What’s behind Ecuador’s October 2019 uprising?

Photo by Abbie Bernet on Unsplash, abbieburnet.com.

by Gabriel Fernandes
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)

On October 13, the 14-day conflict over recent neoliberal economic reforms approved by Ecuador’s president Lenin Moreno finally came to an end with the historic victory of the protesters and Moreno’s decision to revoke the IMF-backed policy package.  

This victory required resilience and strong organizational capacity from the Ecuadorian people, who resisted the police oppression ordered by the current administration. Data recently released by the Defensoría del Pueblo del Ecuador, an official body in charge of overseeing compliance with human rights regulations in the country, gives an idea of what was sacrificed for the sake of this outcome: more than 1,300 were injured, nearly 1,200 were arrested, and eight did not survive – including the indigenous leader Inocencio Tucumbi.  

What sparked popular reaction was the end of a four-decades-long fuel subsidy that led to an immediate twofold increase in the price of diesel and a nearly 30 percent increase in the price of gasoline. Because of that, the first group to stand against Moreno’s paquete neoliberal (neoliberal reform package) were the transportation workers, mainly taxi, bus and truck drivers. 

The transportistas announced a national strike and blocked the streets of Quito and Guayaquil – to where Moreno would eventually relocate the government headquarters for safety concerns after an attempt to occupy the national assembly. Shortly after the first group of protesters started pushing, the national strike grew to become a nationwide intersectional movement with the full support of students, labour unions, identity collective organizations of Afro-Ecuadorians and feminists, and especially indigenous movements. According to Lourdes Tibán, protest leader and former member of the National Assembly, “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.”

Moreno’s response to the popular mobilization was all but satisfactory. In fact, several organizations such as Amnesty International denounced the government on its authoritarian and repressive excessive use of force against the population through mass detentions, impartial investigations and alleged torture and arbitrary arrests. Although the president was slow to respond to these human rights violations, he was quick in using language that diverted the attention from the legitimacy of the protests by accusing the organizers of being “foreign individuals, external and paid.” He also accused former president Rafael Correa of working with Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro in trying to incite a coup through creating political unrest.

President Moreno’s behavior follows a political trend in Latin America. Everything reported so far, from the implementation of neoliberal measures to scapegoating Maduro, reflects what is happening elsewhere in other countries of the region. However, unlike Bolsonaro in Brazil, Macri in Argentina or Piñera in Chile, Moreno was not originally elected on a conservative platform. He was supposed to be Rafael Correa’s direct successor and continue the implementation of a progressive project in Ecuador. Understanding what led to this critical rupture between Moreno and Correa is essential to seeing the full picture behind what happened recently in Ecuador.

Rafael Correa was the president of Ecuador from 2007 to 2017. He is a democratic socialist and was the head of the political party Alianza PAIS (Patria Altiva i Soberana) that he helped to found. His administration was particularly focused on passing income distribution policies and fighting Ecuador’s foreign debt. Between 2006 and 2016, poverty decreased in Ecuador from 36.7 percent to 22.5 percent and annual GDP per capita grew by 1.5 percent. Politically, Correa was responsible for the national referendum that led to the ratification of a new constitution in 2008, one of the most progressive in the world. Some of its progressive features are the legal recognition of the right for food sovereignty and of Ecuador as a pluri-national and pluri-cultural state.  

However, Correa’s capacity to implement these progressive measures was founded upon a deep layer of contradictions that damaged the continuity of his political project. The commodity problem was an especially relevant factor in this process. Rafael Correa was elected during the Pink Tide, a political moment in Latin America that led to the election of several left-leaning governments, which coincided with a global commodity boom — a phenomenon that started in the early 2000s and lasted until 2011. The high price of oil, minerals, and agricultural goods gave these governments the economic security necessary to go against global financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and implement political projects that did not exactly favor national elites.

The contradiction begins with the fact that while social welfare spending did not exactly favor the rich, it did not lead to increased economic equality, either. In fact, oil extraction revenues were mostly transformed into private-sector profits. People had more access to income, but wealth was not distributed to the extent that was necessary. The economy was enlarged but not restructured. Because the economic privileges of the elites were maintained to a significant extent, it was just a matter of time for them to become politically articulated again.

The golden era of the Ecuadorian Pink Tide ended in 2014. The commodity boom was over, and the country entered a new phase of recession and growth of external debt. This all reduced Correa’s popularity and the political maneuverability that PAIS (the party) used to have. 

This scenario set the stage for the 2017 elections, one of the most polarized elections in Ecuador’s history. On one hand, PAIS had massive popular support coming from the people who were still grateful for the social reforms implemented under Correa. On the other hand, people were also becoming increasingly skeptical about the correista project.

All these contradictions materialized in the figure of Moreno, who had always been contradictory himself. Moreno was Correa’s vice-president, but he had always been more conservative than his predecessor and he capitalized on that.  He was elected to continue the legacy of Correa, but once he took over the presidency, he found himself leading a country that was extremely polarized (both socially and institutionally) and struggling economically. His ability to govern without the Right was limited, and the political and economic scenario made him bid goodbye to his progressive past and adopt increasingly more conservative and neoliberal political decisions. 

Ecuador’s past of indigenous movements being a strong political player capable of threatening the status quo may also partly explain the aggressive tone of repression adopted by Moreno. Historically, the indigenous people of Ecuador have organized politically around multi-ethnic confederations – the largest one being CONAIE (Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador). Formed in 1986 and representing 14 different indigenous groups, CONAIE helped organize with frequency and wide reach several popular uprisings in the 1990s and early 2000s. These insurgencies played a central role deposing Ecuadorian presidents, including Lucio Gutiérrez in 2005. After that, they adopted a different political strategy. Instead of investing in these physical forms of collectively organizing and being opposition to the government, some sectors of the indigenous movement became part of electoral politics and allied with non-indigenous parties and movements, including Correa’s PAIS.  

It is possible that part of the reason why the government cracked down so hard on these protests is because of CONAIE’s active participation in promoting it. Knowing how effective indigenous movements have been in the resistance, Moreno and his cabinet had all the reason to fear the threat they represent now as well. As seen above, this resistance led to another successful outcome and on Sunday, October 13: the government’s austerity package had to be revoked under popular pressure.

Gabriel Fernandes is a student at Ithaca College studying politics and religion. 









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