The Obama administration needs to take a stronger stance against the recent coup attempt in Ecuador. Undemocratic power grabs in Latin America will continue unless Washington ends its habit of sending mixed messages.
Police rebelled in Quito on September 30 against benefit cuts planned by the government. When President Rafael Correa tried negotiating with a group of striking police, they fired teargas canons against him. Correa sustained injuries and was literally carried off the scene to a local hospital.
The mutinous police surrounded the hospital and attacked the building, while opposition politicians demanded the president's resignation. Correa was rescued from the hospital by loyal Army Special Forces amid an intense shootout and pitched street battles.
Citing coordinated action and the seizure of key airports and barracks by police, Correa declared the armed uprising a "coup attempt."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a brief statement saying the Obama administration "deplores violence and lawlessness and we express our full support for President Rafael Correa, and the institutions of democratic government."
The crisis in Ecuador comes on the heels of the successful coup against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in June 2009. Zelaya was forced from office at gunpoint in the middle of the night and was whisked off to Costa Rica in a military plane — in his pajamas.
At first, Obama said, "I think it would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition, rather than democratic elections."
This was a laudable change from Washington's historical tolerance of — and in some cases outright support for — violent coups against democratically elected governments in Latin America.
But the Obama administration later backtracked when it recognized Honduras' new leader, Profirio Lobo, who was elected under what critics described as military rule.
Obama effectively helped set the "terrible precedent" he so feared.
Although most Latin American presidents have refused to recognize Lobo as Honduras' head of state, Washington has bankrolled the controversial government with at least $220 million in economic and military aid since the coup.
The Obama administration's whitewashing of the Lobo government in Honduras, where gross human rights abuses remain rampant, sent a clear signal that the persistence of coup plotters in Latin America will eventually pay off in Washington.
Indeed, shortly after the coup in Honduras, Ecuador's Correa warned, "We have intelligence reports that say that after Zelaya, I'm next."
This sadly proved true.
Mass rallies in support of Correa and the quick action of loyalist troops thwarted the coup attempt. But the situation in this Andean country could quickly deteriorate, posing a renewed threat to Ecuador's democracy.
Now it's up to Washington step up and make sure violent power grabs in Latin America remain the scars of the past, rather than the open wounds of the future.
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