QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuador agreed to raise wages in the armed forces by up to $35 million (22 million pounds) annually, days after soldiers battled rebel police to rescue President Rafael Correa from what he called a coup bid, the defence minister said.
The news of more pay for the military came on Monday amid debate over whether the police had tried to kill the left-wing leader during riots or were just protesting benefit cuts.
The pay raise for captains, majors and two other ranks had already been in the pipeline and does not affect the elimination of police and military promotion bonuses that sparked last week’s violence in the volatile OPEC nation.
The armed forces had long complained that a salary adjustment several years ago had missed out four ranks. Under Saturday’s agreement, those ranks will receive up to $570 per month adjusted back-pay for the year so far.
Defence Minister Javier Ponce said it was chance the wage were agreed two days after the assault on Correa. He said the increases will cost $30 million to $35 million a year.
On Thursday, armed police attacked the fiery president when he tried to talk with them about a new law that cut bonuses. He took refuge in the hospital before he was rescued in a nighttime storm of gunfire by loyal troops.
Despite Ponce’s assurances, many Ecuadoreans will see a link between the pay increase and the army’s rescue operation.
At least four people died in the confrontation, with four more killed and almost 300 injured across the South American nation during looting as the police went on strike.
The riots were a reminder that Ecuador is one of Latin America’s most volatile countries, with three of eight presidents toppled in the decade before Correa brought a degree of stability in 2007.
The benefit cuts also affect the military and some units had joined the police protests, closing airports.
The cuts became law on Monday but will not take effect until next year. Any lost income is offset by salary increases in the last three years as well as additional compensation included in the law, the government says.
Correa, backed by South American governments and who enjoys public approval ratings of about 50 percent, called the revolt a coup and assassination bid.
One of Correa’s bodyguards was killed protecting a car in the presidential convoy, which images showed was hit by several bullets. The government says snipers who infiltrated the police protest tried to assassinate the 47-year-old president.
“Nobody shoots at the head of state to get a bonus, or so they can have a pay rise. There were other aims and intentions going on there,” Interior Minister Jalkh said on Sunday.
Ecuador’s leaders have typically been toppled when the army refuses to intervene to save them during popular protests.
But Correa’s critics say he triggered the crisis by personally negotiating with the police. They say the violence was spontaneous, not aimed at killing or toppling him.
“There was no premeditated attempt to assassinate the president, and I don’t see an organized coup attempt,” said political analyst Marco Villarruel of Ecuador’s Central University.
Soldiers in armoured vehicles patrolled the streets over the weekend. Protests did not continue.
Under the new benefits rules, designed to save money as cash-strapped Ecuador recovers from the global recession, police and soldiers will no longer be paid bonuses when they are promoted or be given gifts at Christmas. The law was passed without discussion on Sunday night and was due to be published this week, making it binding.
While Correa has been defiant since the rebellion, Policy Minister Doris Soliz said the law will be revised in Congress this week. She said the bonus cuts will remain but that the wording of the law will be clarified.
European-trained economist Correa defaulted on $3.2 billion in global bonds two years ago, saying they were illegitimate. On Monday a minister said Ecuador will now pay all its debts.
Ecuador, which holds OPEC’s rotating presidency, produces an average of 485,000 barrels of crude per day, and sends about half to the United States.
Additional reporting by Santiago Silva and Hugh Bronstein