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  • The Day the President Disappeared

    Ecuadorian filmmaker/journalist Oscar Leon presents Ecuador: Failed Coup or Institutional Crisis Pt. 2/2 -   October 11, 10
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    When the news of an attempted coup dtat was released to the world, many immediately began to point fingers and look for the conspiracy. After all, the President was attacked by the police and being held in the police hospital surrounded by officers for up to ten hours.

    On the morning of September 30th, Ecuador woke up in shock. The police were on an armed strike claiming the newly enacted Public Service Law had reduced their salaries and benefits. This act of defiance by the police force angered many people, given that thieves took full advantage of the strike to loot businesses, and merchants were left defenseless in all the cities in the country.

    The international community immediately closed ranks behind the regime of President Rafael Correa, and so did the Ecuadorian military command. The military eventually forcefully entered the hospital to free Correa.

    A whole country was kidnapped by the police. For one day, the traditional roles of political crisis were inverted and it was the police burning tires in the streets and throwing rocks against the government while some civilian groups defended the regime.

    Who is behind this? Who stands to gain from what happened? Is there an international force trying to take down a Government? Was a whole country being held hostage by a group of police officers?


    The Day the President DisappearedOSCAR LEÓN, REPORTER AND FILMMAKER: Welcome to The Real News. My name is Oscar León, reporter and documentary filmmaker. This is a special report about the police force insurrection and kidnapping of the president, Rafael Correa. Being a reporter in Ecuador during the lost decade, I can bring some insight about what happened that day. On the morning of September 30, the people of Ecuador woke up in shock. The police were [inaudible] claiming the newly enacted public service law has reduced their salaries and benefits. This act of defiance by the police force angered many people, and thieves took advantage of the strike to rob unprotected business. A whole country was kidnapped by the police in its absence, and traditional roles were temporarily inverted, while the police burned tires in the streets and threw rocks against the government. While some civilian groups defend the regime, more than a week later, the roots of the uprising remain unclear. But were the policemen claims rightful? Sociologist José Leon say they are.

    JORGE LEÓN, SOCIOLOGIST AND AUTHOR: The uprising, the insurrection of the Ecuadorian police does not reveal a new institutional crisis. It has been years in the making, linked to many changes that the police have had to undergo because of internal insecurity and the Colombian civil war. The repercussions of the armed conflict force the police to work more. This means greater effort. It's a huge institutional challenge. People have been unhappy with the police. And when the police have been successful capturing criminals, the corrupt courts let them go free. So there is a lot of frustration.

    O. LEÓN: President Correa claims it was a failed coup. Backing up this theory is the fact that a group of Air Force commandos have closed major airports. Historically this is a sign of a coup. [inaudible] many key roads around the country. It was an impressive and well-coordinated display of force. A well-organized coup by foreign powers, it's many times the easiest answer in everybody's mind. But it's not impossible that it's purely internal. Ecuador is a country where social groups have learned that they do have power when they take unified action. The police is a very formidable force, 40,000 people strong, with unparalleled communications and logistics—thanks to the taxpayers, that is. President Rafael Correa has had enemies on the right wing since they won, but of late he has met increasing opposition from the left as well. His passions and self-confidence make him deaf to dissenting voices, causing an increasing number of people to denounce what they see as a despotic way to govern. Ecuador's largest indigenous group, CONAIE [Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador], announced on the day of the crisis that they will not go out in the streets to support Correa, because of his unwillingness to work with those who got him elected in the first place. Carlos Andrés Vera, documentary filmmaker, explained to us how it happened.

    CARLOS A. VERA, DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Correa was (at the beginning) what the country needed. He proposed a form of democratic socialism. He managed to unite many sectors of the left and the center left. They built a very solid political project, very strong and inclusive. But then the leader of that project became the problem, as the national project became a personal project. This happened because of Rafael Correa's conception of power. He thinks that the role of president is to impose, not to agree, as if being a president means having a blank check to do whatever he wants and take radical measures. He thinks democracy is elections and not balance of powers. So he controls all power of the state like President Febres Cordero did.

    O. LEÓN: Nonetheless, things took a drastic turn when President Rafael Correa, who was recovering from a recent operation in his knee, went to the Quito police regiment, regimiento Quito, to personally negotiate with the strikers. It was an unwelcoming environment, and the president was booed while he hears cheers for Lucio Gutiérrez, a neoliberal ex-president thrown out of office during a popular uprising in 2005. Correa, apparently sensing a conspiracy in action, angrily defied the protesters. For about 20 minutes, the enraged policemen shot tear gas and viciously attacked the president, who was taken to the national police hospital with a wounded knee and gas asphyxia.

    DR. EDUARDO ARIAS, POLICE HOSPITAL DOCTOR (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): He was suffocating from the bombs, he and his bodyguards. He needed oxygen to breathe normally again.

    O. LEÓN: All around the city, citizens were assaulted by the police.

    (SUBTITLED): They shot bombs at my body. And then when we were leaving they grabbed us. Ten cops hit me in the head. My friend tried to defend me and almost ended up in hospital.


    (SUBTITLED): Two policemen beat me up.

    (SUBTITLED): Why?

    (SUBTITLED): A group of them got me.


    O. LEÓN: From that point on, the story began to be reported as a kidnapping of the president in a coup conspiracy on a single government-controlled [inaudible] This created unrest in the population. They felt the right to know was being denied.

    (SUBTITLED): Out with Correa!

    (SUBTITLED): This is a country of beggars now.

    (SUBTITLED): In order for a coup to be successful, you need either the army or the people on your side. But Correa's opposition didn't seem to display much people in the streets.

    (SUBTITLED): Long live Correa!

    (SUBTITLED): Go work! Let us work!

    (SUBTITLED): We must rescue our president!

    O. LEÓN: Even a group of people broke in the government TV station by force. Coup or social crisis? It's hard to know.

    (SUBTITLED): Freedom of speech!

    O. LEÓN: The police strike had created a monster and was overrun by it. It no longer mattered why the policemen were holding the president. Their demands may have been right, but to many eyes the police force was holding the president as hostage inside a police hospital. By this point, the Ecuadorian army and the international community had closed any possibility for a real coup d'état. The countries of South America held an emergency meeting denouncing the police and reaffirming their recognition of Correa as president. The army announced its support for the president and preparedness to enter the hospital and free Correa if necessary. But the police did not allow the president to leave. Inside the hospital there were chaos. Newborn babies, elderly, critical patients, and others that were exposed to the tear gas [inaudible] action of these police officers. Some wonder if the president was going to be assassinated. [inaudible] the country watched images of police officers brutalizing those who have gathered to support Correa in cities across the country, and especially outside their hospital in Quito where the president was being held. Thousands of citizens, farmers, workers, students, journalists, and others risked their lives in a fight against the police, unarmed citizens doing the job of the secret service and the military, exposed to roughly eight hours of beatings by the police.

    MARCOS VILLAMA, JOURNALIST (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Direct shots to the body unleash the fury of those who went there to demonstrate.

    (SUBTITLED): They assault us with our own weapons (the taxpayers). They are aiming to the head. I was taking a picture. I barely got to cover.

    (SUBTITLED): Let's get out of here. Those policemen are vulgar criminals.

    (SUBTITLED): They can't be like that with the people. We only ask them to respect the Constitution and the president, but instead they hurt us with stones and rocks. This can't be. My God! They even follow us inside the hospitals.

    O. LEÓN: Of course, they fight back, like Andrés, a mountain climber, who tells us what happened.

    ANDRÉS HERRERA, MOUNTAIN CLIMBER (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): They were shooting tear gas at me. They got me in the arm. I hope my bone is not fractured. So those officers told us, let's make a truce. And when we approached, they shot at us. So I ran, and they got me with a stone on my heel. I hope it's not broken, too. I can't even wear shoes now. I am not one to get into that kind of thing, but then you are there and get enraged, and you fight back for the people—maybe not for all of them, but for a great majority. I think it was important that we were there. The wounds are not only mine. The wounds are the nation's, the people's, and the system's.

    (SUBTITLED): Since the police did not set the president free. [sic]

    (SUBTITLED): The soldiers are here.

    (SUBTITLED): The army just arrived.

    O. LEÓN: At 9 p.m., 500 commandos attacked the hospital to retrieve the president. A gunbattle ensued. Many soldiers were hurt, and some died by sniper fire.

    (SUBTITLED): I have watched many getting hurt and one dead. There, another one, another wounded.

    O. LEÓN: After what witnesses describe as moments of horror, the president was finally set free. Live on TV, millions of people watched in awe a hero soldier die by sniper fire.

    VILLAMA: Froilan Gimenez was hurt and died soon after. During the live broadcast, people were screaming for help.

    (SUBTITLED): He fell here, right here next to where we are! He is badly hurt! Somebody go help him!

    VILLAMA: The president had already left, but the shooting didn't stop. This police tank was shooting tear gas to the soldiers that were hiding from crossfire.

    (SUBTITLED): Let's get out of here, Marcos!


    (SUBTITLED): We just left the danger zone. Running away from gunshots. Many soldiers around us fell with severe wounds. Many ambulances. Situation is terribly dangerous.


    (SUBTITLED): The police is shooting at who?

    SOLDIER (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): They are desperate, but the president is out and we are okay.


    O. LEÓN: Soon after, President Correa appeared at the presidential palace amongst thousands of supporters. There have been a great numbers of Ecuadorians who previously support Correa and have begun to oppose the regime. They accused the president of using his veto power to change laws [inaudible] by civil society and passed by the National Assembly, of betraying his former supporters and the spirit of the so-called citizens' revolution with the stroke of a pen. But what happened on September 30 goes beyond politics. If an armed person robs a bank and hold hostages, I guess that my punishment will be very severe. Many Ecuadorians are waiting to see what happens to an armed group of policemen that held hostage not only the president but the whole country, using the taxpayer's equipment to assault and even murder the population on the streets. Many questions remain. Were there any dark forces behind the police uprising? Were there international interests involved? Or was this just a domestic power struggle between a president and [inaudible] police officers? Coup or crisis? There are more questions than answers in this little republic in the Andes. For The Real News, this is Oscar León.

    End of Transcript

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