Ecuador: When the Cops Took on the President

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Patricio Realpe / AP

President Rafael Correa, center, runs away from tear gas during a protest held by police officers opposing a new law that cuts their benefits in Quito, Ecuador. Sept. 30, 2010.

The good news from Ecuador is that no coup materialized on Thursday after angry national police officers roughed up President Rafael Correa — who in his own rage dared them to "kill me!" — and kept him sequestered in a Quito hospital before soldiers extracted him that night. The bad news is that Ecuador — which has seen seven different governments in the past 13 years — has yet another volatile political crisis on its hands, just when it looked as though it was finally morphing into a more stable, oil-rich Latin American nation. The question now: Will Correa work to calm the country, which is part of the leftist, anti-U.S. bloc headed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, or will he use Thursday's melee as an excuse to dissolve Congress and go after his foes?

Ecuador didn't seem a powderkeg before Thursday. But tensions had been simmering, rooted in Correa's 2008 decision to default on a third of Ecuador's $10 billion foreign debt (his government insists it was a bondholder-friendly "renegotiation"). Correa, a U.S.-educated economist, had called the obligations "immoral" and illegally contracted by previous governments; but the move spooked foreign investors and lenders and tightened the financial situation in Ecuador, which is still struggling to capitalize on its oil resources. That has prompted austerity measures from Correa, some of which even members of his own Country Alliance (AP) party have balked at.

But no group has responded as furiously — or as recklessly — as Ecuador's cops, who protested a law passed this week to reduce their bonuses and slow their promotion schedules. When Correa, 47, hobbled by recent knee surgery, made his own reckless move and went to Quito's largest police barracks on Thursday to explain the new civil service law to them — or, as they claim, harangue them — they fired tear gas. At one point a flying object hit Correa, who ripped loose his tie and screamed, "If you want to kill me, kill me!" At that point his aides whisked him to a hospital next door, where his supporters clashed with the rebellious police protesters amidst gunfire, flying rocks and burning-tire barricades. Meanwhile, police and small factions of the military apparently sympathetic to them blocked Quito's international airport. By the time the army had delivered Correa back to the presidential palace, 88 people were injured and two police officers were dead.

Correa called it "a day of profound sadness" and thanked "the heroes" who stood by him. Outside Ecuador, hemispheric leaders from Buenos Aires to Washington breathed a sigh of relief that they didn't have to deal with a second Latin American coup in as many years. (Last year Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted and exiled in a military putsch.) Although Correa is a frequent critic of Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered "our full support" for Correa and Ecuador's "institutions of democratic government." As South American leaders headed to Argentina for an emergency meeting on the unrest, Chávez declared Correa had been "kidnapped" and said on his Twitter account, "They're trying to take down President Correa."

Yet it was not certain when the smoke cleared if the police dustup had really been part of any concerted attempt to topple Correa. The nation's highest-ranking police officials denounced the incident — the force's chief, Freddy Martínez, resigned on Friday — and Ecuador's military brass, besides sending in special forces to rescue the President, affirmed their support for his government. "Correa is still very popular," says Ecuadorean political analyst Gabriela Molina. "The armed forces are careful not to make any move not synchronized with what the people want."

Correa, however, insisted he'd just been through a failed coup, and said his political opponents — including former President Lucio Gutiérrez, who led a successful coup in 2000 and then was himself removed by one in 2005 — may have been behind it. Gutiérrez quickly denied any involvement but accused Correa of "totalitarian" governance.

Just as important, it's not clear how Correa intends to respond. He's ordered a state of emergency until noon on Tuesday and imposed a television and radio news blackout — a reminder, say critics, of Correa's recent attempts to shutter or take state control of media he deems "irresponsible." But he also threatened during the Thursday upheaval to dissolve Congress, which he is permitted to do under Ecuador's new 2008 Constitution, provided the nation's Supreme Court approves it. If Correa were to take that drastic step, however, he'd have to call new presidential and parliamentary elections — a risk, since he wouldn't be guaranteed an increase in the AP's number of seats (it now has 53 of 124).

Ecuador's ambassador to the U.S., Luis Gallegos, told TIME that Correa, who took office in 2007, is "working to make Ecuador a more institutional state." Correa, like Chávez in Venezuela, has taken significant if populist steps to reduce poverty, improve health and education and enfranchise Ecuador's vast marginalized groups, including indigenous peoples who have clashed with him recently over mining and water policy. The police rebellion, Gallegos notes, "is an example of the lingering de-institutionalization of the state that was responsible for five governments being overthrown in the past decade, and which President Correa is trying to change."

Yet that would seem to many an argument for not dissolving the legislature, which incurred Correa's ire this week when it overrode some of his line-item budget vetoes. Although he too feels that Correa has been a positive, modernizing force for Ecuador, Thomas Trebat, director of the Institute of Latin American Studies at Columbia University, warns that Correa can be "impetuous" and should avoid "taking advantage of this incident to come down on political enemies that way." Felipe Burbano, a political scientist at Flacso University in Quito, says he fears that Correa's strategy now will be to "stigmatize some parts of the opposition as coup-mongers and destabilizers. He will look for scapegoats."

That could only exacerbate Ecuador's political polarization, which is the last thing the nation seems to need right now. In a country where instability has been the national pastime, Correa may have to simply reknot his tie and hold things together.