The Political Crisis in Ecuador: A Conversation with José Miguel Insulza

“This was not a ‘dust up’ or a ‘scuffle’…it was a tentative coup,” said OAS General José Miguel Insulza at the Inter-American Dialogue on October 21. The secretary general was describing the events of September 30, in which Ecuadoran police brought the country to a standstill after they rioted and trapped President Rafael Correa in a Quito hospital for several hours. Insulza addressed the OAS response to these events, and discussed the impact this turmoil could have on the country’s democratic institutions. The crisis began in the aftermath of protests by the national police, who protested against perceived reductions in police salary and benefits. The lack of police on the streets led to widespread chaos, with reports of looting for several hours. When President Correa confronted a group of the protestors in person, he was rushed by the crowd and escaped to a nearby hospital, where he was confined for over ten hours as hostile officers blocked his exit. Vice President Lenin Moreno was approached to assume the presidency and calls to kill Correa could be heard on police radio frequencies. Correa was eventually rescued following a tense fire-fight between police and military forces. According to Insulza, opposition groups incited the violent strike to “wait and see” whether the government would be able to re-assert order. Just hours after the unrest began, the OAS convened an emergency meeting of member states and passed a resolution condemning the events as a coup attempt and affirming its support for democracy in Ecuador. Insulza cited the Inter-American Democratic Charter as justification for the organization’s quick and firm response. Shortly after the standoff was over, the secretary general travelled to Quito to meet with President Correa and symbolically demonstrate the support of the international community. Insulza, responding to critics who claim the OAS “overreacted” to the situation, cited several articles in the Democratic Charter which affirm the subordination of institutions to elected civilian rule and the right of the executive branch within a member state to request support from the OAS in the event of a perceived threat to democracy. The Charter does not, however, grant other branches of government the same privilege. During the question-and-answer session, several participants challenged Insulza’s assertion that the events of September 30 constituted a coup attempt. The police forces, they argued, lacked a clear intention to topple the government; no defined leadership or intended successor to Correa emerged during or after the turmoil; and the National Police was an unlikely instrument to execute a coup given that the military publicly pledged support for Correa’s government early in the crisis. But according to Insulza, the classical definition of a coup attempt was a moot point. “This is the OAS; we had to act,” he said, adding that the insurrection clearly presented a threat to President Correa’s government. Insulza concluded by expressing his support for President Correa’s reform project in Ecuador, citing the implementation of the 2008 Constitution as a crucial process that must be strengthened to prevent future crises. Dialogue president Michael Shifter moderated the event.

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