A police riot over an austerity bill, or a failed attempt to oust leftist Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa from office? In the aftermath of the Sept. 30 attack on Correa by police in Quito, it is looking more and more like this was an orchestrated coup. And while there is no evidence that the U.S. was directly involved, the Obama administration’s strong support for the current Honduran government may well have encouraged the plotters to expect similar treatment by Washington.
The police attack on Correa was co-coordinated with similar takeovers in several other cities, the seizure of Ecuador’s two largest airports by army troops, and the occupation of the National Assembly. In the end the Ecuadorian Army supported the President, freed him from the police hospital where he was being held, and whisked him to safety, but only after a firefight killed one soldier and a student who had turned out to support Correa. The President’s car was struck by five bullets. According to the Latin American Herald Tribune, eight people died and 274 were wounded in incidents nationwide.
Suspicion has fallen on former president and army colonel Lucio Gutierrez, who led a 2000 coup and has called for Correa’s ouster. Gutierrez currently lives in Brazil and denies any link to the attempted coup. Correa also charges that Gutierrez’s brother Gilmar, a member of the National Assembly, supported the coup.
Last year’s coup in Honduras that ousted Manuel Zelaya has cast a shadow across the region, raising up the ghosts of a previous era when military takeovers routinely toppled governments in Latin America, including those in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Ecuador. According to The Guardian, Correa said in the aftermath of the Honduran coup, “We have intelligence reports that say after Zelaya, I’m next.”
After Zelaya was ousted, the coup-led government of Roberto Micheletti organized elections—boycotted by most the population—and put Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo into power. Most countries in the region refuse to recognize the Lobo government, including the region’s major players, Brazil and Argentina.
In spite of the fact that the Lobo government has overseen a wave of terror directed at journalists, trade unionists, gays and lesbians, and opposition activists, Washington is pushing hard for countries to end Honduras’s regional isolation and its suspension from the Organization of American States (OAS).
“Now is the time for the hemisphere as a whole to move forward and welcome Honduras back into the inter-American community,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the OAS.
But most countries are wary of anything that might give the appearance of endorsing a government brought in via a coup. There is also concern about the ongoing human rights crisis in Honduras. Reporters Without Borders has labeled Honduras the most dangerous country in the world for journalists—eight have been murdered in the past year—and human rights groups, including Amnesty International, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have all condemned the ongoing reign of terror directed at members of the Honduran opposition, the National Front of Popular Resistance.
While most nations in the region are reluctant to bed down with the Honduran government, the U.S. has opened the military aid spigot, donating $812,000 worth of heavy trucks to the Honduran Army. In the meantime, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), is handing out $75 million for development projects, and $20 million for the “Merida” security program.
“Washington’s support for the coup government in Honduras over the past year has encouraged and increased the likelihood of rightwing coups against democratic left governments in the region,” writes The Guardian’s Latin American correspondent Mark Weisbrot. “This attempt in Ecuador has failed, but there will likely be more threats in the months and years ahead.”
Two obvious candidates are Bolivia and Paraguay. In the case of the former, organizations like USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)—both of which gave active support to organizations behind the Honduran coup—are active.
In Honduras, NED and USAID helped finance the Peace and Democracy Movement and the Civil Democratic Union, both dominated by the country’s tiny elite, and which strongly supported the coup. Many of the Honduran Army’s officers, including coup leaders Gen. Vasquez Velasquez and Gen. Prince Suazo, have been trained by the U.S. Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation, the former “School for the Americas” that has trained coup makers and human rights violators from throughout Latin America.
According to !Presente!, a publication critical of the School for the Americas, the commander of the police barracks where Ecuadoran President Correa was attacked, Col Manuel Rivadeneira Tello, is a graduate of the school’s combat arms training course.
Bolivian President Evo Morales recently threatened to expel USAID for its role in financing opposition separatist groups based in the country’s wealthy eastern provinces. Along with the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD)—an organization long associated with the Central Intelligence Agency—USAID and NED have underwritten separatist media and organizations based in the wealthy province of Santa Cruz, where most of the country’s natural gas deposits lie.
The possibility of Eastern Bolivia declaring independence is very real and, if it happens, U.S. organizations will have played a major role in encouraging it.
In May of this year, Fernando Lugo, the progressive president of Paraguay, reported to the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) meeting in Buenos Aires that he had evidence of a coup aimed at overthrowing his government. Lugo had a closed-door meeting with the UNASUR members, following which UNASUR reaffirmed its full support for the Paraguayan government.
Paraguay is one of the poorest and most unequal countries on the continent, and it was long dominated by a military dictatorship. Lugo, who took office in August 2008 for a five-year term, put together a coalition that broke the 60-year stranglehold the conservative Colorado Party had over the country.
Lugo has weathered some personal scandals—he is a former Catholic Bishop who fathered a number of children—and is currently suffering from lymphoma. He is locked in a battle with his more conservative vice-president, Federico Franco, and at loggerheads with a fractious congress that has made getting legislation through a trial. Those are the kind of difficulties that might well encourage Paraguay’s rightwing military and the Coloradoans to consider a coup, particularly if they think that Washington will eventually take a position similar to the one it took on Honduras.
Of course not all coups are successful these days. An outpour of popular support for Hugo Chavez reversed the 2001 Venezuela coup, and Correa’s 67 percent positive rating—he has doubled healthcare spending, increased social services, and stiffed a phony $3.2 billion foreign debt—certainly played a role in spiking the Ecuador coup.
But U.S. organizations like NED and AIFLD, active throughout the hemisphere, were closely associated with the Venezuelan coup makers.
The Obama Administration promised a new deal in Latin America and a break from the policies of the Bush Administration. Instead it has beefed up its military presence in Colombia, sharpened its attacks on Venezuela, refused to back away from its blockade of Cuba, and played footsie with the Honduran government.
If countries in the region are paranoid, maybe they have reasons for it.
More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches from the Edge.