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What is happening in Ecuador?

Ecuador protests
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Ecuador protests

Sixth day of protests over fuel subsidy cuts prompts government to flee Quito

In Depth Gabriel Power
Wednesday, October 9, 2019 - 2:12pm

Ecuador has seen a sixth consecutive day of unrest over austerity measures, prompting the government to flee the capital Quito and impose a curfew.

Increasingly violent protests have spread throughout the country after President Lenin Moreno last week called a halt to fuel subsidies leading to a sharp rise in the cost of petrol. It is one of many controversial policies imposed by the Moreno government since it took power in 2017. 

According to The Guardian, some protesters have been seen “hurling petrol bombs and stones, ransacking and vandalising public buildings as well as clashing with the police in running battles late into the night”, while others seized some oil installations.

Petroecuador, the state-run oil company, warned that production losses caused by the protests could reach 165,000 barrels a day, or nearly one-third of total production. 

Moreno condemned the protests in a televised address on Monday, hinting that a coup may be under way. “[This] is not a protest of social dissatisfaction faced with a government decision,” the president said, instead claiming that “the looting, vandalism and violence show there is an organised political motive to destabilise the government”.

Ecuador’s former president Rafael Correa has denied that he was orchestrating the overthrow of the Moreno government from his self-imposed exile in Belgium.

But what is happening in Ecuador, and what might happen next?

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What happened last week?

Al Jazeera reports that since taking power in 2017, Moreno’s government has been “struggling with a large foreign debt and fiscal deficit” and has abandoned many of the left-wing policies of his predecessor Correa, whose time as president from 2007 to 2017 is described by Reuters as “a rare period of stability for a country accustomed to political turmoil”.

In order to stem the economic downturn, Moreno this year reached a three-year, $4.2bn (£3.4bn) loan deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in return for the implementation of harsh austerity measures such as cuts to public spending.

Last week the government officially ended the country’s fuel subsidies, which have been in place for 40 years. Moreno claimed that the subsidies had “distorted the economy and cost $60bn”, Al Jazeera says.

As a result of the cuts, diesel prices rose almost overnight from $1.03 (£0.84) to $2.30 (£1.88) per gallon, while petrol went from $1.85 (£1.51) to $2.39 (£1.95).

How have people responded?

Shortly after the announcement, transport unions across the country called for a strike and protests erupted in multiple cities.

The BBC reports that since last week, indigenous demonstrators have “blocked roads and highways in the country and thousands have travelled to the capital Quito for bigger protests”. The protests have affected petrol deliveries and led to fuel shortages in parts of the country.

The energy ministry said that after protesters went on to seize several oil installations, the country’s oil production has dropped by around 65,000 barrels a day.

The unrest reached a peak on Monday, The Guardian reports, when police “abandoned an armoured vehicle to protesters who set it on fire” while rioters “smashed car windows, broke into shops and confronted security forces who fired tear gas to try to disperse swelling crowds”.

The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, an activist group that has staged numerous protests in the past, said Moreno’s government had “failed to address protesters’ concerns” and the welfare of Ecuador’s “most vulnerable” people.

“Troops and police who approach indigenous territories will be detained and subjected to indigenous justice,” the group said.

So far, around 570 people have been arrested according to the government, and Moreno has declared a two-month national emergency over the unrest.

What has the government said?

On Tuesday, Moreno held a meeting of cabinet ministers in the coastal city of Guayaquil, having moved government operations there from Quito because of security concerns.

Speaking on the Ecuavisa television network, the president claimed he had the support of Ecuador’s institutions and thanked them “for their defence of the democratic system”.

He also accused protesters of organising a coup, claiming that they had “political motive to destabilise the government”, while Juan Sebastian Roldan, the president’s private secretary, added: “What we’re going through is not a peaceful mobilisation, it’s delinquency and vandalism.”

Moreno claimed that his leftist predecessor Rafael Correa is trying to destabilise Ecuador with the help of Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s controversial president. The Guardian reports that Correa and Moreno have “traded allegations of corruption in recent months, and Correa says he and his allies are victims of political persecution”.

Correa, who lives in self-imposed exile in a small town in Belgium, told Reuters this week: “They are such liars They say I am so powerful that with an iPhone from Brussels I could lead the protests.”

Referring to harsh austerity measures brought in by Moreno, he added: “People couldn’t take it any more, that’s the reality.”

Maduro also dismissed the claim in a Tuesday evening television appearance in Venezuela. 

“If you, Mr Lenin Moreno, want to see the reality of what’s happening, take that economic package back and engage in a dialogue with the people of Ecuador,” he said. “Open a dialogue with the peasants, workers and indigenous people.”

What might happen next?

If history is anything to go by, Moreno could face a tough time ahead. Al Jazeera reports that his popularity has sunk to below 30%, compared to over 70% shortly after his 2017 election.

Furthermore, Ecuador has a “history of volatility and sudden government changes”, the broadcaster adds, with protesters having toppled three presidents in the decade before Correa took power in 2007.

Despite his claims of an attempted coup, Moreno has also told opponents that he is willing to talk, but has refused to repeal any of his austerity measures.

As a result, Al Jazeera says, protesters have pledged to stay in the streets until Moreno reverses the reforms.

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