Military Indigenous Coup Aborted by Military High Command


By

Jennifer N. Collins

Quito,

January 22, 2000: The coup carried out yesterday in Ecuador by mid-level

military officers together with leaders of the indigenous movement lasted less

than 24 hours. Actions taken by officers in the Joint Command of the Armed

Forces has given way to the destitution of President Jamil Mahuad and his

replacement by Vice President Gustavo Noboa, and thereby the return to

constitutionality, but the pressing problems of social injustice and exclusion

remain. The indigenous and popular movements, which led the way to the coup have

not been granted any concessions or a seat at the negotiating table, this may

lead to further unrest.

A

Single Day of Popular Power

After

taking over the Congressional building, declaring a new government of national

salvation, and installing a new "popular parliament," the forces

supporting this rupture with the constitutional order and the installation of a

new popular government moved the center of their activity from the Congress

building slowly towards the National Palace, located in the colonial center of

the capital. At about 5pm that afternoon the protestors and the military

officers who had joined the rebellion began a march from the Congressional

building to the National Palace. At around the same time, President Mahuad

abandoned the seat of government after being informed by the General in charge

of the troops guarding the Palace, that he could no longer assure the security

of the building.

Later that

night, after the leaders of the newly declared government had installed

themselves in the National Palace, it was announced that they would meet with

the leaders of the Joint Command of the Armed Forces. This was clearly a crucial

moment; up to that point the high level military leadership had been very clear

in their position of only supporting a constitutional solution to the crisis.

Earlier that day they had called upon President Mahuad to resign, but had by no

means given their support to the mid-level officers who had joined together with

the indigenous and popular leaders. At about 7pm that night, the Chief of the

Joint Command, General Carlos Mendoza, arrived at the National Palace and began

to dialogue with the leaders of the coup in the middle of the plaza. Eventually

they went inside the National Palace and went into a closed session meeting with

leaders of the newly declared "Junta of National Salvation." It was

certainly quite surprising to see this representative of the highest level of

the military command entering into peaceful negotiations with the leaders of the

coup, who had in effect subverted his authority.

In the

meantime, the military cordon that had been blocking access to the plaza in

front of the National Palace was finally broken at 7pm and about 5,000

demonstrators, supporters of the new government flooded into Independence Plaza.

The balconies of the national palace were brimming with people, a mixture of

members of the military and the police together with indigenous and popular

leaders. Members of the military could be seen speaking to the crowd below and

leading them in chants of "Ecuador, Ecuador." Below, illuminated by

the light of TV cameras, the plaza was filled with supporters of the new popular

government.

Just

before mid-night, after about three hours of negotiations behind closed doors,

Coronel Gutierrez, who had led the mid-level officers in the coup announced that

his mission had been completed and that he was handing over power in this new

government to General Carlos Mendoza. At that point Mendoza announced the

formation of a civil-military triumvirate, composed of himself, the President of

the National Indigenous Confederation (CONAIE), Antonio Vargas, and Carlos

Solorzano, a former President of the Supreme Court. Mendoza announced that this

triumvirate would "work for the country, put an end to corruption, and

assure that day by day Ecuadorians would become less poor." In response to

a barrage of questions from journalists about what sort of policies this new

government would implement, Mendoza evaded any concrete answers, and instead

explained that the triumvirate would have to meet the next day and had not yet

made these crucial decisions.

Betrayal

Comes at Night

Thus, last

night the country went to bed with a new civilian-military popular government,

but it awoke to the surprising news that General Mendoza had betrayed his

promise to join this new government. Just three hours after the midnight

announcement, sometime around 3am, Mendoza announced that he was withdrawing

from the triumvirate, and that he would give way to the assumption of power by

Vice President Noboa. In his declarations he basically admitted that he had

purposefully deceived the nation and had never had any intention of allowing

this junta to remain in power. He explained that he took this action in order to

avoid bloodshed and to bring about a peaceful return to constitutional order. By

the time he made this announcement, the demonstrators had abandoned the National

Palace. In other words, it was clear that he had made a show of support for the

popular government in order to deactivate the demonstrations. Once this was

done, he met with the high military command and informed them and the press that

he was not going to continue as a member of the junta.

This

morning (Saturday, January 22) the military officers who led the coup were

arrested and are currently in jail, and apparently the indigenous leadership is

in hiding. Also this morning, Mahuad announced on a national television

broadcast that he had been overthrown by a military coup, and asked the country

and the political elite to give their united support to the new President,

Gustavo Noboa. Also this morning the Ecuadorian Congress met in session in

Guayaquil, i.e. not in the National Congress building into order to take the

legal steps necessary for Noboa to assume the presidency.

What

Happened?

It is

clear in hindsight that the military high command was never in favor or willing

to support this kind of a popular coup, and one can speculate, either that the

mid-level officers who helped lead the coup were simply duped by the position of

the representative of the Joint Command, or instead that they began to realize

that they might not have enough support within the military to successfully

carry out this coup, and so fairly quickly gave in.

Certainly

what must have been another important factor in the decisions made by all

factions within the military was the international reaction to this coup. Every

country in Latin America, with the exception of Venezuela, publicly condemned

the coup and called for a return to constitutional order. The United States did

likewise, and went so far as to threaten that if this coup persisted that

Ecuador would be cut off internationally the way that Cuba has been. Certainly,

this sort of threat would have weighed heavily with the military leadership.

What is

more of a quandary is the position and thinking of the indigenous leadership.

Clearly this action by Mendoza was a blatant betrayal of their cause, and they

appear to have come out of this whole episode in a weaker position politically

than before. Previous to this whole episode they had five representatives in the

National Congress; they had been elected on the Pachakutik ticket, which is a

political movement with strong connections to the CONAIE and other social

movements. In the midst of yesterday’s events three of the Pachakutik elected

representatives resigned from Congress in order to throw their support in with

the new popular government. Two leaders of the center-left Democratic Left Party

(ID), also did likewise. Thus, the small amount of representation that these

movements had in the national Congress has now been substantially reduced.

Vargas,

the President of CONAIE, announced this morning that in view of what had

happened the indigenous uprising would continue. After this statement this

morning the press has not reported on any other statements by the indigenous

leadership. There are, however, rumors that all of the leadership has gone into

hiding in anticipation of retaliations against them. The rank-and-file members

of the movement, who came into Quito from the provinces and have been camped out

in a park, today have been preparing to return to their homes. Again the rumor

that I heard is that they are planning to carry on the uprising in the

provinces. Given what they achieved, even if only for a day, and the level of

betrayal that took place on the part of the military, I can’t believe that some

sort of reaction is not going to take place, and I would not be surprised if the

reaction this time takes a more violent turn than it has in the past.

What

Future for Justice and Social-Political Change?

While I am

a strong supporter of democracy and the importance therefore of democratic

processes and institutions, I have to say that my heart is heavy today. It is

clear to me that here in Ecuador formal democracy has not worked to represent or

safeguard the interests of the poor, which represent the vast majority of this

county, or even of the small middle class. Instead, the vast majority of the

political elite, from the President on down, have acted with incredible

callousness and irresponsibility towards the bulk of the Ecuadorian people, in

benefit of a very small, but economically powerful segment of the population.

Not only has the political and economic elite that rule this country not taken

seriously the need for redistributive measures to ameliorate the high level of

income inequality, but they have not even been capable or willing to take the

steps necessary to construct an efficient and competitive economy that produces

economic growth. Instead a type of crony capitalism has taken root in this

country and is threatening to draw the whole country into chaos.

The

indigenous movement has been valiant in its efforts to raise a united call for a

new type of democracy that can overcome this bias in favor of the wealthy and

powerful. Up umtil now they have worked through peaceful means, but in view of

this blatant and terrible betrayal it would not be at all surprising if this was

taken as a lesson that peaceful means are not very successful at achieving

change. Thus I am afraid that difficult and perhaps tragic days lay ahead for

Ecuador, but certainly the tragedy has been going on for a long time as every

day citizens are denied the means to live with dignity, security, and with

opportunities for bettering their lives.

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