In June of last year, when the Honduran military overthrew the social-democratic government of Manuel Zelaya, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador took it personally. "We have intelligence reports that say that after Zelaya, I'm next," said Correa.
On Thursday, it turned out to be true. Some analysts are still insisting that what happened was just a police protest over possible benefit cuts that got out of hand. But to anyone who watched the prolonged, pitched gun-battle on TV last night, when the armed forces finally rescued President Correa from the hospital where he was trapped by the police, this did not look like a protest. It was an attempt to overthrow the government.
The co-ordinated actions in various cities, the takeover of Quito's airport by a section of the armed forces – all this indicated a planned coup attempt. And although it failed, at various points during the day it was not so clear what the outcome would be.
The government pointed a finger at a former president and army colonel, Lucio Gutierrez, and he was on television yesterday calling for the ousting of Correa. He accused the president of everything from supporting the Farc (the guerilla group fighting Colombia's government), to wrecking the economy.
The coup might have had a chance if Correa were not so popular. Despite his enemies in high places, the president's approval rating was 67% in Quito a couple of weeks ago. His government has doubled spending on healthcare (pdf), significantly increased other social spending, and successfully defaulted on $3.2bn of foreign debt that was found to be illegitimately contracted. Ecuador's economy managed to squeak through 2009 without a recession, and is projected to grow about 2.5% this year. Correa, an economist, has had to use heterodox and creative methods to keep the economy growing in the face of external shocks because the country does not have its own currency. (Ecuador adopted the dollar in 2000, which means that it can do little in the way of monetary policy and has no control over its exchange rate.)
Correa had warned that he might try to temporarily dissolve the congress in order to break an impasse in the legislature, something that he has the right to request under the new constitution – though it would have to be approved by the constitutional court. This probably gave the pro-coup forces something they saw as a pretext. It is reminiscent of the coup in Honduras, when Zelaya's support for a non-binding referendum on a constituent assembly was falsely reported by the media – both Honduran and international – as a bid to extend his presidency.
Media manipulation has a big role in Ecuador, too, with most of the media controlled by rightwing interests opposed to the government. This has helped build a base of people – analogous to those who get all of their information from Fox News in the United States, but proportionately larger – who believe that Correa is a dictator trying to turn his country into a clone of communist Cuba.
The US state department issued a two-sentence statement from secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who late Thursday urged "all Ecuadoreans to come together and to work within the framework of Ecuador's democratic institutions to reach a rapid and peaceful restoration of order." Unlike the White House statement in response to the Honduran coup last year, it also expressed "full support" for the elected president. This is an improvement, although it is unlikely that it reflects a change in Washington's policy toward Latin America.
The Obama administration did everything it could to support the coup government in Honduras last year, and, in fact, is still trying to convince the South American governments – including Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina and the collective organisation of UNASUR – to recognise the government there. South America refuses to recognise the Lobo government because it was elected under a dictatorship that did not allow for a free or fair contest. The rest of the hemisphere also wants some guarantees that would stop the killing of journalists and political activists there, which has continued and even got worse under the "elected" government.
As the South American governments feared, Washington's support for the coup government in Honduras over the last year has encouraged and increased the likelihood of rightwing coups against democratic left governments in the region. This attempt in Ecuador has failed, but there will be likely be more threats in the months and years ahead