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CORREA SAYS OPPOSITION, US GROUPS BEHIND LAST YEAR´S COUP ATTEMPT
By JIM WYSS - McClatchy Newspapers

QUITO, Ecuador - A year ago, President Rafael Correa thought he was going to die. Trapped in a hospital with a handful of bodyguards, Correa watched as a group of protesting policemen, who were virtually holding him hostage, tried to break though a glass wall that separated them.

At one point, someone handed him a gun.

"I don't even know how to shoot," Correa told McClatchy Newspapers. "I am thankful every day for being alive."

The events in Ecuador a year ago are still being investigated and debated, but Correa and his allies say there is proof the police uprising was part of an attempted coup, organized by the opposition, and that may have had the backing of right-wing groups in the United States.

His opponents say the event was little more than a labor dispute that got out of hand when Correa waded into the crowd. They also accuse the socialist firebrand of using the crisis as an excuse to attack rivals, muzzle the press and consolidate power before the 2013 presidential election.

"It shows you how much the opposition and certain news outlets hate me," Correa said, shortly before a trip to New York earlier this month to address the United Nations. "Some media outlets, because they support the opposition, have gone as far as to deny the events of the 30th of September and they blame me. I was almost killed."

Correa, 48, had gone to the police barracks to convince troops that they would see their salaries increase under a new law - instead of being cut, as many believed. The crowd turned surly and as teargas canisters exploded, someone ripped off Correa's gasmask. Television footage showed the gasping president - who was on crutches after knee surgery - being rushed into the nearby police hospital.

For the next 18 hours, he says, he was trapped inside the building by mutinous police as sympathetic military battalions abandoned their posts. As airports were shut down, Ecuador seemed doomed to repeat the cycle of political turmoil that toppled three presidents in nine years.

But that evening, as Correa's supporters surrounded the hospital, commandos raided the building and freed him. Two military officers and two policemen were killed in the operation. At least six other people died during the chaos, and there were more than 300 wounded.

The event was something of a watershed in Ecuadorean politics. On three occasions since 1997, mobs have taken to the streets to help oust unpopular presidents. The latest to fall was Lucio Gutierrez in 2005. This time, however, Ecuadoreans turned out to defend the presidency and democracy, Correa said.

"Despite the brutal show of force, despite the fact that we were detained, despite the abuses and the threats on our life, we did not concede to any of the demands of the police," Correa said. "But this was a much larger conspiracy - at the political level, too. But we didn't concede there, either."

Correa says one of the leaders of that conspiracy may be Gutierrez. A few days before the uprising, the former president was in Miami and suggested that after Correa was gone that would be the end of his "Citizens' Revolution" - a populist program that mirrors much of Venezuela's "21st Century Socialism."

Correa said Gutierrez's statements, followed by remarks made by Gutierrez's party a few days later, were proof that they had knowledge of the coup plot.

In his small campaign office with peeling paint and adorned with his official presidential portrait, Gutierrez said he had no prior knowledge of the day's events. He accused Correa of trying to sideline him before the elections.

"He knows that if we had clean elections in this country, he would lose," Gutierrez said. And Correa desperately needs to hold onto power because he fears being criminally prosecuted for ordering his troops to attack the hospital, Gutierrez added.

It is the same accusation - made in an editorial in February - that led Correa to sue El Universo newspaper for $40 million.

The courts have ruled in the president's favor twice but an appeal is pending.

Correa said there is no indication that the U.S. government was involved but conservative groups like the National Endowment for Democracy, or NED, did play a role.

"The tactics and strategies of the extreme right in the United States are to create these think tanks that finance government opposition in progressive countries like ours and in Venezuela and Bolivia," he said. "It's a fact that the NED, et cetera, finance opposition groups in Ecuador and they probably financed the movements behind the 30th of September."

The National Endowment for Democracy denied Correa's allegations.

"President Correa's allegation is a serious one and is flatly wrong," the NED said in a statement. "The National Endowment for Democracy is completely transparent about the groups it supports in Ecuador and anyone can find descriptions of the groups and projects supported by NED on our website. ... NED does not provide funding to political parties or to groups that espouse violence and does not support any kind of program associated with the interruption of the democratic order."

Despite Ecuador's deep polarization, Correa remains popular. In power since 2007, he has approval ratings of 55 percent, according to Cedatos, the local Gallup International affiliate.

Other polls show Correa with less support, but are still impressive in a nation that quickly tires of its presidents, said Cedatos President Angel Polibio Cordova.

"This is something that we have not seen during the democratic history of this country," he said.

Correa said the opposition explains his popularity by accusing his administration of being "Machiavellian; that we have tricked the country with ads, showered it with subsidies and that it's all a big show."

"But the people see that we're good people and that we work day and night for the country," he said, citing social programs and labor reforms that benefit the poor. "We make mistakes and have defects, but we're authentic and the country is changing."

Where people do take issue with Correa is his attitude. Even his supporters view the president as hotheaded and brash, Cordova said.

Adopting some of the language as his populist counterparts in Venezuela and Bolivia, Correa routinely rails against the "ruling elite" and uses his weekly television show, 19 state-run media outlets, and impromptu national addresses to lash out at enemies.

He has also used his popularity to push through controversial reforms. In May, he narrowly won a referendum that gave him the power to create a committee to appoint new judges. The voters also gave him the green-light to create a regulatory board to oversee the media and force newspaper and television owners to divest their non-media holdings.

"He is trying to amass all the power," Gutierrez said. "There is very little room left for our democracy."

Correa knows his policies don't play well abroad.

"If you don't live here you think we are in the middle of a dictatorship or an autocracy, that the jails are full of people who stuck out their tongue at the president," he said. "There are a series of lies that are tossed out there and that are accepted without reflection."

In 2013, Ecuadoreans will go to the polls to elect a president. If Correa wins again, he would stay in power until 2017. Save a coup or illness, that would make him the longest-serving president in Ecuador's history.

Noticia publicada en BELLINGHAMHERALD.COM (EEUU)


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