QUITO, Ecuador—In the capital’s Old Town, just outside the Plaza del Teatro, a young man wearing a surgical mask and a baseball cap—only his eyes showing—marches forward, waving an Ecuadorian flag.
He wouldn’t stand out from the thousands of other protesters in the streets of the nation’s capital but for one detail—below the flag dangles a dead rat from a string. Understandably, people give him a wide berth, but inevitably a passerby gets a face full of dead rat. All over the Centro Histórico, graffiti expresses similar sentiments toward President Lenín Moreno: “Fuera Moreno!” “Hijo de puta Moreno!” and most explicitly, “Queremos tu cabeza, Moreno!” (We want your head, Moreno!). It’s not difficult to figure out who the rat is supposed to be.
Clouds of black smoke from trash fires blocking the city’s major arteries waft into the air, and helicopters circle above the chaotic scene. Entrepreneurial vendors blend in with the crowds, selling protective masks and loosie cigarettes for a quarter. Quechua women in their iconic bowler and Panama hats dot the crowds, along with a healthy smattering of Guy Fawkes masks. Some protesters stuff their noses with eucalyptus leaves to block tear gas.
Voices rise in the crowd to my left, and a man 20 feet away from me holding a very expensive-looking camera is beaten to the ground—possibly a photographer who got a little too close for comfort. He is swarmed before he hits the ground, but just as quickly, surrounding protesters reprimand them and drive them away.
Emergency vehicle sirens echo throughout the streets, along with the protesters’ horns and the occasional boom of tear gas launched by police in full riot gear.
As the afternoon wears on, more and more people are carrying sticks, two-by-fours, or metal pipes. Almost no vehicles are on the roads, giving some parts of the city an oddly peaceful feeling. The colonial Old Town, however, is a sea of people, jammed with demonstrators representing a wide range of groups—students, transit workers, indigenous tribes, women’s groups, religious organizations, and everyday citizens.
A movement that began on Oct. 3 mostly as a transit workers’ reaction to the government’s announcement of the sudden end of gasoline subsidies—effectively more than doubling the price of diesel and causing a 30 percent price increase for gasoline—quickly spread to encompass Ecuador’s restrictive abortion laws, corruption, and communist groups, as well as indigenous people’s rights and many other beefs. Roads throughout Ecuador were blocked, government buildings and oil fields were occupied, and the country was essentially paralyzed. It’s quicker to list what the protests are not about than what they are about.
A common demand uniting almost all of these groups is the removal of President Lenín Moreno from power. On the heels of Moreno’s deal in February with the International Monetary Fund, which secured the country a $4.2 billion loan, austerity was seen to be coming to Ecuador, and the president announced specifics on Oct. 2 (two days later, the protests had begun). Big reductions in the number of public sector employees were included as well as major moves toward privatization. The once-popular leader has seen his approval rating dip below 30 percent, and the recent arrival in Quito of thousands of people from Ecuador’s indigenous tribes is a worrying sign for his presidency, especially considering their historic role: Protests largely driven by the indigenous have removed three past Ecuadorian presidents from power. Earlier in the week, Moreno and most of the government moved to the southern metropolis of Guayaquil due to security concerns. It was a timely move, considering protesters smashed through barricades and broke into the National Assembly in Quito shortly thereafter.
Moreno and his government have blamed former President Rafael Correa, as well as Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, for organizing a coup from the former’s exile in Belgium (a charge the former president denies) and written off the protesters as vandals and rioters. In an evening address to the nation last week, he characterized the protests as “not a manifestation of social discontent in protest of a government decision. The lootings, vandalism and violence show there is an organized political motive to destabilize the government.”
Gabriela Garcia Garcia, an immigration and asylum lawyer from Guayaquil, feels differently. “The government’s references to the protesters were often in terms of criminality or terrorism, and the traditional media played a key role here,” said Garcia Garcia. “Biased news has aided this association, so indigenous and social movements were conflated with looters and criminals that robbed and destroyed property. Referring to the protests and protestors this way undermined the legitimacy of their reasons to protest. Unfortunately, this also tapped into racism in Ecuadorian society. We must challenge this colonialist legacy.”
While there’s no denying that some protesters have been destructive and violent, the government crackdown has been brutal. Video has emerged of police beating protesters lying prone on the ground, and protesters have been killed. Police on Monday were overwhelmed and forced to abandon an armored vehicle, which was promptly set on fire. Beginning Oct. 8, a citywide curfew for Quito was enforced from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.
On Wednesday, in the heart of Old Town, protesters pelted police in riot gear with bricks, forcing them backward. A man carrying a PCMLE flag (the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Ecuador) stood among the group, along with the flags and banners of numerous other organizations. A cat-and-mouse game ensued, with both sides alternately charging each other, then retreating. Just up the street, a massive group descended downhill, fronted by a huge banner bearing the logo for FIERPI, an evangelical indigenous group. For a moment it looked as if the police would be trapped between the two groups, but FIERPI took a turn at the last possible street. Several marchers stopped to shake hands with the police in riot gear, and people in doorways and balconies applauded the group as it took its detour. It was a markedly different scenario than the rocks banging off the hoods of police vehicles and tear gas canisters ricocheting off buildings only a single block away.
Outside the city center, groups toting baseball bats stopped to buy food at pop-up grills. Calls of “almuerzo, almuerzo!” (a cheap set lunch) and “encebollado!” (a local soup made with yucca, onions, fish, and lime juice) can be heard. Protesters still have to eat. But that has become increasingly difficult in some parts of the country, as roads throughout Ecuador remain blocked and dangerous.
Alfredo Vera, a Guayaquil native living in the coastal surfer town of Montañita, was already seeing the effects of the protests on the local economy. “Shops still open, but they close very early, because they’re worried about being robbed. I went to try and buy eggs and milk, but they didn’t have them. The owner told me he hopes this ends soon, because he wouldn’t have anything to sell later.”
It’s a fact that Ecuador has economic problems that need addressing; the country has loads of foreign debt and a serious fiscal deficit. Pedro Romero, the director-master of economics at the University of San Francisco–Quito and a native of the city, points out that the belt-tightening will have the greatest effect on Ecuador’s poor.
“These measures abolish fuel subsidies for vehicles, which amounts to millions in savings for the government—but this increases transportation costs for everybody … people going by cars, bus, delivery and distribution trucks. This is expected to have a further effect on consumer goods for everyone. What indigenous leaders and labor unions are protesting about is that this increase in living costs will mostly affect poor people.” Even so, he also notes that the subsidies make things easy for cross-border fuel smugglers, and that their elimination will have a positive impact on the environment, encouraging less use of diesel fuel.
While Romero acknowledges that mass protests have been common in the past, particularly in the 1990s, he sees the degree of violence and deaths in recent days as without precedent, and the timing as a little suspect: “Since the measures are taken under the umbrella of the IMF, Marxist groups—who have historically been behind the economic proposals of the indigenous and unions leaders—will oppose this reform.”
But Romero also believes that “more Ecuadorians today realize that economic adjustments must be made … an adjustment was unavoidable after the huge increase in expenditures during Correa’s term.”
By Oct. 10, the city seemed a bit quieter. There were fewer fires and far less smoke rising above the skyline, there were more cars in the street, and some buses were running as well. But the protests were still gaining strength in Arbolito Park, more indigenous people were continuing to stream into the city, and more ominous developments have been occurring, like the appearance of men in patterned black face paint who look like they mean business.
A passerby points out a few of them, headed toward Arbolito Park, and speaks in a hushed tone to a friend: “del Amazonas” (from the Amazon). Tribes from Ecuador’s Amazon region began to arrive on Friday, wielding spears and shields, both metal and wooden. Up until then, I had only seen sticks. Hundreds of sharp spears are held high above the crowds on Avenida Patria, giving the protesters the look of an army on the march. On the streets of modern-day Quito, it’s a powerful sight, and Garcia Garcia is among those moved by it: “To see indigenous communities resisting together, alongside other social movements, and especially indigenous women in the front lines—it does make me feel profound admiration for their resilience, unity, and strength.”
As the crowds grew and the afternoon heated up, a worried-looking policeman in full riot gear spoke with a small crowd on the corner of Guayaquil and Olmedo. His shield bore the phrase “Soy policia, hijo tambien.” I am police, and a son, too.
His concern is well-founded; across the country, up to 50 police officers have been taken hostage, and Jaime Vargas, leader of the umbrella indigenous organization CONAIE, stated that there can be “no dialogue with a murderous government,” claiming the “government has succumbed to pressure from the International Monetary Fund.” It’s not only about austerity; Vargas has claimed that the deal with the IMF will lead to further mining and oil drilling on indigenous lands. Up to seven protesters have been killed across the country (the government has disputed the figure) including one indigenous leader, Inocencio Tucumbi of the Cotopaxi region. Vargas also called for the protests to become further “radicalized.”
As for the political future of President Lenín Moreno, Romero does not believe there is a real chance he will step down, though he added that the government would likely offer some compensation mechanisms for the indigenous population.
On Monday, the government offered a lot more than that. Talks between the government and the indigenous leaders (brokered by the U.N. and the Catholic Church) led to a major breakthrough. After days of stonewalling and tough talk of refusing to budge an inch, Moreno caved and agreed to restore the fuel subsidies that started it all.
It’s hard to hold the line when protesters are being killed, roads are closing, oil fields are being occupied and inoperative, and the country is hemorrhaging an estimated $14 million a day. It was a stunning blow to Moreno’s presidency and evidence that, while they may only amount to 7 percent of the population, the indigenous tribes still hold real political power in Ecuador. Celebrations broke out in the streets of Quito and across the nation, complete with fireworks, and buses began to run normally again. The deal earned plaudits from abroad, including from U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who praised the “grassroots movements who stood up to repression and blocked the IMF’s austerity agenda.”
The two sides also announced they would work together to develop a new set of measures to cut spending, boost revenue, and reduce the nation’s budget deficits and public debt.
As the announcement was made in the negotiation room, indigenous leaders were seen to break out in applause. Moreno didn’t join them.