Ecuador protests over austerity measures trigger worst unrest in decade

Demonstrations widely peaceful but some protesters hurled stones and sticks at police who fired teargas back

 A demonstrator clashes with riot police as thousands march against Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno’s decision to slash fuel subsidies, in Quito on Wednesday.  Photograph: Martin Bernetti/AFP

A demonstrator clashes with riot police as thousands march against Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno’s decision to slash fuel subsidies, in Quito on Wednesday. Photograph: Martin Bernetti/AFP

 

Masked youths battled Ecuadorean security forces during indigenous-led protests and a national strike on Wednesday as president Lenin Moreno stuck by austerity measures that have triggered the worst unrest in a decade.

In Latin America’s latest flare-up over unpopular structural economic reforms, the shutdown cleared many streets of traffic, schools closed and businesses shuttered from the highland capital Quito to coastal city Guayaquil.

Though the wider demonstrations were peaceful, in some places protesters hurled stones and sticks at police who fired teargas back. In Quito, several people fell injured, witnesses said, as helicopters buzzed downtown.

“Our flag is red, like the blood of the working class” chanted marchers in Quito, beside graffiti against Moreno and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Protests erupted in the Andean nation of 17 million people a week ago when Mr Moreno cut fuel subsidies as part of a package of measures in line with a $4.2 billion IMF loan.

“What the government has done is reward the big banks, the capitalists, and punish poor Ecuadoreans,” said Mesias Tatamuez, head of the Workers’ United Front umbrella union.

The main indigenous group CONAIE, which has mobilised some 6,000 members to Quito from outlying areas, said Moreno’s government was behaving like a “military dictatorship” by declaring a state of emergency and setting an overnight curfew.

Protesters march against President Lenin Moreno’s decision to slash fuel subsidies, in Quito on Wednesday. Photograph: Rodrigo Buendia/AFP
Protesters march against President Lenin Moreno’s decision to slash fuel subsidies, in Quito on Wednesday. Photograph: Rodrigo Buendia/AFP

Protesters barricaded roads in various parts of Ecuador from Wednesday morning with debris, while security forces blocked a major bridge in Guayaquil to thwart them.

Mr Moreno (66) who succeeded leftist leader Rafael Correa in 2017, has relocated his government to Guayaquil where there has been less trouble than in Quito.

The demonstrators’ main demand is the withdrawal of the fuel subsidy cut, which has sent transport and food prices soaring, though some were also urging Mr Moreno to quit.

“I don’t see why I should if I’m making the right decisions,” Mr Moreno said late on Tuesday, arguing Ecuador’s large debt and fiscal deficit necessitated belt-tightening reforms.

For seven days, protesters have been marching and barricading roads with burning tires, while police in armored vehicles have responded with water cannon and gas.

“Moreno out!” and “Police murderers!”, demonstrators shouted on Wednesday.

Hundreds of arrests

The unrest was the second major challenge to a South American leader this year over opposition to the IMF. Argentine president Mauricio Macri was trounced in an August primary vote amid stiff opposition to an IMF deal he signed last year.

Authorities in Ecuador have arrested 756 people in a week of unrest, and dozens of police officers have been injured.

One man died after he was hit by a car and an ambulance could not reach him amid the chaos, while another two people fell off a bridge during protests, with some unconfirmed reports that they died.

Oil minister Carlos Perez said the OPEC member nation had lost 232,000 barrels of production from the unrest, worth more than $12.5 million, after protesters entered some fields.

Soldiers were helping retake control of the important Sacha field, the ministry said, but half a dozen others remained closed. State firm Petroecaudor, which normally transports 360,000 barrels per day to the Pacific Coast, halted operations of its Trans-Ecuadorean Pipeline System (SOTE) and weighed declaring force majeure on international contracts.–Reuters