It is October 11th, 2019 and I have been in Ecuador for a little under two weeks. Unfortunately, only two of those days have consisted of actual exploring as the country is currently paralyzed by violent protests and a national strike (El Paro Nacional) led by Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE). The events have left me pretty much stuck in Otavalo, a town about 2 hours north of Quito (Ecuador’s capital) as roadblocks have been setup throughout throughout Imburara Province by protesting indigenous groups. I originally wasn’t going to write about this until after things have settled down but I think its important to put pen to paper while living in the moment. When I discussed this event in my last posting, I honestly didn’t know much about what was going on as I hadn’t read up on Ecuador’s history prior to visiting the country. However, 8 days of reading local news (El Comercio), following Ecuadorian Twitter trends, and witnessing protests live have allowed me to write more intelligently on this topic.
Rafael Correa- In order to understand what is going on now, one must consider the dynamics behind Ecuadorian politics. From 2007-2017, Rafael Correa was the president of Ecuador. He was a self-professed democratic socialist who aligned himself with left-wing leaders such as Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), Fidel Castro (Cuba), and Evo Morales (Bolivia). Despite being a mestizo (mixed), he was beloved by Ecuador’s mostly indigenous lower class as he used the countries oil wealth to fund various social programs and subsidies. Correa also took a confrontational approach towards western states (the United States) and institutions (World Bank and International Monetary Fund). In 2012, Correa went as far as allowing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to hide in the Ecuadorian Embassy in the United Kingdom after WikiLeaks made public thousands of US government classified documents, severely damaging US national security. Despite antagonizing the regional superpower and rebuffing world economic institutions, petrodollars and tourism allowed Correa to implement policies which decreased poverty and slightly increase Ecuador’s GDP during his tenure making him even more popular.
2017 Ecuadorian Elections- By the end of 2016, Ecuador had entered into a national recession due to international sanctions, the declining price of oil, and exorbitant public spending. After serving 3 terms, Rafael Correa was not eligible for re-election and thus, Ecuador would vote for a new president in the 2017 General Elections. During Correa’s first two terms as President (2007-2013), he chose Lenin Moreno to be vice-President. Moreno was a lifelong paraplegic due to being shot in a botched robbery attempt 1998. During his time as vice-president, Moreno was a fierce advocate for people with disabilities earning a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. Lenin Moreno left the vice-presidency in 2013, taking a position with the United Nations as Special Envoy on Disability and Accessibility. However, Lenin Moreno returned to Ecuador in 2016 to run for president. Given their past relationship and seemingly similar ideology (center-left democratic socialist), Moreno was endorsed by outgoing Rafael Correa who still maintained widespread popularity despite the country’s economic struggles. Correa’s endorsement proved to be significant as Lenin Moreno barely won the presidency over Guillermo Lasso by less than 3% in the second round of Ecuadorian elections in April 2017.
Ideological Pivot- This is where things start to get messy. Despite receiving Correa’s endorsement, Lenin Moreno began reversing many of his former bosses’ policies once he assumed office. Through a referendum, he was able to scrap various pieces of legislation that targeted wealthy individuals and big banks. He also eliminated any chance of Correa possibly being re-elected president by overturning another referendum which would have allowed individuals to run for president as many times as possible. Recently, Moreno allowed British officials into London’s Ecuadorian Embassy to arrest Julian Assange, who had been living there for 7 years. Now seen as more of a right-wing conservative, Moreno’s ideological pivot sparked an intense feud with Correa in which a warrant was issued for Correa’s arrest on corruption charges. Rafael Correa fled to Belgium where he currently lives in exile and continues vocally criticize Moreno’s policies.
CONAIE- For those that aren’t aware, Ecuador is a predominantly indigenous society composed of 11 different cultures (Quichaua, Saraguros, Slasacas, Otavalenos, Huaorani, Cofan, Siona, Achuar, Shuar, Zaparo and Secoya). The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), formed in 1986, is the most powerful indigenous organization in the country which represents the interests of most of the country’s indigenous groups. While not part of the government, the organization has arguably equal influence over Ecuadorian society. In fact, CONAIE led protests have led to the removal of three Ecuadorian presidents. CONAIE advocates for policies that improve agriculture, indigenous rights, and fair distribution of land. To be successful in Ecuadorian politics, one must maintain a working relationship with the organization at every level.
Economic Reforms- Firmly established as an economic conservative, Lenin Moreno began to take measures in order to revive Ecuador’s stagnant economy. One of the more obvious fixes was to drastically reduce social spending. In February 2019, Lenin Moreno accepted loan in excess of 10 billion dollars from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank which put international pressure on him to adopt such policies. After barely winning the presidency and having lost a good portion of his support due to his feud with Rafael Correa, Lenin needed to be strategic about how he would implement his austerity measures. Unfortunately, he decided for the more heavy handed approach by introducing several laws at once which would cut various programs and subsidies. The austerity measures included cutting government fuel subsidies (doubling the price of gas), slashing vacation days for government workers in half (30 to 15) and requiring government workers to forfeit one day of salary to the government per month.
Transportation Strike- Naturally Ecuadorian citizens where surprised by the severity and swiftness of the economic measures. The first group to take action was the country’s transportation union which declared a national transportation strike on October 3rd due to the removal of fuel subsidies. Removal of fuel subsidies would result in higher operational costs for transportation companies due to increased cost of fuel. In a normal capitalist society, a company would just pass the cost onto the consumer by raising prices. However, Ecuador’s system makes it illegal for companies to raise prices in Ecuador without government approval. As a result of the strike, transportation throughout the country was halted which brought everyday people into the streets to protest. Lenin Moreno would react by declaring a state of emergency (estado de excepción) for 60 days in which the military was deployed throughout the country to quash discontent.
El Paro Nacional- Given the military’s heavy handed approach to obtaining order and the suppression of certain freedoms due to the state of emergency, to some it soon became more than fighting about fuel subsidies. Despite the government allowing the transportation union to raise prices which would end the transportation strike, Moreno’s initial handling of the situation had proved to be a tipping point for a frustrated population in which his popularity had been declining. At the same moment the transportation union held a press conference announcing the end of their strike, CONAIE began to call for a continuation of the protest from various groups (students/indigenous groups/union leaders). El Paro Nacional has continued to paralyze the country. While the government has attempted to restore order to the country, many cities remain on lockdown and it is practically impossible to travel between cities at this moment due to roadblocks throughout the country.
Current Situation-On October 9th, thousands of indigenous protestors arrived in Quito after several days of marching throughout the country. In anticipation of their arrival, Lenin Moreno has moved the government from Quito to the city of Guayaquil, along the southern coast. The protestors have camped out in the Quito’s historical center and continue to call for the repeal of Moreno’s economic measures. CONAIE has specifically taken exception to the government agreeing to the IMF loans (and the conditions they entail) without being consulted. Protests continue daily across the country (including here in Otavalo) as people now are calling for Moreno to step down. For now, Moreno maintains the support of the military which is why he is holding firm in his stance. Protestors have reacted by capturing several police officers and attempting to take over government facilities (including the National Assembly). Lenin has gone as far as accusing both Rafael Correa and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of orchestrating a coup attempt. When it looked like the situation may have gotten calmer, one of the leaders of CONAIE was killed during a protest on October 10th which has galvanized the protestors. The government had previously introduced an agricultural reform package without reinstating the fuel subsidies but CONAIE doesn’t seem to keen on accepting it. As I sit in my hotel on Day 8 of El Paro Nacional, stuck in Otavalo, both sides remain in a deadlock. As a result, many storeowners are scared to open their businesses, children are unable to go to school, and tourists remain stuck in various cities throughout the country.