Students who walk through the arch spanning two unfluted tuscan columns at the entrance to the Central University of Ecuador, the country’s oldest university, might be imagined to feel inspired by the history, the beauty, the accomplishment contained within this symbolic gateway to higher learning.
But the gate is closed today, and in the intersection just outside the university’s green fields are the smoldering remnants of a burned tire, squashed lemons, torn paper, chunks of broken concrete, and rocks thrown by protestors.
Students use the gate as a focal point for their defense, keeping at bay the military-clad riot police who use urban camouflage to hide behind storefronts along the campus perimeter. The street is littered with debris, and an ambulance from another part of town crunches its tires past a molotov cocktail that explodes harmlessly in the otherwise barren intersection. Buses, taxis, and drivers have been rerouted to Quito’s other major thoroughfares, which absorb the additional traffic reluctantly.
I wrote the above description in May, while living in Quito, after witnessing police with plexiglass shields, bullet proof vests, combat helmets, and knee-high vinyl boots held to a standoff by students dressed in blue jeans, tennis shoes, t-shirts, and the occasional identity-protecting scarf.
Months later, President Rafael Correa clashed with the same police force in a scene that journalists and pundits are interpreting with difficulty. It was either a righteous protest or coup attempt, depending on who offers the explanation. Neither the intentions of the police nor the reasons why the president thought he should appear before an angry crowd of armed protestors are clear. In fact, the motivations in both uprisings are as opaque as the clouds of tear gas that sent the president scrambling for cover in a nearby hospital.
By the New York Times’ account, Correa remains an enigmatic political figure (“In Ecuador, a Leader Who Confounds His Supporters and Detractors Alike,” 10/10/10), and his recent actions have done nothing to clarify his underlying political philosophy or motivations. Nevertheless, he is more popular than ever. “He is in some ways a walking contradiction,” writes Simon Romero, but such character complexity does not trouble literary or art critics. Why does it trouble us when the complexity is unscripted?
Literature deliberately invites readers to an aesthetic experience, while news coverage that excites the passions sometimes troubles us simply because we perceive the story as less likely accurate if its exigency is transparent. But for anyone who had a reason to care about Ecuador on September 30th, our aesthetic response to the police protest that endangered President Correa’s life was guided by urgent Twitter posts and highly stylized photojournalism. In one image, an officer stands arms outstretched in a stance reminiscent of Russell Crowe’s in Gladiator. You can almost hear the officer shouting through the gas mask that renders him invincible to the tear gas, “are you not entertained?”
But intent — the officers’, the photographer’s, the President’s, the storytellers’ — is always contested, and alleged motivations are par for the course when it comes to interpreting events with such high stakes. Art critics would have as much to say as foreign correspondents covering the events in Ecuador, where this is but the latest mixture of violence and performance art to reach the international stage.
At the first event, I stood across the street from the manifestation for more than half an hour with others who were making their way home from work. When I asked fellow onlookers why the students were protesting, most shrugged their shoulders. The contretemps sustained some passersby interest just long enough for them to figure out where they might catch the bus if not here. There was an underlying sense of calm in the midst of this chaos and a shared understanding that it was a performance, but a performance that many were tired of. Both the police and the students tacitly acknowledged a public relations struggle as much as a physical struggle.
During Correa’s standoff with the police, I stood by my laptop, watching updates pour into my Twitter stream from El Comercio, Quito’s largest newspaper, and one brave Quiteña journalist in particular who posted videos and updates from the scene using her camera phone.
Moments before being tear gassed by the very police force that is ordinarily in charge of his security, Correa climbed above a crowd of angry, protesting officers and pulled his shirt away from his chest, screaming, “if you want to kill the president, here he is! Kill him, if you want to! Kill him if you are brave enough!” Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean playwright whose masterpieces document the terror of Pinochet’s power seizure, would have a difficult time staging a more dramatic scene.
Students at the university, members of Ecuador’s scandalized police force, and even President Correa may object to events in which lives were risked and lost being depicted as theatre. But life in such high-pressure moments is nothing less than art, calling on us to deliver the lines of the character we have developed all our life. If it were any less, Mr. President, then why the Homeric chest thumping?