Global Policy Forum

Military-Indigenous Coup Aborted


By Jennifer N. Collins

Report from Ecuador
January 22, 2000

Quito: 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 until 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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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.