What happened yesterday in Ecuador was a type of coup, or golpe (to use the Spanish term).
I know there’s some debate over whether to consider it as such (Boz has a good rundown of both positions). Clearly, Correa is milking the situation to his best advantage (or at least hoping to). But that shouldn’t matter in terms of what to call the event itself. In fact, Correa would have to be a fool of a politician if he didn’t seek to spin the even to his best advantage. Another controversy concerns the intent and/or extent of the police uprising or mutiny. Greg Weeks, who I respect, uses the ambiguous and/or limited goals of the police protesters/mutineers to argue that it was not a “coup” (see his post).
It is just a semantics argument, but not an unimportant one. Obviously, Weeks & almost everyone else out there agrees that this was a political crisis that should not have happened in a democracy. Correa (like him or not) is an elected head of state. As such, an assault on his person (as well as on the institutions of government: the presidential palace, the legislature) are illegitimate means of expressing discontent w/ policies.
Also, the term “coup d’état” does have a specific pedigree, as Weeks point out. But I use the term “coup” or “golpe” in the broader meaning—the kind often used in Bolivia. Unlike Chile (a case Weeks is much more familiar w/), Bolivia (like Ecuador) has a much more established tradition of “golpes.” The Bolivian lexicon uses “golpe” (literally, a “strike” or “physical blow”) to include a broader range of activities. In fact, any armed uprising that strikes at one or more key institutions of power are considered a “golpe.” These can be “golpe military” (a “strike” by the military), a “golpe de palacio” (a “strike” from w/in the presidential palace itself), or a “golpe de partido” (a “strike” by a party, as in the 1949 and 1952 civilian putsches led by the MNR; the first failed, the second was successful & ushered in the Bolivian Revolution). And, of course, there can even be an “auto-golpe” (like when Fujimori launched his famous 1992 “self-coup”),
The situation in Ecuador qualifies as a “golpe.” Whehter the intent was specifically to overthrow Correa & replace him w/ someone else is, in my opinion, irrelevant. (Though of course, if Correa had died in the assault, which was a possibility, then the government would’ve been changed; surely the police who attacked the presidential palace were ware of this?) It’s also irrelevant that the “golpe” failed. There have been a number of failed coups in Ecuador’s history (including several kidnappings of the president by the military in the 1990s). It’s not success or failure that should qualify a “golpe.” It’s also equally impossible to determine the intent of the participants. Instead, I look at merely the scope of the phenomenon.
The police assaulted the presidential palace. They physically attacked the president, and took him to their hospital. By all accounts, they closed the legislature, preventing congressmen from entering their offices. The police then engaged in a firefight w/ loyalist army units seeking to rescue the president. During all this time, who was in charge of the country? I suspect that for a few hours, that issue was unclear. I believe that qualifies as a coup. If Correa had died in the assault, or if the army had chosen to sit it out, then we would have seen a new kind of government—one more likely to favor the police offeres’ demands—in power. I believe that qualifies as a coup. The only tangle is that the day ended w/ a rescued president back in charge. This looks like a failed coup, but a coup nonetheless.
I come to this conclusion after reflecting on the experience of another president: In February 2003, Bolivia’s Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada faced a similar situation. The police, demanding that their salaries be raised, mutinied in the capital. Under the command of a Major David Vargas, the elite GES (the Bolivian SWAT) assaulted the presidential palace (the bullet holes are still there). Like in Ecuador, the military rode to the beleaguered president’s rescue, engaging in a brief firefight w/ the police. Other than the ideological orientation of the presidents, the differences in their situations were minimal. In 2003 many (myself included) considered what happened in Bolivia a “golpe.” against the president. I stand by that assessment.
The real question—and not just a semantics one—is whether Correa will face a different fate than Goni. The February 2003 police mutiny was the first major sign that Goni’s government coalition was in serious trouble. As we know, it didn’t survive the end of the year. Will Correa’s government end the same way? The military offered only tepid support, as did other actors (including, surprisingly, Correa’s own brother). Or will Correa’s government emerge strengthened by the experience? The future is uncertain.
But I think it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that this was a “coup”—at least of some “diminished” subtype.