Rafael Correa stands up to a police insurgency for his people

At least fifty people were injured and several killed in struggles around Quito’s National Police Hospital where Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa was taken Thursday after being injured by a tear gas canister shot at him by a protesting police officer.

Insurgent police kept the president in the hospital for 12 hours until army units arrived and fought gun battles with the police elements. After some struggle inside the hospital, the army grabbed the president and swept him away to the national palace in an SUV.

For a good video of the struggle and Correa’s post kidnapping remarks, look at the Associated Press video report.

During the hectic hours Thursday, it was unclear who was with and who was against the president. From the beginning, General Ernesto Gonzalez, the top army commander, declared support for Correa, but it was not until after midnight that the army began to move against the rebel police.

It all began around 8AM Thursday when elements of the 33,000 member National Police force began to protest a new law that would restructure their promotions and bonuses. Like many nations in the world, Ecuador is facing serious economic difficulties and the squeeze is on. The new law was still in the preliminary stages and had yet to be actually enacted into law.

Reports put the numbers of National Police in the streets at 10 percent of the whole force, or some 3,000 armed and angry cops causing havoc, shutting down two main airports and burning tires to close off city streets. Small elements of the army and air force were also reportedly involved.

President Rafael Correa, center, during the confrontation with rebel police officersPresident Rafael Correa, center, during the confrontation with rebel police officers

Correa is a handsome, 47-year-old American-educated economist elected president in 2006 and re-elected last year in the first round, without a run-off. The last time that happened was 31 years ago. The decade prior to Correa’s arrival was noted for its many short-lived, revolving door presidencies.

Faced with an angry police uprising, Correa took the manly route and confronted his opponents. He went to the main Quito police barracks and spoke to the mob of angry cops from a balcony.

“If you want to kill the president,” he told them, “here he is. Kill him if you are brave enough. …If you want to seize the barracks, if you want to leave citizens undefended, if you want to betray the mission of the police force, go ahead. But this government will do what has to be done. This president will not take a step back.”

Then he went down to the street into the crowd of angry cops, the press and citizens, walking with a cane because he had just had surgery on his right knee. Hit with the tear gas canister, four men carried him to the nearby hospital, where the standoff began.

Correa told the British Telegraph he was ruling the country from the hospital and would not negotiate with those surrounding the building.

“I’d rather die,” he said. “I’m getting out of here as president, or feet first. But I’m not going to lose my dignity.”

The United States closely follows the events

By early afternoon, as the stand-off developed, numerous Latin American nations, the General Secretary of the United Nations and the Organization of American States had publicly condemned the actions of the National Police. What was missing from a web search was any kind of public word from the Obama administration, especially from the lead figure in this area, Secretary Of State Hillary Clinton.

By 6:30PM, Mrs. Clinton said the US government was “closely following” the events in Ecuador. She declared that “The United States deplores violence and lawlessness and we express our full support for President Rafael Correa and the institutions of democratic government in that country.”

It was the perfect diplomatic response without an ounce of outrage or threat.

Mrs. Clinton, in the view of many on the left, is not to be trusted after her and President Obama’s dismal performance during and following the June 28 Honduran coup last year. In this case, her delay in responding publicly about the events in Ecuador would seem, indeed, a matter of “closely following” events to see where they were leading before taking any kind of stand.

President Correa has made it clear he’s committed to a left-leaning agenda in Ecuador. Last year, he threw the US military out of its huge base at Manta, something US leaders are certainly not happy about. He also dismissed the national debt because, he said, it had been contracted by corrupt regimes.

“This is a coup attempt led by Lucio Gutierrez,” Correa claimed during the day’s havoc. Gutierrez is a former military officer and ex-president impeached in 2005. As a politician, Gutierrez has been an ideological chameleon, shifting with the winds to hold power, at one juncture a populist man of the people, at the next a supporter of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which is opposed by many on the left.

As in other left-leaning Latin American nations, USAID and the rightwing National Endowment For Democracy pump lots of money into various oppositional groups in Ecuador. And as elsewhere, our military retains warm relations with elements in the Ecuadorian military. There’s lots of opportunity there to foment un-democratic opposition for a popular, democratically-elected, left-leaning president.

Where the events of September 30 lead is uncertain. One can only hope the leaders of the United States – especially Hillary Clinton – can move beyond the old tired American militarist and corporate power consensus of support for corrupt military regimes over democratically-elected reform leaders. This consensus is what brought us the ruthless 1954 Guatemala coup and a host of other disasters for the people of Latin America, including the shameful posture taken in the Honduran coup.

The economist-politician Correa is in a hardball struggle with the forces of militarism as he tries to make his poor nation work for the majority of its people. In a way, President Obama is facing the very same struggle. They both find themselves at the helm of grotesquely lopsided economies. The difference is, Correa stands up to the opposition.

Robert Reich addresses this struggle in his new book Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future.

“None of us,” he writes, “can thrive in a nation divided between a small number of people receiving an ever larger share of the nation’s income and wealth, and everyone else receiving a declining share. The lopsidedness not only diminishes economic growth but also tears at the fabric of our society.”

That equation has applied in spades to Latin America for decades and has led to a number of wars and revolutions. The current left-leaning populism in Latin America echoes the sort of re-distribution reform movement Reich calls for now in the United States.

It’s not a “communist” or “socialist” movement; that’s only fear-based, fat-cat rightwing slander. Rather, these are movements to share the wealth better in order to get stagnated economic engines to run better. The goal is to reach a national condition — as we did in post-WWII America — where the poor can rise to fill out the middle class so enough people have enough income to purchase goods produced and the economy begins to hum.

Unfortunately, in both Ecuador and the United States, vast, deeply entrenched military institutions have strong veto power over reform. In places like Ecuador, a corrupt military is often deeply invested in business and profit-making. In the United States, the felt need to dominate the world and to run wars like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan with unlimited, sacrosanct budgets make needed reform difficult to impossible.

President Correa has shown gran cojones against the Ecuadoran military establishment. Let’s hope US leaders find theirs and quickly lay down some real threats to those now besieging Correa.

We could also hope for them to support Correa’s efforts to reform Ecuador’s lopsided economy so it works for the majority of the Ecuadorian people. We could hope for the same here.

I’m not holding my breath.