“We have risen to say, in one united voice, ‘Enough, Mr. President!’ ” said Oshcu, a small-scale farmer from the indigenous Kichwa community of Latacunga.
Labor unions, women’s rights groups and students are protesting the austerity package introduced this month by President Lenín Moreno. But Ecuador’s majority indigenous population is at the heart of the demonstrations that have paralyzed this South American country — a challenging development for Moreno, given the movement’s success at ousting previous presidents.
Demonstrators returned to the streets Thursday for an eighth day of protests in Quito and other cities, sparked last week when Moreno announced labor and tax changes and withdrew decades-old fuel subsidies — part of a belt-tightening program required under a $4.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
Protesters have blocked streets in the capital and highways in the countryside, have occupied government buildings, oil fields, water-treatment facilities and a hydroelectric plant, and have clashed with security forces. Moreno has called for dialogue but said he won’t reverse the austerity measures, which he said are needed after years of overspending by his predecessor, Rafael Correa.
“It’s necessary to correct grave economic errors,” he said last week.
Moreno declared a state of emergency and, as protesters descended on the capital this week, moved his administration 270 miles south to the port city of Guayaquil. Security forces have surrounded key facilities and fired tear gas and pepper spray. Five people have been killed, scores wounded and more than 680 arrested. Officials have put losses at more than $1 billion.
Ecuadorans have a history of ousting presidents, driven mainly by the indigenous movement. Most recently in 2005, Lucio Gutiérrez’s attempt to introduce austerity measures under an IMF agreement prompted tens of thousands to protest, and lawmakers voted to remove him.
This time, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) is by far the largest organized group protesting. CONAIE President Jaime Vargas said that the community rejects the government’s new reforms and subsidy cuts but that its complaint goes further.
“Our fight is in defense of our territories,” he said. He said measures to appease the IMF have led to increased oil and mining in indigenous lands, actions that “don’t respect the collective rights of the indigenous people.”
Vargas said he won’t speak with the government unless it agrees to reverse the austerity measures and stop selling their land to oil and mining companies.
Many here have noted parallels between 2005 and 2019. But Vargas has stressed that the indigenous movement is not trying to destabilize Moreno’s government.
Political analyst Decio Machado said if the government falls, it won’t be because of the indigenous movement but rather for mistakes he said it has been making since protests began: calling the state of emergency, cracking down on protests and refusing to negotiate.
Oshcu, in Quito, said cutting the fuel subsidies affects indigenous farmers in the countryside directly because it raises the costs of transporting their goods to collection centers. “When the price of gasoline rises, the income for the community decreases,” he said. “That’s why we came.”
Violent clashes have been reported in cities including Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca. Indigenous demonstrators are putting eucalyptus leaves in their noses to filter the tear gas and pepper spray.
“We are here for our rights,” Oshcu said. “If you don’t like that idea, then get out of the presidency.”