Social and political earthquake in Ecuador

Ecuador lives through another major earthquake. But this time it is not a seismic movement, but a violently repressed social uprising. Español, Português

democracia Abierta
11 October 2019, 12.01am
Protesters in Quito marching against Lenin's government reforms, October 2019.
Rafael Rodruiguez / PA Images. All rights reserved.

The country is going through the most intense wave of protests in the last 12 years. The mass protests in the streets have reached such a level of tension, so high that the President Lenín as moved (although only temporarily, he is already back in towm), from the headquarters of the government in the capital Quito to the city of Guayaquil which is protected by a single access bridge, which is easy to control.

Given the unstoppable wave of social mobilisation, Moreno has implemented a state of emergency for a period of 60 days and declared Quito in state of siege during the general strike of the past two days.

In addition to numerous illegal detentions, mostly in police and military precincts, there have also been hundreds wounded, some of them serious and up to 7 deaths according to some sources. The situation has overwhelmed the security forces on too many occasions.

Although the army have been deployed, they are currently letting the police to deal with the situation. This is amid complaints that undercover agents are taking advantage of the chaos and violence to encourage looting and thus discredit the protests as violent, giving the government reason to react.

The social unrest comes from very far back and is not exclusively attributable to the current government. But last week, when Moreno announced that he would eliminate the additional subsidies to gasoline and diesel (which have been in force in Ecuador for 40 years) as part of a "pack" of neoliberal measures, the unrest reached a boiling point.

The measures include labour precariousness and the elimination of some import tariffs and were agreed with the IMF for the activation of an urgent multi-million-dollar loan. According to the president, the country's fiscal deficit must be reduced immediately.

The elimination of subsidies led to a 123% increase in fuel prices, a gallon of gasoline rose from US $ 1.85 to US $ 2.30 and diesel from US $ 1.03 to US $ 2.27. Moreno argues that the decision will help the economy in addition to fighting the smuggling of hydrocarbons. But critics of the president’s move say his austerity policy will hurt the local economy by making transportation more than 100 percent more expensive.

The protests gained strength among various social sectors, especially with indigenous communities

As political scientist Pablo Ospina argued, the diesel subsidy was a way of sustaining the competitiveness of Ecuadorian production. The country is a major oil producer but without this incentive, says Ospina, consumers will depend even more on imported products, such as shoes from Brazil, Peruvian meat and Argentine milk.

How did the protests start?

Before the announcement of Moreno’s austerity measures, the union of taxi drivers and bus drivers declared a strike, which lasted a few days. The mobilisation of trade unions attracted the support of students and the opposition of the government, which caused a wave of social protests.

The confirmation of the measures caused the protests to gain strength among various social sectors, especially with indigenous communities. Community members marched from their territories to the capital to protest and pressure the president’s government to withdraw or renegotiate several of the economic adjustments, and to maintain the state fuel subsidy.

In recent days, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Quito and other cities. Multiple marches of indigenous people converged in the capital, and hundreds stormed the National Assembly courtyards on Tuesday the 8th until they were evicted by the police. Protesters demand that the government back down with the "paquetazo" (this what the package of measures is commonly referred as), and in particular in its decision to end fuel subsidies.

Government allies, including the mainstream media, are using the resistance of the indigenous people to criminalize them and transform them into the responsible party for this widespread crisis that is affecting all of Ecuador. It is an abusive and racist attitude that reaches scandalous dimensions. The background of the indigenous protests has its roots on the fight against agressive extractivism that has been depleting their land with oil drilling, mining, logging.

The security forces, which were reinforced and reassembled considerably under the previous government of Correa, are specially instructed to prevent the indigenous people from entering various public places, by using even unrestricted violence. "They are treated as if they were not Ecuadorian citizens, but part of an extra-terrestrial invasion," Ecuadorian social rights activist Juana Francis Bone said at an emergency meeting held on Tuesday (9th) with several members of the Political Innovation Network in Latin America.

In addition to the police reinforcement, which includes exoskeletons for officers, last April the current government launched a surveillance system, called ECU-911, which was largely manufactured by two Chinese companies, the state-owned CEIEC and Huawei. The system has 4,700 cameras, installed by Chinese workers who relocated to the country, according to the New York Times, and they could now be used to identify and incriminate protesters.

Correa and Venezuela

The Correa factor (former president of Ecuador, who had Moreno as vice president) plays an important role in the crisis. When the protest broke out, he expressed his strong criticisms from Brussels, where he currently resides for family reasons and to protect himself from Ecuadorian law enforcement, who accuse him of corruption. Rafael Correa strongly supported the candidacy of Lenin Moreno, whom he planned to monitor, which undoubtedly helped him reach the presidency in 2017.

But once in power, Moreno distanced himself from his predecessor which resulted in a personal confrontation between the two, in which Correa even tweeted that Moreno was a “traitor”. In the same tweet Correa said that Moreno “is finished” and said he supports the idea of new elections. In the following days Correa said that he would be willing to run as candidate.

In turn, Moreno counterattacked, accusing Correa of ​​orchestrating a coup d'etat using the mobilization of some social sectors, especially the indigenous. In addition, Moreno even said this week in a national statement that Correa is working in collusion with Venezuela.

"The looting, vandalism and violence show that there is an organized political intention to destabilize the Government and break the constituted order, break the democratic order," he said in a video. “Do you think it is a coincidence that Correa, Patiño, and others have travelled to Venezuela? […] they are planning a coup d'etat from there”.

Before the police violence against groups of protesters and against journalists, ), the Inter-American Commission on Rights Humans (IACHR) expressed concern.

In reality, Moreno is manipulating and exaggerating the role of Correa or Maduro in the popular uprising, and Correa is taking advantage of the virulence of the protests to fight against Moreno and recover part of the lost ground since leaving the country for Europe.

They are mere smoke curtains. Both failed to tackle the countries deep structural problems, for which they are both partly responsible, that has led to Ecuador being forced to use the IMF, whose very hard macroeconomic adjustment measures are well known among the Latin American popular classes.

A role for independent media

According to professor Pablo Escandón who also participated in the in the aforementioned Political Innovation Network emergency meeting, Moreno’s support base mostly consists of the business sectors and large media corporations of Ecuador. Escandón argues that the executive did not use a coherent strategy to communicate his measures, thus generating the explosive reaction of the population.

As a consequence, the media, which traditionally have the interests of the government in mind, are playing the role of communicators between the executive and the people. That is where alternative media come to the fore, says Juana Francis Bone.

Before the police violence against groups of protesters and against journalists (some sources claim that there are already 57 journalists attacked by the police and 13 have been imprisoned, while 9 media outlets have been intervened), the Inter-American Commission on Rights Humans (IACHR) expressed concern.

Given the confusing situation and lack of serenity, the goal is to reduce tension, avoid any more victims, and move forward with effective dialogue. All media must remain faithful to the facts and democratic rights. The independent media have to contrast the official information and the big media at the service of spurious interests, and report any abuse, manipulation or lies.

At this crucial moment for the country, when the excessive and racist use of violence has already begun to cause deaths, and when all kinds of misinformation proliferate on social networks and large-scale political propaganda operations are unleashed, it is important to give priority and voice to the people who have suffered the consequences of the disastrous economic policies and agressive extractivism of the last decade.

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