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A Coup d' ... What?

“It’s a coup d’ état.” Shouted Simon, banging on the door, trying to make himself  heard above the noise of the running water and my rendition in Spanglish of the Ecuadorian national anthem.

“A coup de bloody what?” I shouted back from the depths of the bathtub.”

“A coup. Un golpe de estado. A Putsch. Walter.” Simon screamed through the window to the figure in the garden. “What’s a golpe de estado in English?”

“Military insurrection.” Walter bawled back, attempting to compete with the scream of two jet fighters which had just flashed over.

“It’s a military insurrection.” Repeated Simon through the door.

“Aah” I answered, reluctantly levering myself out of the bath. “So that’s why the anthem has been on at least twenty times this morning.”

It was 1976 in Quito, Ecuador. The three of us sharing the house  could not have been from more diverse backgrounds. Simon, a public school boy and member of the Old Boy institution which lies at the heart of the British establishment. Walter, a street wise American, having the shrewd awareness and experience needed for his survival as an agent of the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration). Myself? I suppose I was a rascal; just one of the herd of adventurous ex-pats to be found all over South America; a Remittance Man without the remittances.

The house was a mere 200 meters from El Pub, the nearest bar, but it was 300 meters down  into the valley, via a extremely steep and rock strewn street. This was an advantage when staggering home from the bar at the end of an evening. Getting back up the hill the following day took a lot more effort, bearing in mind the altitude of 2000 meters. The conquistador, Fransico Orrellano must have had the same problem, when in 1535, he entered Quito for the first time by this same route.

Because of the difficulties to navigate this track with a vehicle, apart from the few villagers, no one except us, the few priests who manned its imposing church and an eccentric American soldier of fortune lived there. The house was large and  isolated, which was ideal, considering the parties we threw there.

On the day of the golpe de estado the house was full to capacity. There were 20 students from Simon’s former school, camping out all over premises. They were due to fly out that same day after a two week long attempt to climb the extinct volcano, Cayambe, a notoriously difficult climb at 18,996ft. The expedition had ended in tragedy.

In appalling weather conditions and a couple of hundred feet from the summit, the assault team called off the attempt but the leader – their teacher – wanted to go on. Despite the appeals of the sensible head boy, he refused to give up and insisted on  continuing alone, leaving the students to return to base on their own. He did not make it and up to this, his body has yet to be recovered.

This sad event did nothing to diminish the party atmosphere which was brewing. None of us had experienced a coup d’ état before and all our attention was on the television and radio they broadcast differing versions of the unfolding drama. Walter and Simon (whose father was the former Ambassador) were in touch with their respective embassies and were advised to stay put. The boys were excited, hoping their flight back to the UK would be cancelled. Amelia, our long suffering maid, having lived through numerous insurrections in her life, took charge. She ordered us to rush into town and stock up on food and booze.

We managed to do the shopping without incident although it took a bit of a battle with the hundreds of people with the same idea. The troop carriers full of armed personnel swept past us to the cheers of the crowd, who were ignoring the order to stay off the streets. Meeting Jim, another DEA agent, on the way back to the house we stopped at the Hotel Quito for a beer and then stood outside in the street with our drinks, watching the old fighter planes swoop over on their way to strafe the presidential palace.

Back at the house the party was in full swing and continued to be so until long after the military sorted themselves out as to who would take charge. The Ecuadorians did not see the events as exciting as we newcomers did. They were quite accustomed to change, having had twelve presidents in twenty-four years.

1974 - 1976, General Rodriguez Lara’s administration suspended congress, banned party activities, and ultimately, all formal group representation was eliminated. Following the golpe de estado, he was deposed and replaced by the conservative, pro-elite figure, Admiral Poveda Burbano, who later initiated dialogue between the military and the politicians and eased the way to democratic government in 1979.
(Extract from Wildcatting Times by Bryan Thomas

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