Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Day in New York

A Quiet day in midtown. Reflections.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Vista, hasta la vista mi vista

The view from my apartment in Quito. Leaving the city and this view behind causes a bit of nostalgia.

The volcano Cotopaxí stands watch over Quito miles Southeast of the city. On clear days Cotopaxí appears stunning. It is the highest active volcano in the world.

La Virgen del Panecillo overlooks mid-town Quito from its perch on a hill whose name translates "the little loaf of bread".

Morning view from my bedroom window frequented by pidgeons.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Tear Gas and Tears

I went to the protest at the police hospital on Mariana de Jesus in the middle of the afternoon on September 30th. I wandered around the crowd of Correa supporters who bore the hot green flags of the presidency and the primary colors of the Republic, shouted insults at the police and chanted slogans in support of Correa and la patria: ”¡El pueblo unido, no será vencido!” “¡Correa amigo, el pueblo está contigo!” Street vendors wove in and out of the crowd selling bunches of whistles.

I cut my way to the front of the crowd, facing a row of riot police. They were blocking off the entrance to the hospital with shields, gas masks, and tear gas shooters. The President, somewhere tucked away on the third floor, claimed they were holding him hostage. A group of photographers and videographers stood clustered against one wall on a bank of grass overlooking us all, waiting for events to transpire.

The crowd had gathered at the hospital since mid-morning, where the president sought refuge after being tear-gassed and rustled up by protesting police while speaking at a barracks in Quito.

The police were protesting a new public service law that would cut their (excessive) bonuses and benefits. It is believed that opposition factions had stirred up the police forces, most of whom had not even read the law. In their protests they had left the nation's streets empty and unguarded, leaving the cities and citizens open to theft, assault, and other crimes.

“¡Chapas de mierda!” “¡Cobardes!” “¡Cerdos!” shouted the crowd in various choruses.

At intervals, the confrontation became heated. The crowd pushed too close. A few young and foolish began throwing rocks. The immediate response of the chapas was to shoot rounds of flaming tear gas into the crowd, at which point, the people scattered like cattle.

The first round was the scariest; I heard shots but had no idea what they were shooting at us. The crowd started to stampede.

“¡Despacio! ¡Despacio!” a few cool-headed protesters shouted out to the chaos around them.

Then, I felt my saliva burning my throat, my mouth, my lips… It was impossible to close my eyes and impossible to keep them open. All I could manage was to blink and to cry fat, burning tears. It was difficult to breathe. The smoke had so enveloped us that I knew not how to escape.

The stampede created a buffer zone between the crowd and the police with only a handful of the most fool hearty remaining to throw rocks amidst streams of gas. Some even dared to pick up the burning gas and throw it back at the chapas. Others tore signs off nearby buildings and began using them as shields against the fire.

“¡No lanzen piedras!” shouted several cool-headed protesters, “¡Somos una gente civilizada!” (“Don’t throw rocks….we’re a civilized people!”)

In the hour or two that I remained in the crowd, we endured several rounds of this fire. Those who bore the brunt of it could be distinguished by their swollen, red eyes, their tears, their breathlessness…water could not wash it away, only more smoke.

More fires were lit: newspapers on street curbs, fallen branches in burnt-out tires…Kind members of the crowd offered to blow their cigarette smoke in the faces, the eyes and the mouths of those who were badly gassed. With every onslaught of tear gas, the vendors started to shout with all the fervor of their opportunism, “¡Tabacos! ¡Tabacos!”

I left the protest well before nightfall, long before any changes were to occur. It would end up taking a squad of militia with gas masks and firearms and several armored vehicles to escort the President from the hospital grounds to the capital seat, Carondolet, in the Quito’s Plaza of Independence. The President was extracted beneath an exchange of gunfire which all of Ecuador watched over national television. By this hour, the streets surrounding the hospital had been emptied of all protesters and most journalists and been transformed into a ground zero of deserted streets filled with an eerie mix of rising gas and dull, fluorescent street lamps.

Casualties were minimal – two policemen, two soldiers and one civilian – but unprecedented. In the previous coup attempts of the past decade, there had been no deaths.

“We have a tradition of protest but not of violence,” said Dolores Padilla, once a vice presidential candidate and an influential women in Ecuador's political scene, with whom I watched the events.

At the height of the conflict, when the gunfire began, Dolores started to wail in agony for her country – “¡Nunca! ¡Nunca!” she mourned. All she could do was offer the room glasses of whiskey to ease the waiting.

“Why did they wait until night to do this!” she asked. Another woman in the room had predicted that the worst would happen after nightfall – when darkness and shadow could obscure responsibility.

Earlier in the day, the President – who has a strong costeño personality and protagonistic governing style – had challenged the police and opposition, shouting from his hospital room, “Here I am! Kill me! Kill me if you are brave enough!”

It is difficult to call this a coup attempt since there was no one else the opposition had lined up to seat in Correa’s place. While it may have started as a protest, the conflict escalated – whether by the manipulation of the government or the opportunism of Correa’s opponents.

Coup attempt or not, four bullets were later found in the walls and windows of the President’s armored vehicle. Coup attempt or not, a sizeable faction of the national police had expressed aggression on a hospital (attacking an ambulance bearing patients), something not even allowed during wartime by international law.

Government manipulation or not, Correa would come out of the day’s events a hero, while no other institution in the country – the police, the military, the ministries who are supposed to be in tune with public opinion – would emerge strengthened. Government manipulation or not, all alternative television channels were indefinitely suspended throughout the day, allowing only the official version of events to reach the people: “A coup attempt!” “The President sequestered!” “A violent rescue!” Political spokespersons appeared, urging the people to appear en-masse outside the hospital and at the Plaza of Independence to show support of the president.

Twelve hours after the conflict began, a cheering crowd complete with flags, banners and band greeted the President in Carondelet. Just like that, with the President’s assumption on the palace balcony, the conflict was over.

From his balcony at Carondolet, Correa shouted to his supporters: "Tears fell from my eyes! Not tears of fear, but tears of sadness that Ecuadorian blood was spilt, blood of our brothers, in vain!"