to eradicate poverty, deepen grassroots democracy and build a "socialism of the 21st century." In his rhetoric he echoes his allies Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and Bolivian president Evo Morales. All three leaders oppose US domination of the region and support Latin American unity and integration. An economist himself, President Correa has doubled spending on healthcare, increased social spending and, most bravely, defaulted on $3.2 billion of foreign loans.
In 2009, in an even bolder initiative he removed a US military base from the Ecuadorian town of Manta. Now US presence in Ecuador continues mainly through the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
Also, the US has a long history of patronising Ecuadorian military officers. Many have been trained at the notorious School of the Americas (SOA) that has trained a number of coup leaders across the continent for decades.
It was through these NGO-military connections that the US most likely manoeuvred against President Correa and is likely to manoeuvre yet again. But for the time being Correa has survived a coup attempt.
In the last eight years, this was the fourth US-sponsored coup in Latin America. Two proved successful. Recently, in Honduras (2009) against Manuel Zelaya. Earlier, in Haiti (2004) deposing Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Two others failed. In Venezuela against Hugo Chavez (2002). Now on Sept 30 against President Correa.
In both cases when the attempts failed, sections of military played an important role. But without the masses, Chavez or Correa would never have been returned to power. It was in many ways Honduran president Manuel Zelaya's lack of support from an established and organised mass movement that facilitated his removal. It is people's intervention, or failure to intervene, that shores democracy up.
The masses do not intervene when rulers are seen as betrayers, inefficient, indifferent or corrupt.

The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: [email protected]

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