The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Indigenous protesters are paralyzing Ecuador. Here’s why.

Protesters try to enter Ecuador's National Assembly in Quito on Thursday. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)
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QUITO, Ecuador — The Indigenous protesters of Ecuador have been credited in the past with bringing the country to its knees — and chasing three presidents from office.

Now, the South American country’s powerful Indigenous movement has taken to the streets again, spearheading 12 days of nationwide protests that have paralyzed the capital and tested the government of Guillermo Lasso, one of the last conservative leaders on the continent, just a year into his presidency.

Demonstrators have marched through Quito, clashed with police and blocked highways across the country, causing shortages of food and fuel. As government forces have sought to quell the rising protests this week, at least four people have died, four have disappeared and 93 have been injured. Dozens have been arrested, according to local human rights groups, and at least 114 police officers have been injured, authorities say.

As in 2019, when pre-pandemic protests led by the Indigenous brought Ecuador to a standstill, organizers are harnessing frustration over fuel prices. Gasoline costs less in Ecuador than in other countries in the region, but the government last year cut long-running subsidies, causing prices at the pump to nearly double.

But this time, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador is asking for more. The movement is calling for economic reforms to address widening inequality in a country still suffering from the economic havoc wrought by the pandemic, which was particularly lethal here.

Indigenous and rural communities, protesters say, have been disproportionately hurt by inflation, soaring gas prices and austerity measures. The organization has presented the government with a list of 10 demands, including a better job-creation plan, increased investment in public education and health care, and a halt to oil and mining expansion.

Mario Granja joined demonstrators this week on the Avenida 12 de Octubre in central Quito. Police had blocked traffic on the normally busy street; protesters lit eucalyptus fires in an effort to ward off the effects of the eye-burning tear gas that lingered in the air.

“I come here to fight for fuel prices … for our children’s education, and for work,” the 57-year-old construction worker said. “We want the president to leave. He is lying to the people, and the people are tired of being deceived.”

Voters across Latin America, one of the regions hit hardest by the pandemic and its economic toll, have voted out presidents and parties in favor of politicians promising change. Lasso’s victory in Ecuador last year, over the candidate handpicked by former president Rafael Correa, amounted to a rebuke of the leftist governments that had long held power in the country. Lasso, a conservative banker, promised to ramp up coronavirus vaccinations, revive the country’s economy and create more job opportunities — including for Indigenous people.

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Lasso benefited in the election from discontent among Indigenous peoples, who represent only about 10 percent of the population but are a powerful and organized political force. After the Indigenous candidate Yaku Pérez failed to make it to the second round of voting, many Indigenous voters cast their ballots blank, helping Lasso.

A year later, Ecuador is suffering rising unemployment, a shortage of medicine, students still out of school, and surges in drug violence and prison massacres. Lasso has focused more on macroeconomic challenges, such as reducing the budget deficit and repaying foreign debt, than on the social programs demanded by a population struggling with poverty. Sociologist Decio Machado, an independent political consultant, said the approach reflected a total “lack of sensitivity.”

That’s earned the president sinking approval and rising opposition in the National Assembly and on the streets. Lawmakers associated with Correa initiated a process in the assembly Friday to vote on Lasso’s removal.

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Lasso has addressed the protesters’ demands only partially. He announced plans last week to subsidize fertilizer costs for small and medium farmers by 50 percent. He said the public bank would forgive overdue loans worth up to $3,000. He also said there would be no additional increase in the cost of diesel, which would be limited to $1.90 per gallon, or gasoline, which would be limited to $2.55. Both are above the protesters’ demands of $1.50 and $2.10 per gallon.

“I called for dialogue and the answer was more violence,” Lasso said in televised remarks. “There is no intention to find solutions.”

Leonidas Iza, president of the Indigenous confederation, said Lasso’s proposals did not fully meet the protesters’ demands. He also doubted the president’s sincerity in implementing them.

Lasso’s challenges could serve as a warning to other recently elected presidents in the region who courted angry voters with promises of change.

“In such unequal countries, when people see someone new, they have huge expectations,” said Santiago Basabe, a political scientist on the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Ecuador. “When you’ve already offered more than you can give, people aren’t going to take a step back. … If you don’t follow through, people will get irritated.”

And in the case of Ecuador’s Indigenous community, people will mobilize.

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The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador is credited with helping to oust three governments in Ecuador between 1997 and 2005, by leading massive, days-long street protests that pushed the National Assembly to vote out the presidents for incapacity to govern. Today, many, including Lasso, say the group is trying to do the same.

But it won’t be as easy this time. The assembly now requires a two-thirds vote to remove a president, more than the majority requirement of the past.

Lasso has responded to the protests by calling a 30-day state of emergency in six provinces, including Pichincha, home to Quito. Police have occupied the Casa de la Cultura, a cultural center in central Quito that has historic significance as a base for Indigenous protesters who come in from the countryside. Police withdrew from the building Thursday.

Several groups, including Amnesty International, have called for a dialogue between the government and the movement to end the protests immediately. Both sides say they are open to dialogue, but the confederation’s Iza has demanded that the government lift the state of emergency before sitting down at the table.

“We’ve always had our door open to dialogue — we’ve only said that talks can’t make a mockery of the Ecuadoran people,” Iza said at a news conference. He said any dialogue with the government must lead to results. He has had several meetings with the president over the past year, he said. All, he said, have ended in empty promises.

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Meanwhile, anger at the protesters and the disruption they’re causing to daily life is rising, particularly in Quito, where clashes between protesters and police have blocked off whole neighborhoods in the city center. Counterprotesters staged “peace demonstrations” in the capital Wednesday, shouting “We want to work!”

The government says the first eight days of protests cost the economy more than $110 million dollars, affecting some 1.4 million jobs. The Ecuadoran Federation of Exporters says highway blockades, affecting mostly the flower, broccoli, lumber and banana industries, have cost it $27 million in exports.

Granja traveled to Quito in a caravan Monday night from the province of Cotopaxi. Ordinarily, the drive would take less than an hour, but it took the caravan 10 hours as it met police blockades along the way.

He’s been sleeping on a floor at Salesian University, one of two universities in Quito that have opened their doors to some 18,000 protesters from rural Ecuador.

Back in his community of Tancuchi, Granja said, he’s being pushed to his limits. He has found it difficult to find work as a construction worker; when he does, the pay is $100 per week, not the $150 he got before the pandemic. The price of some basic goods, meanwhile, has doubled. Cooking oil has jumped from $2 per liter to nearly $4.50 per liter. One dollar used to buy eight buns. Today it buys only four.

“Now even the potatoes have to be counted. As they say, one potato can be made into 12 pieces,” he said. “I ask God that the president takes action. That he doesn’t continue deceiving us.”