Ecuador paralyzed by national strike as Moreno refuses to step down

Dan Collyns in Quito

Indigenous protesters have clashed again with riot police in Ecuador’s captial as thousands of people joined anti-government rallies and marches calling for the repeal of austerity measures which have sparked the worst political unrest in a decade.

Hooded youths threw stones and burned tires as police fired tear gas around the empty parliament building which had been sealed off. Demonstrators also tried unsuccessfully to storm barricades around the presidential palace, which the president, Lenín Moreno, left on Monday, moving his government to the port city of Guayaquil.

Other groups including labour unions and indigenous federations marched, for the most part peacefully, on the first day of a national strike which leaders say will not end until the government repeals a decree scrapping fuel subsidies which caused the price of petrol to spike by a third and the cost of diesel to more than double.

Moreno’s government lifted the petrol and diesel subsidies last Tuesday as part of a $4.2bn loan deal with the International Monetary Fund reached last year that hinges on belt-tightening reforms. According to the government the payments had cost the country close to $1.4bn (£1.1bn) annually, according to official sources.

Outside Quito’s parliament building, thousands of indigenous Ecuadoreans camped out on the grass, many of them carrying sticks. Through loudspeakers, leaders of different indigenous groups addressed the crowd.

“What the government has done is reward the big banks, the capitalists, and punish poor Ecuadorians,” said Mesías Tatamuez, head of the Workers’ United Front umbrella union.

Indigenous protests have played a central role in toppling a string of Ecuador’s presidents, including Abdalá Bucaram in 1997, Jamil Mahuad in 2000 and Lucio Gutiérrez in 2005.

Jaime Vargas, the leader of the Ecuador’s indigenous confederation Conaie, said there would be no dialogue until the government rolled back its order ending the subsidies.

“If it is repealed the people will then decide if we will talk or not, but we are angry because we have several injured, several detained and several dead, and this will not stand.”

Anti-government demonstrators march in Quito, Ecuador, on 9 October. Photograph: Carlos Noriega/AP

Across the country, two people have died in the unrest, dozens more have been injured and more than 570 have been detained, according to official sources.

One demonstrator who wanted to remain anonymous said she had been among more than 100 protesters held by police in the basement of the parliament after a foiled attempt by protesters to take over the building on Monday.

“They treated us badly, they insulted us. There are children and young people who are suffering terribly, young people who are being subjugated,” she said.

Amnesty International called on the Ecuadorean government to end to “the heavy-handed repression of demonstrations, including mass detentions”.

“The state of emergency cannot be an excuse to violently repress people’s discontent over economic measures that may put their rights at risk,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

Ecuador’s defence minister, Oswaldo Jarrín, said the army was seeking to “restore, order, peace and tranquility” on Wednesday as widespread protests took place across the country.

Moreno, 66, has accused political opponents of orchestrating an attempted coup and claimed associates of his predecessor Rafael Correa – a former ally turned bitter enemy – were infiltrating the protests and stoking unrest.

“They are sectors who are taking advantage of the situation to generate an atmosphere of chaos in Ecuador, very different behaviour from a country which has seen other social protests,” María Paula Romo, the interior minister, said on Wednesday.

Correa, who governed Ecuador for a decade, has brushed off the claim he was behind the protest but called for Moreno to step down and for new elections in which he might consider being a candidate.

Protest leader Lourdes Tibán, a former parliamentarian, said the violence had been caused by “infiltrators who want to show that the indigenous activists are criminals and thieves who causes damage – but that’s not true”.

She said the vast majority of protesters were marching because the fuel price hike had inflated food and transport prices and the indigenous people were the hardest hit.

“Rafael Correa does not have the moral authority to praise this protest when he criminalised social protest for us,” she said.

Street vendor Carmen Jaque, 50, who had marched to the capital from the Andean province of Chimborazo, said: “We, the people, are marching here, not infiltrators. We’re the ones feeling the price rises.”

Moreno was elected in 2017 as the candidate for Correa’s centre-left party but has since moved to the right. Though he enjoys the support of business and the military, Moreno’s popularity has sunk to under 30%, compared with 70% in 2017.