Ecuador Walks, And We Do Not Walk Alone
People mobilise against IMF measures, history repeats itself
QUITO: Since October 1 Ecuadorians’ protest has gained international attention. Initially the protests were focused in the country’s Andean zone, although there were demonstrations even in Amazonia and the Pacific coast.
Protestors tried to take the National Assembly and Teleamazonas, one of the country’s biggest TV stations, which supports the current president, Lenín Moreno. Schools were closed, nearly 30 politicians were incarcerated, and former foreign minister Ricardo Patiño had to seek asylum in Mexico where he now resides.
Moreno, who was vice-president under Rafael Correa’s government (2007–17) nonetheless rejected his predecessor’s work. Once in the presidential seat, Moreno rapidly moved away from the electoral promises he had made.
It is mandatory to fulfil electoral promises in Ecuador. So we are talking about a president who has nothing to do with the last government, which was born of the Ecuadorian Citizens’ Revolution.
Under Moreno’s rule the country has been characterised by constant disaffection, which accumulated to an explosion this fall. Strikes were organised reminiscent of those in the 70s and 80s, when turmoil would bring down whole governments and we presidents were changed through strikes.
Until this autumn Ecuador was a country adapted to the strikes.
An Empty Political Movement
Already on March 1 a letter of intention signed between Economy and Finance Minister Richard Martinez and Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank and former head of the IMF, spoke of the reforms required to stabilise the government’s budget deficit.
Shortly after the general election in 2017, Lenín Moreno became the leader of an empty political movement. His voters abandoned him after political persecution against his own vice president Jorge Glas, who is now in jail.
Trying to stabilise his rule Moreno turned his policies to the right, looking for the support of his old enemies in the right wing party CREO.
Early in 2018 the government called for a very important referendum, with Moreno seeking a yes to all seven questions. In the sixth Ecuadorians were asked whether they supported abrogating a law against speculative gains in the real estate market. He won.
Following the referendum, in March 2018 the National Assembly approved a budget law to control its deficit, revealing the government’s true intentions: to ask the IMF to finance Ecuador’s economy.
The first strikes against eliminating agricultural subsidies were organised by small-scale producers in April that year. Taxi drivers also struck work in Guayaquil against the elimination of subsidies.
Come summer the National Assembly’s Commission for Economic Development unanimously approved a report calling for the progressive elimination of measures protecting the external sector of the economy and its balance of payments.
Because of this report, in August a “law of productive development” was announced, giving 90 days to those who had delayed paying fines, taxes, educational credits and basic services to meet their debts with the state.
Investors also got an extra 12 years to settle their tax liabilities, and a complete tax exemption on the remittance of foreign currencies.
At this point, Ecuadorian GDP growth was positive at 1.3%, even with the incoming global recession and the shift in crude oil prices.
To confront the fall in revenues, using the economic recession as an excuse, the government began negotiating reduced social expenditures, wages and fuel subsidies.
It also speculated about selling 10% of the state owned oil companies Petroamazonas and Petroecuador, and more likely privatising the Manabí oil refinery valued around 13 billion US dollars or a tenth of GDP.
Dismantling a Popular Legacy
These measures were meant to dismantle institutions built under the rule of Ecuador’s socialist former president Rafael Correa, not to help those in a vulnerable position, as the Minister of Economy stated in the letter of intention signed with the IMF:
“The Ecuadorian authorities are implementing a comprehensive reform program aimed at modernizing the economy and paving the way for strong, sustained, and equitable growth.
The authorities’ measures geared towards strengthening the fiscal position and improving competitiveness, and by so doing help lessen vulnerabilities, put dollarization on a stronger footing, and, over time, encourage growth and job creation.”
Lies that in October exploded in his face.
Most of the people protesting against the IMF’s measures and the elimination of subsidies were born during the economic crisis in the early 2000s. They also lived through economic development under Correa’s rule, as well as the economic recession caused by a fall in oil prices in 2014 and the devastating earthquakes in 2016 that destroyed the coast of the country.
To achieve what he did, Correa never asked the IMF for help. We understand Lenín Moreno’s efforts as responding to other interests, linked to Wall Street and the Ecuadorian banks, to destroy the public sector, something common to every IMF intervention in the past.
As for the generation experiencing the current crisis —since 2015 oil prices have fallen to 60-80 USD, a dramatic income loss— their childhood coincided with a prosperous period, but during university schooling they experienced some animosity, which coincides with the end of Correa’s presidential mandate.
This would explain their reduced presence on the streets, and the refusal of the indigenous movement towards Correa’s allies.
Divided Movements Renewing
Indigenous leaders’ participation in Correa’s government, together with the social benefits it provided, fragmented the indigenous movement’s social struggles. Decree 016 restricted the direct participation of the indigenous movement in policy.
And the current participation of several indigenous leaders in Moreno’s government has resulted in demands relating to social and environmental issues being shadowed.
Therefore, the indigenous movement feels distanced from the main line of either government, considering Correa’s to be a regulatory and Moreno’s a deregulatory regime.
On the other hand, the fact that there was a generational shift among indigenous leaders shows the movement’s capacity to regenerate, with a new and younger leadership which has had access to university, and now engages their demands with not only ethnic but class issues.
Indeed their main goal is to link the two, to generate a popular power.
“This happened in Cuenca, this is what the press does not publish. It is not fair that in the struggle of ALL only some participate. Let's go out to defend our country and fight with our brothers damn it!” (Twitter)
It was this new young generation that experienced the current crisis and economic recession while at university, which explains the enormous support for mobilisations among students, and their capacity to connect with a group that was part of mobilisations against the World Bank.
So there are common practices between both movements, especially in relation to child and geriatric care during demonstrations. This was exemplified in the centre established at the Universidad Salesiana and the Casa de la Cultura, which responded to previous experiences.
In this sense, these demonstrations in the public space performed a citizen corporality that also points to its discontent with governmental measures, something now taking place in Chile as well.
Therefore, and in spite of several violent episodes, citizens were an example of democratic maturity, which points an enormous capacity to organised and the healthy state of Ecuadorian civil society. Citizens loudly said they do not need international economic organisms, which leave the smoke of disaster around them, directing their lives.
It may be a good moment to question whether the Bretton Woods organisations make any sense nowadays, because whenever they appear, disaster and state brutality are imposed everywhere.
Indigenous Led Alliances
The indigenous movement in Ecuador was already preparing a massive mobilisation for October 14, but when economic measures were announced by Moreno’s executive the indigenous leadership decided to demonstrate earlier to support transporters’ demands.
Their participation allowed the mobilisation to spread all over the country, paralysing 14 regional governments as well as petrol infrastructure and the main national roads, rendering the state inoperative during the protests.
It is in the Sierra highland region that most Ecuadorians live, including indigenous people. This transversal mobilisation integrated transporters, taxi and bus drivers, students, indigenous people, and during its last days the low middle classes and women’s movements, to show their rejection of economic measures imposed on the Ecuadorian Republic in order to accept the IMF’s credit.
The presidential executive led by Moreno, vice president Otto Sonnenholzner, interior minister María Paula Romo and defence minister Oswaldo Jarrin, repressed these massive popular mobilisations.
Making use of an extreme brutality not remembered in Ecuador since 1978, at the end of the dictatorship, the executive deployed the army, which charged and fired upon unarmed protestors. It also released gas bombs into people’s homes during protests, and snipers were shooting demonstrators from the National Assembly.
There were indiscriminate detentions of over a thousand people, as well as political persecution of members of Correa’s party (who had appointed Moreno as his successor) together with journalists’ persecution.
With press freedom repressed, the international and social media turned out to be the main sources of information, to the point that the government cancelled broadcasts of Telesur during the last days of the protests.
Outside the National Assembly
Ecuador has lived through some of the worst repression experienced in Latin America in 40 years. So it was surprising to hear Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s declarations supporting the Moreno executive. Sanchez, who is not an elected prime minister but an appointee, seemed unaware of declarations made by the United Nations and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
In the demonstration’s last days, opposition to the Lenín Moreno executive even after negotiations was extremely high, as they have their hands covered in blood.
Demonstrators observed that the economic elites may consider substituting Moreno with former Guayaquil mayor Jaime Nebot, a demo-Christian. But Nebot’s racist declarations against indigenous people were poorly received in the highland region, damaging his chances as a possible president substitute.
The other person who could be appointed is Guillermo Lasso, a businessman and politician. Lasso is the richest banker in Ecuador, former head of operations for Coca-Cola in Ecuador, CEO of Guayaquil Bank since 1994, and a member of the powerful conservative Catholic society Opus Dei.
Lasso is also founder of CREO, a conservative and neoliberal political party. As presidential candidate in 2013 he was defeated by Correa 57% to 23% and in 2017 he again lost the presidential election to Moreno.
Lasso is ideologically close to former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar, who was responsible for the dramatic Spanish intervention in Iraq and one of the main men responsible for the Spanish economic and political crisis, which is still ongoing and has resulted in massive Spanish emigration overseas.
In fact most of Aznar’s executive stands accused of corruption, and his vice president Rodrigo Rato, former director of the IMF, is currently on trial in Spain. It goes to show how networks of power and economic manoeuvres are globally displayed, resulting in dramatic economic measures imposed over citizens’ lives.
Ecuadorians protest in Madrid
One of these actors may substitute for Lenín Moreno. They are representatives of the economic interest of Ecuadorian elites, which are mainly linked to finance, imports and agribusiness. IMF measures could then proceed and social mobilisation be stopped.
The indigenous leadership are claiming however that despite conducting negotiations with the government they still reject the agreement with the IMF, and are willing to come back to the streets if the IMF treaty is not retired.
If implemented these measures will represent not only a loss of national economic independence, but non-payment will force the selling of national energy infrastructure valued around 50 billion USD at market prices to ensure IMF credit repayment, as remarked by Ecuadorian economist Pablo Dávalos.
Moreover, IMF credit is being sought without public discussion, so citizens do not know the consequences of accepting it.
Although the mobilizations demanded an end to the austerity measures associated with IMF credit, an extremely weakened executive questioned for its use of extreme violence still wants to impose them.
In the 12 days that social mobilisations took place, primary schools stayed closed, and mobility inside the country was restricted. The national government declared a curfew from 8 pm to 5 am, and later a state of exception which allowed it to exert massive citizen repression.
This repression reached a historical maximum, with at least 8 people dead, some being babies and children, 1340 people injured, and between 1,192 and 1,419 people arrested. State forces also limited the work of health volunteers, which did not allow citizens to get proper assistance and care.
The last protests on October 9 expressed the intensity of citizen mobilisation and its capacity to remove Decree 883, which had ended fuel subsidies.
The UN Human Rights Council sent three officials to Ecuador on October 20 who will remain there till November 8 to evaluate human rights violations. New figures will emerge.
This visit arose from an agreement during negotiations between the government and protesters. International intervention to document human rights violations is crucial, as government figures lack legitimacy. Messages from government social media handles calling for peace and pause contrast with government measures sending military tanks and teargas and gunshots over unarmed people.
Support for Moreno before the protests stood around 13% and is probably less than 5% now. But he still has support from the army and economic elites situated in the Costa region, and from the US government.
His initial decision to move the government from Quito in the highlands to Guayaquil by the coast came in response to this. Nevertheless he quickly returned to Quito, which is the centre of political power, and because a similar move by the Lucio Gutiérrez government after a social movement in 2005 resulted in his overthrow.
A Political Resolution
Eight presidents before Gutiérrez had the same destiny. Nowadays, after the Correa period, the Ecuadorian state is stronger so it proved impossible to overthrow Moreno.
Besides 1978, Ecuadorians faced similar repression in the mid-1980s, when León Febres-Cordero was president and imposed structural adjustments in the country, or what was known as the Washington Consensus.
This points to the fact that Ecuador, and Latin America as a region, are entering into a new period, a response to a new regional and global geopolitical situation, something also observed in the emerging demonstrations in Chile.
The straightforward fall of Moreno would only facilitate the entry of Otto Sonnenholzner, who is Moreno’s third vice-president since December 2018. He is unelected and directly represents the interest of the coastal financial elite, being one of them.
So, the future resolution of Ecuadorian political problems demands a general election. But it remains unclear what will happen in the near future.
Although state repression diminished the mobilisations, they were not as massive as they could have been. During the last days new social sectors joined the indigenous movement in the streets, especially in Quito’s middle or low class neighbourhoods, where people contested the curfew and state of exception by coming into the streets and smashing pottery to express their discontent with Moreno’s management of the situation.
But the indigenous movement led these protests, showing that they play a central role in national politics. This was already expressed in the last municipal elections where they earned broad political representation, through their political party Pachakutik. Any future political solution, and probably the future government, will need their support in order to operate.
What we saw this hot autumn in the Ecuadorian streets is just the beginning, of a social pulse, against a government it has questioned closely in the year past.
This shows the maturity of Ecuadorian society. These movements are not linked to any revolt organised from Venezuela, but manifest the desire of the Ecuadorian people to manage their lives, without the distortions of economic policies that have historically proven unable to resolve problems, and have resulted in disastrous situations for Ecuador.
Ecuador is walking, and we do not walk alone.
Antonio Chamorro has a doctorate in Andean history from FLACSO Ecuador. Roberto Garcia-Patron is a political science graduate from Universidad Complutense, Madrid.