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Foreign Policy: The Power Of Ecuador's Democracy

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa waves as he enters his vehicle. Correa was held hostage by the Ecuadorian police last week. Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty Images

Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog.

First of all, whatever you think of his politics, give Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa — who was assaulted and briefly held hostage by his own police officers Thursday in what he describes as an attempted coup d'etat — some credit for cojones:

"Mr. Correa had gone to the barracks to address the police complaints in person. A shouting match ensued, and at one point, he loosened his tie and opened his shirt as if to show that he was not wearing a bulletproof vest. “If you want to kill the president, here he is,” he said. “Kill him, if you want to. Kill him if you are brave enough.”

They didn't.

One day later, Correa seems to be reasserting control. The police chief has resigned and Correa plans to overhaul the force. While order seems to be returning for now, some observers are interpreting yesterday's events — coming on the heels of last year's coup in Honduras — as a sign that democracy is increasingly under threat in Latin America and that the region may be at risk of returning to the bad old days where coups and armed insurrection were a regular feature of politics.

Ecuador certainly doesn't have the best track record in this respect — the country went through eight presidents in the decade before Correa took power, three of them driven from power by street protests — but it would still be a mistake to read too much into the latest instability.

First of all, it's not quite clear yet if Thursdays's events really did constitute a coup d'etat. Correa has blamed the opposition Patriotic Society Party for fomenting the unrest, but no political groups have taken credit for what was — on the surface at least — an out-of-control wage strike by the police force.

Secondly, if it was a coup, it was a remarkably ineffective one. The military leadership stood behind Correa, ultimately rescuing him from the police, and the country's top military officer went on the radio to say, "“We are a state of law... We are subordinated to the maximum authority, which is the president of the republic.”

The left-wing Correa is a controversial leader internationally, but yesterday he received the unanimous support of foreign leaders, from Venezuela's Hugo Chavez to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Some may not like the fact that the U.S. government is pledging "full support" for a leader of unabashedly advocates "socialist revolution" and directly opposes U.S. military interests. But the fact that coup-plotters can no longer count on superpower backing for knocking over unpopular governments is a big reason why coups happen a lot less often than they used to and why and are more likely to result in a quick return to democracy — as in Honduras — when they do happen. (In any case, the ideological categories are a bit jumbled on this one since it was a backlash against a socialist leader for cutting benefits to state workers — perhaps another sign of the times.)

This Sunday, Brazilians will go to the polls to elect a new president. Just 25 years after the end of military dictatorship, that country's democracy today seems unassailably robust and despite the country's many problems, its citizens are remarkably optimistic about the future. If this weekend's events in Brazil are a hopeful sign of Latin America's future, yesterday's violence in Ecuador is a ghost of a darker past, but not a reason to think that the bad old days are coming back.

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