Ecuadorians have been protesting since last week against recently announced austerity measures by the country’s socialist President Lenin Moreno, occasionally clashing with security forces.
At least five protesters have died and scores have been wounded in clashes with police, while hundreds have been arrested by the government.
Moreno, named after a Bolshevik revolutionary, dismissed the protests, saying that the government measures were necessary to comply with the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The Ecuador government has reached an agreement with the IMF for a $4.2 billion loan and in exchange accepted several harsh labour and tax reforms.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty about what might happen,” said Michael Shifter, President of the Inter-American Dialogue, a US think tank monitoring governance in Latin America.
“The big lesson is that it’s very difficult to go from populism to a more orthodox economic policy,” Shifter said.
The measures include cutting wages in the public sector up to 20 percent, and forcing public servants to donate a portion of their monthly salary to the government. Annual leave days have been reduced from 30 to 15 days.
But the biggest protests began when Moreno decided to cut fuel subsidies, in place for decades, significantly increasing prices across the country.
The protesters occupied several oil facilities in the Amazon basin, disrupting oil output, which has cost the Moreno government nearly $13 million to date, according to the country’s energy minister.
On Tuesday, the protesters also stormed the parliament.
Indigenous leadership’s role
The protests have pulled together various non-governmental organisations from transportation unions to student and human rights organisations. But the country’s indigenous groups, a quarter of Ecuador’s 17.3 million population, who are more organised than any other political groups, are apparently directing the protests.
The indigenous groups, which have faced persecution at the hands of government in the past, have strongly opposed natural resource extraction on their lands for decades and have been instrumental in bringing three previous presidents down after mass protests.
In 2005, the right-wing Lucio Gutierrez government attempted to implement an IMF programme, with similar heavy-handed measures like those taken by Moreno, but ended up losing the presidency in the face of violent protests as the National Congress ousted him.
Jaime Vargas, who is leading the national indigineous movement CONAIE, says they are not aiming to remove Moreno this time around.
But he also warned Moreno, who moved his capital from Quito to Guayaquil, a southern city on Monday, not to play with fire.
“We’re going to radicalise with more force, my friends,” Vargas announced as his supporters paraded a group of captured uniformed police officers on a platform, during one of the protests, where he was giving a speech.
“Don’t play with indigenous people,” Vargas said.
Internal politics might also play a role in violent protests. Moreno has accused his political mentor, the former President Rafael Correa, under whose presidency he was the vice-president, for the unrest. Correa is considered an ally of Venezuela's Nicholas Maduro, whom Moreno also blamed for the protests.
Moreno distanced himself from Correa’s leftist policies after he was elected in 2017, using Correa’s political base for his election campaign.