Monday, October 4, 2010

El Golpe de Estado

As many of you are by now aware, this past Thursday in Ecuador there was an alleged coup attempt on President Rafael Correa's government. Everyone here at school is fine, and while things were touch-and-go for awhile, it is unlikely we were ever in any real danger.

Early in the week I'd heard rumors that there would be protests over austerity measures recently announced, specifically for police bonuses. This would mean no classes, since getting caught in the middle of a protest can mean getting arrested, and for international students, deportation. So, Thursday morning walking from my weaving class across campus to scuba diving class (oh, study abroad...) I wasn't entirely surprised to see what looked like the entire student body milling around in the middle of campus. Walking into my next class, I was a little more surprised to find that no one was there. After waiting about five minutes, I figured it had been cancelled and made my way to the computer lab to check my email. I walk in, only to find literally every international kid I knew hunched over computers.

Before I could even say anything, Molly sees me and says something along the lines of, "Thank God! We thought you were wandering around the streets of Quito or something."

"GUYS. What is going on?"

And then Tom finally explained to me the following - this morning, the police had gone on strike to protest cuts in their wages, bonuses, budget, what have you. President Correa had gone to the police barracks to address them, where he had made quite an incendiary speech, at one point pulling open his collar and daring the police to, "Kill [the president] if you're brave." Instead, they threw some bottles and teargas at him. At that point, we were hearing all kinds of crazy rumors - Correa's been injured, the police are holding him hostage, he's in the hospital... Well, they all turned out to be true, although we didn't know it at the time.

For the next few hours, we were ordered by the Office of International Programs to stay on campus. It was unclear if that was because if we went back to Quito (campus is actually in the neighboring valley of CumbayĆ”) we'd immediately be hit with teargas and robbed, or if they were afraid we'd walk through rallies and protests, risking arrest and therefore deportation. So, trapped in our little paradise of a University, we spent the next few hours eating at one of the restaurants (Leo's has got nothing on USFQ - the food on campus is prepared mostly by the culinary students, and is excellent) and playing frisbee. It was a little gringo-island, entirely deserted except for the international students.

Finally, at around 2pm, one of the staff informed us that now would be an ideal time to go home, since apparently negotiations were now underway between the police and the government. The subtext was, who knows what kind of hell is going to break loose if (when) they end. So, a group of about 20 gringos, back packs slung over us front-ways and my pepper spray in hand, proceeded out the front gates and onto the bus back to Quito. (I stole the sign prohibiting us from leaving campus on the way out.) We'd heard that a few students had been assaulted near the front gates, and the bank across the street had already been robbed - just a few signs of the general lawlessness spreading through Ecuador in the absence of the police. This was the only point during the day when something bad actually could have happened, "something bad" probably being a robbery more than any kind of serious attack.

Thankfully, we all did make it home safe. Jeff said that as he was walking up the hill to his house, he could feel teargas burning his eyes and throat from protests nearby. However, once we were in our houses, the danger was all but nonexistent. The only thing left was to watch the news and wait for something to happen.

After plugging in the television in my room (I wasn't aware until now that it actually worked...) I watched the looting in Guayaquil, teargas in the streets and burning tires in front of police stations. On the channels controlled by the government, all they showed were interviews with prominent Correa supporters and the pro-Correa rally in front of the presidential palace. From here, it became clear that Correa was in the hospital, he was being held by the police, and we were witnessing a possible coup. [History note - no president has finished his term in Ecuador since 1996. Ecuador has had about ten more presidents than the United States, even though their list started about 40 years later. Term limits, when respected, ranged from 4 to 5 years. Presidential turnover is just not unusual.] However, the military, also hit with austerity measures, was pledging support for Correa. And it's kind of hard to stage a coup without the military. So... now what?

At around 9pm that night, anyone watching the live feed fed through one of the channels from right in front of the police hospital where Correa was being held witnessed exactly what happened. The military essentially staged a violent rescue of Correa, from his own police. The police hospital was surrounded by a parking lot and then high chain link fence complete with a guard post, although the gate was wide open. From there, a two-lane highway ran in front of the building, with the lanes of traffic closest to the hospital some feet higher than the lanes going in the other direction. They were separated by a sloped median, paved with stone, on which the camera man was laying and shooting the live feed. Not meters away from him, military troops lay, guns steadied on the top of the median aimed towards the building. It was unclear whether there were live or rubber bullets - were we really about to witness a firefight between the military and police?

(to be continued, have to go to class...)

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