Ecuador: protests over or only on hold?
A national strike in response to soaring fuel and food prices brought large parts of Ecuador to a standstill for over two weeks. This was the latest in a global series of protests triggered by rising prices. In Ecuador, home to repeat waves of economic protests, the national strike saw violence from both the state and protesters. Recent negotiations have reached a deal to end the protests, with the government agreeing to several protest demands. But as calm descends, now the government must deliver on the deal – or protests are sure to start up again.
Once again, rising fuel and food prices have provided the tipping point for major protests – this time in Ecuador. Starting on 13 June, thousands took to the streets of the capital, Quito, and numerous other towns and cities across the country, taking part in a national strike to demand a better economic deal. An agreement reached on 30 June appears to have brought protests to an end – at least for now. Now the pressure falls on the government to deliver on the deal.
A powerful Indigenous force
Before Ecuador, mass protests motivated by rising prices were seen this year in countries as diverse as Iran, Kazakhstan and Sri Lanka. More are guaranteed as food and fuel prices soar, with already high costs pushed up further by the global impacts of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Price increases are pushing many people to the edge, leaving them to ask searching questions about governments that are failing to protect them.
Ecuador has had a particularly severe experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, with over 35,700 reported deaths, provoking much anger at government failings. Inflation and unemployment are high. According to official statistics, only 33.5 per cent of Ecuadorans are in formal employment. And yet under a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the government committed to increasing tax and cutting fuel subsidies.
Ecuador’s Indigenous people, who make up about a million of the country’s circa 17.7 million population, are typically the poorest and hardest-hit. Many are under immense economic strain. But they have on their side a powerful organisation with a history of mobilising protests to win concessions from the state: the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE).
CONAIE led the current protests, with a 10-point list of demands, which as well as fuel price cuts included more public spending on education and healthcare, job creation, price controls on agricultural products, renegotiation of farmers’ debts and the reversal of mining concessions on Indigenous territories.
Opposing them was President Guillermo Lasso, narrow winner of the April 2021 presidential election. Ironically, the conservative business leader likely benefited from some Indigenous votes, due to unhappiness with the leftist front-runner and the fact that an Indigenous candidate just missed out on the runoff.
But any popularity Lasso enjoyed proved short-lived. He is ruling without a National Assembly majority: his party has just 12 of 137 parliamentary seats, outnumbered by the Indigenous movement’s political party, the Pachakutik Plurinational Unity Movement, which is now the second-largest parliamentary party.
Lasso’s rule has never been easy. He quickly faced major protests: in September, thousands – including Indigenous groups, rural workers’ movements, unions, students and teachers – marched in Quito against proposed labour law changes and to demand educational reform. In October, Indigenous organisations and social movements held mass protests against fuel price increases, which Lasso put on hold for a spell as a result.
In previous mobilisation processes, the demands of social movements, particularly of Indigenous ones, have not been answered by the authorities. Exhaustion and attrition have led to new uprisings and demonstrations.
Lasso stands accused of focusing on economic policy, aimed at cutting the budget deficit and foreign debt, to the detriment of social policy.
Similar criticisms were made of the last administration, under President Lenín Moreno, which despite its leftist leanings committed to neoliberal economic measures as part of an IMF deal in 2019. These included the removal of fuel subsidies, provoking a sustained mass protest that forced a reversal of the plans. Bringing back similar policies was guaranteed to spark renewed protests.
Violence on the rise
Indigenous protesters were once again joined by unions, other workers’ groups, peasants’ groups and students. As is common in protests in the region, protesters blocked roads, setting up barricades and burning tyres. At one point, protesters cut off access to Quito. As the national strike continued, protesters occupied oilwells owned by the Chinese PetroOriental company and a powerplant. A state of emergency was imposed in multiple provinces, but protesters defied curfews. As a result, food and fuel shortages spread as transportation was disrupted and oil production, Ecuador’s main export, was vastly reduced.
Violence came on both sides. Protest violence included incidences of vandalism, injuries of police officers and the detention of police officers by protesters. But there was also excessive state force. It was often an unequal confrontation between protesters holding sticks and throwing fireworks and security forces using teargas and water cannon. Protesters reported receiving head injuries, including as a result of pellets, and Indigenous children were subject state violence.
At least six people are now reported to have died as a result of the protests. There are at least 313 reported injuries, and over 150 people were arrested. CONAIE president Leonidas Iza Salazar was among those detained, arrested early on the morning of 14 June and held incommunicado before being released late into the night. He still faces charges. There were at least 86 acts of violence against media workers, most coming from protesters.
International human rights norms are clear that even when acts of violence are committed in the context of protests, this does not mean that protests as a whole should be regarded as violent or illegitimate and does not make it acceptable to use excessive force against or criminalise protesters as a mass. There should now be an inquiry into all acts of violence. Protesters alleged to have used violence should face proper justice processes, but state forces must equally be held to account.
Voices from the frontline
Mauricio Alarcón is executive director of Fundación Ciudadanía y Desarrollo (Citizenship and Development Foundation), a civil society organisation that promotes and defends the rule of law, democratic principles and individual freedoms in Ecuador.
The protests originated in a situation of national crisis – an economic, insecurity and employment crisis – that has dragged on for several years. In previous mobilisation processes, the demands of social movements, particularly of Indigenous ones, have not been answered by the authorities. Exhaustion and attrition have led to new uprisings and demonstrations.
As a condition for lifting the strike and stopping the mobilisations, social movements gave the national government a list of 10 demands. Several of these have been met, while others are unfeasible; however, the Indigenous leadership claims that they will only end the protests if all of them, including some additional ones that have arisen in the last few days, are accepted.
The national government has reacted much better than previous governments. Although it has twice decreed a state of emergency, mobilising police and military forces, this has now been lifted. In general, a progressive use of force has been made, respecting international standards. While it is true that there have been some cases of excesses, these are the exception rather than the norm.
An end to protests – for now
It was a rocky road to the eventual agreement. President Lasso tried to halt protest momentum by making some initial concessions, including a small increase in monthly subsidies paid to the poorest people and cuts in petrol and diesel prices, although these fell far short of CONAIE’s demands. The state of emergency was lifted from the provinces where it applied; CONAIE had made this a precondition of any talks.
But at the same time Lasso hardly struck a conciliatory tone by attempting to characterise the protests as being a threat to democracy and a preparation for a coup. In reality, the threat to Lasso’s rule came not from the protests but from the National Assembly, where opposition parties launched an impeachment attempt. Lasso survived when the impeachment decision fell 12 votes short of the 92 required, but this was hardly a resounding vote of confidence.
And then just as negotiations were set to begin, an attack on military vehicles escorting an oil tanker led to the death of a soldier, José Chimarro, and caused injuries to several other soldiers and police. Lasso responded by cancelling proposed talks and said he would not sit down with CONAIE’s leader.
Fortunately, wiser counsels prevailed. Talks mediated by Ecuador’s Episcopal Conference led to a deal being signed the government and CONAIE on 30 June. The deal agrees to cut fuel prices, limit oil exploration and bans mining in protected areas, national parks and water sources. The deal gives the government 90 days to prove it has delivered on its promises.
Ultimately, both sides have compromised. The government has backed away from its inflammatory rhetoric and the protest movement has obtained less than it demanded, including lower fuel price cuts than it sought.
But now the dialogue needs to keep going. Past responses to protest have seen short-term fixes, kicking issues like fuel subsidies down the road. Genuine consultation must produce a long-term plan that goes beyond the usual IMF-backed neoliberal policies and protects the poorest people from the impacts of economic changes. The deal’s 90-day deadline provides a ticking clock, and time will tell whether the crisis has been ended, or merely deferred.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government of Ecuador, CONAIE and other protest groups must commit to ongoing dialogue to solve problems beyond the immediate fixes provided by the agreement to end protests.
Economic policies must include provisions to protect the poorest people from the impacts of rising food and fuel prices.
Incidences of violence, whether committed by protesters or state forces, must be investigated and subject to equal standards of justice.
Cover photo by Ricardo Landeta/Agencia Press South via Getty Images