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As Ecuador protests grow, president moves government out of the capital

Protests erupted in Quito, Ecuador, for the sixth consecutive day on Oct. 8, fueled by opposition to President Lenín Moreno's anti-austerity measures. (Video: Reuters, Photo: AP/Reuters)

Ecuadoran President Lenín Moreno moved his government out of the capital as protests against his austerity measures continued to grow on Tuesday.

Thousands converged on Quito for a sixth day of demonstrations, and the state-run oil company suspended operations at three oil fields in the Amazon region after they were “taken” by “individuals not affiliated with the operation,” the Energy Ministry said.

Local media outlets showed protesters setting fires, blocking streets and pushing into the National Assembly building. Security forces deployed tear gas to disperse crowds.

Leonidas Iza, president of the Indigenous Farmers Movement of Cotopaxi, said the protesters weren’t trying to oust Moreno but to pressure him to reverse his policies. “It’s on their hands,” he told the local newspaper La Hora. “But instead of responding to the people, they change the location of the presidential palace.”

One person has died, dozens have been injured and more than 500 arrested in the demonstrations that began after Moreno withdrew a fuel subsidy that helped Ecuadorans buy gasoline.

Moreno has called for dialogue but says he won’t reverse his austerity measures. He accuses his predecessor, Rafael Correa, whom he once served as vice president, of stirring opposition against him.

How did Ecuador get here?

Moreno, who was elected in 2017, launched plans this year to restrain Ecuador’s debt after what he describes as years of overspending by Correa. He reached a deal with the International Monetary Fund on a $4.2 billion loan last month and said last week he would withdraw the fuel subsidy, expand the number of families that receive a $15 monthly bonus and increase taxes on businesses that generate more than $10 million per year.

The scene in Ecuador as protests and clashes erupt over President Moreno’s austerity measures

Oct. 13, 2019 | Protestors climb sculpture. (Ivan Alvarado/Reuters)

“It’s necessary to correct grave economic errors,” Moreno said in his announcement. “In the region, the only country with this fuel subsidy is Venezuela. And you’ll agree with me, it’s not a good example to follow.”

Who's protesting?

Ecuador’s transportation union protested the resulting jump in gasoline prices with a strike Thursday that brought the country to a standstill. The union lifted the strike Saturday, but by then, indigenous groups, young people and others had joined the protests.

Moreno said Sunday that he was willing to open a dialogue with “my brothers, the indigenous people,” but the protests have grown.

Amherst College political scientist Javier Corrales sees a familiar pattern in recent Latin American history.

“States pursue expansionary policies that are unsustainable but which consumers like,” he said. “And eventually they’re followed by restrictive policies that are inevitable but which consumers dislike.”

What has been the impact of the protests?

One protester died Sunday after being run over by a car. Authorities have reported vandalism of government facilities and looting; they have declared a state of emergency and deployed security forces. About 570 people have been arrested.

The suspension of oil field operations has cut the nation’s production by 12 percent, the Energy Ministry said. Iván Ontaneda, minister of production, commerce and investment, told reporters the country has lost $1.4 billion over six days of protests.

“What we are living is not a peaceful mobilization, it is crime and vandalism,” Juan Sebastián Roldán, Moreno’s personal secretary, tweeted Tuesday. “Those people must answer for their actions.”

What do others say?

The United Nations has called for an “inclusive and effective dialogue” between the government and protesters.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has supported the protests. “I express my solidarity with the people of Ecuador,” Maduro tweeted Sunday. “No more IMF packages! No more misery!”

The governments of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Paraguay and Peru backed Moreno, and accused Maduro of leading “actions aimed at destabilizing our democracies.”

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó also backed Moreno.

“While president Lenín Moreno works to maintain and strengthen the republic and institutions of Ecuador,” he tweeted, “a group financed by Maduro’s accomplices in America, taking advantage of the most vulnerable, seeks to end the country’s stability. Solidarity with Ecuador.”

What now?

In a national address Monday night, Moreno said he was moving the government from Quito to the port city of Guayaquil. Appearing with his vice president and military commanders, he said he would not reverse his policies.

Moreno blamed the chaos in the country on Correa and his foreign allies.

“What has happened these days is not a social protest against a decision by my government,” he said. “The looting, vandalism and violence show that there’s an organized action to destabilize my government.”

Correa, who served as president from 2007 to 2017, has praised the protesters and criticized the government. He has called for new elections.

“Please. Moreno, quit,” he tweeted Tuesday. “Don’t do this to our people.”

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