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Demonstrators in Quito

Demonstrators shouted slogans outside the national assembly in Quito, Ecuador on Oct. 8, 2019 following days of protests against the sharp rise in fuel prices sparked by the government's decision to scrap subsidies. (Photo: by Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images)

Ecuador's President Moves Government From Capital as Protests Over Austerity Measures Continue

"The measures are a blow to the people. Stuff is getting more expensive, and wages are not rising."

Jessica Corbett

Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno announced late Monday that he had temporarily moved government operations out of the capital of Quito following days of nationwide protests led by unions and Indigenous groups against austerity measures unveiled last week, including the end of decades-old fuel subsidies.

The gas and diesel subsidies, which cost the government close to $1.4 billion per year, were scrapped as part of Moreno's effort to honor a $4.2 billion loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) finalized earlier this year. Moreno's moves to slash government spending have caused a spike in fuel prices and provoked six days of protests thus far, with a national strike planned for Wednesday.

Jaime Vargas, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations in Ecuador (CONAIE), an umbrella organization for local Indigenous groups, said Monday that 20,000 protesters marching toward Quito would be in the capital for the strike.

CONAIE has vowed that demonstrations will continue until Moreno withdraws the fuel subsidies cuts, but that doesn't seem to have swayed the president's position.

Reuters noted Monday that "Indigenous-led protests brought down three presidents" before Moreno's predecessor and one-time mentor, Rafael Correa, who now lives in self-imposed exile in Belgium. Correa, an outspoken critic of the current president's political shift to the right on economic policy, tweeted Monday night that "Moreno is finished" and called for elections.

According to Reuters:

[In] a defiant national television address on Monday evening, after protesters reached Quito's historic center, Moreno said he would not back down on the fuel price hike in the face of what he called a "destabilization plan" orchestrated by Correa and leftist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

"They are behind this coup attempt, and they are using and instrumentalizing some Indigenous sectors," Moreno said, flanked by military officials and Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner. He added that he had temporarily moved government operations to the southern city of Guayaquil, the financial capital.

"What has happened is 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."

Correa responded on Tuesday by denying the coup charges, for which Moreno did not provide any evidence. "They are such liars," said Correa. "They say I am so powerful that with an iPhone from Brussels I could lead the protests." Referring to the austerity measures, the former president added, "People couldn't take it anymore, that's the reality."

Moreno has declared a two-month national emergency in response to the protests—some of which have turned violent.

"Images from Quito showed protesters hurling petrol bombs and stones, ransacking and vandalizing public buildings as well as clashing with the police in running battles late into the night," reported The Guardian. "Rioters in Quito forced their way into the comptroller general's office and vandalized the assembly building on Monday. It followed days of violence in which protesters burned military vehicles, destroyed dozens of rose farms, a dairy, and an oil production facility. The outnumbered security forces have been unable to prevent much of the destruction."

Over the past six days of demonstrations, two dozen police officers have been injured and 570 protesters have been detained, according to Moreno's government. Additionally, a man in the Andean province died after he was hit by a car and roadblocks in the area prevented an ambulance from reaching him.

"About 50 police officers have been taken hostage in various locations," BBC News reported Monday. Police have responded to protests with tear gas and armored vehicles.

CONAIE, on Saturday, declared a "state of exception in Indigenous territory of Ecuador before the brutality of military forces," warning that "military and police who approach our territories will be held and subjected to Indigenous justice."

Indigenous groups—who took the lead in the protests after a two-day strike by transport unions—promised to maintain pressure on the Moreno government in statements to the media this week.

"We are fighting for everyone and we are fighting to foresee the rights we all have and we can't allow this," Luis Iguamba, leader of the Kayambi people from northern Ecuador, told BBC. "So, everyone, be on the lookout and keep up the fight. Let's radicalize the strike."

"Our message to the federal government is: This struggle isn't only against the economic measures," Nelson Erazo, leader of the Popular Front of workers and students, told Democracy Now! on Tuesday.

"It's in defense of water, in defense of territories," Erazo said. "It's against the expansion of the oil industry in our country. It's in defense of the natural environment. It's in defense of the rights of workers, who are thirsty for justice and who are overshadowed by the national government and the Ministry of Labor."

Moreno, who was elected in 2017, still has support from businesses and the military in Ecuador, but his public popularity has plummeted from 70 percent after his election to just 30 percent today. As thousands of Indigenous people poured into Quito on Monday, "they were applauded and embraced by residents of the capital, who gave them food and water," according to Reuters.

"The president is hurting the people," Guillermo Montano, a 58-year-old retired member of the armed forces in Quito, told the news agency. "The measures are a blow to the people. Stuff is getting more expensive, and wages are not rising."

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