A controversy with Ecuador’s Armed Forces that led President Rafael Correa to dismiss top military commanders for disobedience has sparked a new round of opposition protests in Quito, with government supporters simultaneously holding counter demonstrations in support of Correa and what supporters call the Citizen’s Revolution.
The spike in tensions with the military has been interpreted by the government as a preliminary sign of potential rebellion and politicization in the military.
On the one hand, the events have led many to reminisce about Ecuador’s history of political instability and call for defense of civil power over the military as a cornerstone of democracy. On the other hand, right-wing opposition groups that accuse Correa of infringing on the rights of the military have seized the controversy as an opportunity to launch a new round of protests against the government.
The Controversy Behind Correa Firing High Military Command
The spat between Correa and top echelons of the military kicked off recently over irregularities in a 2010 land transaction involving the military. The Social Security Institute of the Armed Forces, or ISSFA, allegedly overcharged the Ministry of Environment for plots of land in Los Samanes, Guayaquil, at a cost of over US$48 million, or about US$41 million above the plots’ value on the land registry.
The state attorney general’s office detected the overpriced sale last November.
When the government confronted military chiefs about the transaction and requested a refund for the overcharged value, the head of the Joint Command of the Armed Forces Luis Garzon accused Correa of depriving the military of money, particularly pension funds.
In a press conference last February 5, Garzon rejected the government’s move to rectify the overpriced sale, which would require ISSFA to reimburse the Ministry of Environment the US$41 million over the land’s value. The military chief argued that both buyer and seller agreed to the terms of transaction and accused the government of meddling to deprive the military of funds.
“The resources of the military social security belong to soldiers in active and passive service and their families, so their protection and preservation is the duty of state,” said Garzon in the press conference, according to local media.
Correa took to Twitter to confirm that military pensions are guaranteed in the constitution, adding that the funds are “more solvent than ever” and that recuperation of the US$41 million overcharge was “a matter of principle.”
“The Ecuadorean people should know that the government pays ISSFA about US$500 million annually,” Correa wrote on his Twitter account. “Is US$41 million going to ‘break’ ISSFA?”
Garzon was accused of trying to manipulate soldiers by making politicized statements and was dismissed on Friday, Feb. 5 along with other members of the military high command, two months ahead of when their two-year tenures were set to expire.
Correa announced the new military officials on Feb. 12th, and on the following day, the president stated that he will not tolerate disobedience in the Armed Forces.
“I am the commander in chief of the Armed Forces and I will not allow anyone to disobey me,” Correa said during his weekly television show Citizen Link. Correa went on to chastise the commander for using state resources to speak out and politicize legal matters, acting outside standard military practice.
“I will not allow them to return to the practices of the past,” Correa added.
An assessment of the legality of the Los Samanes land sale is expected to be released next month.
Political Dimensions of Flared Tensions with the Military
After firing the high military command, Correa warned that political interests could have motivated the disagreements and flared tensions with the government.
According to a column by political analyst Luis Varese in Ecuador’s El Telegrafo, small protests by soldiers over the controversy supported by the opposition received the “blessing” of the former military command, pointing to alliances with right-wing forces within the military.
“The memories that these acts recall are not few,” wrote Varese. “Lie after lie, insistently saying that their substantial pension benefits, benefits of senior officers, will be taken away.”
Varese slammed the military command’s actions by arguing that manipulating the matter of ISSFA resources works “to serve the foreign owners of the world and not Ecuador.” The analyst warned that there could be some “who continue to work on the possibility of a coup,” both in Ecuador and other South American countries with which it is aligned, and invoked the memory of the 2010 coup attempt against Correa.
On Sept. 30, 2010, a police strike over measures that officers interpreted as cuts to their pay and benefits turned into a violent revolt against Correa, even though the government maintained that their pay had actually been increased. Several people were killed in the failed coup attempt and Correa was forced to seek refuge in a hospital. In 2014, investigations revealed that the coup attempt had been pre-planned.
Some have drawn parallels between the interpretation of benefit changes by the National Police in the lead-up to the 2010 coup attempt and the military command’s recent outcry over pensions, which the government has labeled a manipulation of the situation.
Opposition and Pro-Government Groups Rally Amid Controversy
Members of Ecuador’s opposition have sided with the dismissed high military command in the spat over the government’s request for ISSFA to return the US$41 million.
Opposition-backed protests took place February 10th, in Quito near the headquarters of Correa’s Alianza Pais party—the same place right-wing groups protested on several occasions last year, primarily against proposed taxes on the wealthy.
Protesters chanted slogans including “Out Correa, out” and “Prison Correa, prison,” TeleSur` reported.
“Correa should resign,” one opposition protester said , describing the country as living in “total insecurity” and suffering a moral crisis.
Opposition lawmaker Andres Paez also wrote in an open letter to the newly-appointed military command posted on his Facebook account that the Correa’s bid to “take” the money from ISSFA was among several “outrages” the government has committed against the military.
Paez also argued in the letter that Ecuador’s move to prosecute former military officers for historical crimes against humanity was also among such “outrages” of the Correa government.
But government supporters also rose to the occasion by rallying in defense of Correa and the Citizen’s Revolution of his Alianza Pais party. Pro-government rallies were held the same afternoon as the opposition protests in Quito’s central Plaza Grande in front of the Presidential Palace.
Correa slammed the mainstream press for misrepresenting the government and painting his administration as a dictatorship.
“I want the press to listen to me: Stop manipulating the people,” the president said in remarks delivered during the rally. “Everything we are doing is legal and for the good will of the people.”
“Soldiers can have certainty over their pensions,” Correa said during the rally , “Our armed forces are very important for the country, but they are not the whole country.”