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| Ecuador |
oldiers escort a wounded colleague during clashes with renegade police who had trapped Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, inside a Quito hospital to protest against austerity measures ster
In September last year, television channels around the world broadcast an extraordinary spectacle involving a head of state, a hospital siege, an occupied national parliament, a tear-gas attack and chaotic scenes of protesting policemen. The location of this drama was the South American republic of Ecuador, and the head of state in question was its president, Rafael Correa.
After a 12-hour siege in a hospital, during which he declared a state of emergency, Correa was freed by loyal members of the Ecuadorian armed forces. Eight people were reported to have been killed and at least 270 injured. It was described by both the president and other observers as an ‘attempted coup’. Comparisons were swiftly drawn with the coup d’état in Honduras a year earlier, which saw the removal of the left-leaning president, Manuel Zelaya.
Located on the equator, Ecuador has a population of 14 million and occupies a territory of 272,000 square kilometres. Its neighbours are Colombia and Peru, and it’s one of two South American countries that don’t share a border with Brazil. Its population is a mixture of indigenous peoples, those of Spanish colonial origin and the descendents of African slaves. Economically, the country was primarily dependent on agriculture, but by the 1960s, lucrative oil discoveries had led to rapid socio-economic change, including investment in housing, health and education. But the subsequent improvements haven’t removed deep-seated inequalities in Ecuadorian society, especially in favour of the Spanish-descended elite. Falling oil revenues, in combination with austerity measures, have further cemented this schism.
The incident served as a reminder of the political fragility of the country since Correa’s election in November 2006. Elected on a platform of social revolution in favour of the poor, Correa joined a growing number of left-leaning leaders in the continent, including Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales of Bolivia. All three have been critical of US influence in South America. Last year, Ecuador withdrew permission for the USA to use Manta air base as part of antidrugs operations. The attempted coup was blamed not just on members of the political opposition but also on covert US involvement because of Ecuador’s oil and gas wealth.
Political instability has marked much of Ecuador’s postindependence history. In 1941, Ecaudorian and Peruvian forces confronted one another in a border dispute that wasn’t resolved until May 1999. During the early 1970s, the military overthrew the populist Velasco government, and elections weren’t held again until April 1979. Since then, the country has endured a patchwork of civilian governments with occasional military interventions and uprisings: presidents Jamil Mahuad and Lucio Gutiérrez were deposed after uprisings in 2000 and 2005 respectively.
Correa has witnessed growing opposition from indigenous peoples, environmentalists and journalists to proposed constitutional reforms. His critics describe his leadership style as confrontational – exemplified by the changes he has made to the country’s hydrocarbon laws. Foreign oil firms, responsible for nearly half of the country’s daily output, now
However, observers are divided over whether it was really an attempted coup or a spontaneous protest against a new promotional and bonus framework for police officers. The government has a budget deficit of about US$4billion and has already defaulted on several billion dollars’ worth of global bonds. As befitting a leader of centreleft leanings, Correa is also critical of organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
– klau s d o d d s –
is professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and editor of the Geographical Journal have to pay a flat fee to operate there, and the president has threatened to nationalise the fields of companies that don’t abide by the rules. G
14 www.geographical.co.uk february 2011