The Christmas Basket Coup
I arrived in Quito on the morning of 30 September to what appeared to be a normal day in Ecuador and blissfully unaware of events which were to follow later that day. Sara, our Production Manager, and I had flown out from the UK and we met Mark in Quito as he had flown via New York courtesy of a free BA business class ticket to research potential trade contacts in the US.
As we arrived, President Rafael Correa was being tear-gassed by his own police force. The violence began as a protest by some police against a law scrapping their bonuses and their Christmas basket.
It must have been literally minutes after we passed through passport control and took a taxi that the airport was seized by 300 air force personnel and military. The KLM plane we had arrived on had already taken on more passengers in Guayaquil before we landed in Quito and was due for a quick turn around before flying back to Amsterdam. It was forced to turn back to the airport after leaving the gate and passengers were stranded in the airport.
I had booked a hotel in the old city for a change, just over a block from the Presidential Palace. Little did I realise that I had booked a ringside seat for the action which was to follow!
We left our hotel to walk around the area to look for hat ribbon suppliers located nearby, taking in a church or two on the way. We were accompanied by our hotel manager who offered to show us where the ribbon suppliers were located and, as we walked, he was telling us to be careful as there were no police on the streets today due to a strike. After about half an hour walking around shops, including the Sinchi Sacha Fair Trade shop located next to San Francisco church, shopowners started to pull down their shutters. The next shop we went into warned us to go back to the hotel as armed robbers were on the streets, looting and robbing shops and banks as there was no police on the streets to apprehend them.
Barricaded in the hotel, the drama unfurled on the TV screen in front of us, with the President stranded in hospital and an armed battle carrying on outside as police tried to storm the hospital with the intention of killing the President. By the evening, hunger had got the better of us and Mark was disappointed to find that all of his top restaurant research had been in vain as all of the restaurants had closed for the night due to security fears. Fortunately, the rooftop restaurant a block from our hotel had remained open and seemed fairly safe as it was at the top of a high building. After finishing our meal on the rooftop terrace, we stopped briefly to watch the live action of the coup attempt on TV in the restaurant bar. A gun battle was raging at the hospital as police were still attempting to get to the President.
Suddenly someone ran in and told us that the President was in the Plaza of the Presidential Palace, just a block away. He had escaped from the hospital in disguise in a wheelchair. We had come out without valuables and so decided to take the risk and ran over to the square to see the President give a long and impassioned speech. The square was filling with more and more people as news of his escape spread: singing, flag waving and a fiesta-like atmosphere were a dramatic change from the gun-battles we had been witnessing on the television moments before. However, I was aware of the strong military presence in the square and also concerned about what would happen when the police discovered the President had escaped. Would they be heading our way? We headed back to the safety of our hotel and hoped that we would be able to travel to Otavalo the following day. The Panamerican Highway had been blocked by burning tyres and we weren't sure what the situation would be the following day. A State of Emergency was declared throughout the country and borders were closed with neighbouring countries, but the next day everything seemed to have reverted to normal.
I have to say that the events of 30 September were not a huge shock to me. On my first ever day in Ecuador in 1990 I had to run away from police throwing tear gas. I was in the country during the Ecuador-Peru war in 1995; I have witnessed numerous road blocks due to protests and had to take circuitous 8 hour journeys over cobbled roads to undertake journeys which would normally have taken 2 hours; I've seen 8 presidents come and go in Ecuador in the past 13 years, all of whom were elected for 4 year terms. The difference with this coup attempt is that the President has retained the broad support of the electorate and the coup was orchestrated by a small, rogue group of disillusioned police. However, the fact that this coup attempt even took place points to how fragile democracy remains in this region. I am still astonished that the police would attempt to kill a President who has the support of the people over the issue of a cut in their bonuses and taking away their Christmas basket.
For now, the Ecuadorian flags are stored away… at least until the next coup attempt.