Friday, October 1, 2010

Politics and Tear Gas

Yesterday there was a small crisis in the capital city of Quito. President Rafael Correa proposed (not even passed) a new law to eliminate some of the benefits of the police forces. From what I gathered, this meant that they would receive such a smaller bonus with each promotion of rank.

Now what has historically happened in Ecuador when a group of people dislike something that happens, whether political, social, economic, whatever, they strike and they protest and they take to the streets. In this case, police officers and Naval officers all over the country went on strike, which meant that schools, banks, stores, and airports were closed due to lack of safety personnel. This meant that looters came out of the woodwork and sacked banks and department stores, with no one to stop them.

Out of nearly 40,000 total Ecuadorian police officers, some 800 in the city of Quito attempted a revolution yesterday. Supporters grew and the mob swelled. The president, currently recovering from knee surgery, attempted to give an address to the crowd, in response to their actions. This was met with shoving and throwing of water and even tear gas.

The police tear gassed the president.

Then the crowd guided him into the Police Hospital, where he remained for nearly 12 hours. That is, until the armed forces entered and returned the president to safety. It's difficult to say how many of these rebel officers died, the number I've heard most is five.

Late last night the president, looking very tired indeed, was dressed in a suit and tie and his official presidential sash of yellow, blue and red, and made a promise. He promised that he would not back down from his decision, and he promised that the protesters who took such actions would be punished.

Correa pointed out that while the bonus cuts sounded unfair, the regular salary for the Ecuadorian police force has nearly tripled in the last several years. The current salary of an Ecuadorian police officer is around $800 USD per month. And this is a life-risking, high-paying service job.

I asked my students to explain to me what was happening on all the channels, why the airport was locked down and the banks closed their steel doors. Some of them think the president is crazy, while others think the president isn't crazy. I asked them if they thought any of the police were crazy, and they laughed and said everyone is a little crazy, especially when it comes to money!

They all agreed that money is important to live, we all need food and water and shelter and necessities. There are plenty of people, mostly on the mainland, that go everyday without these essentials. I asked them how they valued education. I told them that I value education more than anything, since it is priceless, and no one can ever take it away from you. No dictator, no circumstance, no loss will ever remove what you have worked so hard to learn. They seemed to like this idea.

The retirement package for a police officer who has served the rank of General is around $15,000 USD. For a teacher, or most other workers so highly valued by the government, it's around $10,000 USD. Most people on the island are employed by tourism, a hit-and-miss economy that has swells and sinks. Many are employed by the government, the National Park, the ministries of education, tourism, health, etc. These are lucrative professions with high rewards.

But there are plenty of others, waitresses, laborers, bar tenders, laundry maids, workers who load and unload the water and gas tanks and supplies from the barges. When I asked approximately how much money a construction worker gets, I was told around $18 a day. Keep in mind that these days are closer to twenty hours than ten. And there are hardly any tools and virtually no machinery. This is literally back-breaking labor.

This concept of how money is doled out and spent is quite shocking to me. You are lucky to have a job. If you have a job that pays five dollars an hour, or slightly more, you are in hog heaven.

How grateful I am to have what I have, to work where I do, and to choose what I consume. How lucky we all are.