Protest-hit Ecuador seeks foreign help, relocates government

Demonstrators run and take cover during a protest against Moreno’s austerity measures. (Reuters pic)

QUITO: Ecuador sought mediation from the United Nations or Roman Catholic Church on Tuesday after six days of anti-austerity protests that have pushed President Lenin Moreno’s government out of Quito and brought hundreds of arrests.

Following tactics that have toppled past governments, thousands of indigenous demonstrators have flooded the highland capital.

Some burst through security cordons to briefly enter the National Assembly on Tuesday afternoon, waving flags, pumping their fists and chanting: “We are the people!”

Elsewhere in Quito and other flash points, masked and stick-wielding protesters again hurled stones and battled with security forces, who responded with tear gas.

Facing the biggest challenge yet to his 2-1/2-year rule, President Lenin Moreno has declared a state of emergency and relocated government operations to the coastal city of Guayaquil where there has been less trouble.

“The only response is dialogue and firmness at the same time,” said presidential secretary Juan Roldan, inviting the UN, Catholic Church or university rectors to help start talks.

Protests erupted last Thursday when the government cut fuel subsidies as part of a package of economic reforms, in keeping with a US$4.2 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan.

Indigenous groups and others have been barricading roads with burning tires, rocks and branches, while police have deployed armoured vehicles and water cannon.

Nearly 600 people have been arrested, authorities say, including a legislator who supports Moreno’s predecessor Rafael Correa.

Moreno has accused the leftist Correa, his one-time mentor and boss when he was vice president, of seeking a coup with the help of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro.

Moreno had enthusiastically backed Correa during his decade-long rule but broke with him after winning a 2017 election to succeed him, and moved economic policies to the right.

Speaking in Belgium, where he lives in self-imposed exile, Correa scoffed at the accusation.

“They are such liars … They say I am so powerful that with an iPhone from Brussels I could lead the protests,” he told Reuters, holding up his mobile telephone.

“People couldn’t take it anymore, that’s the reality,” he said, referring to economic belt-tightening measures.

Chaos

Maduro, who has presided over an economic implosion and political crisis in Venezuela, has yet to respond to the accusation of involvement in Ecuador.

With protesters swarming around Quito, various government buildings were attacked overnight, authorities said, adding to looting and the destruction of ambulances and police vehicles in recent days.

In one confused incident, two people fell from a bridge in Quito during confrontations between police and protesters. Videos on social media showed their bodies lying motionless on the ground, and the government promised an investigation.

Indigenous groups have also captured some soldiers, while the unrest has affected oil output in the OPEC member.

Ecuadorean state-run Petroamazonas estimates it could lose some 165,000 barrels-per day (bpd), or one-third, of crude production due to unrest at its facilities.

“There are groups bent on causing chaos and confrontation, endangering democratic order,” a government statement said.

Dialogue was necessary, the statement added, citing possible measures to compensate the impact of fuel price rises, such as credit lines for farmers and transport cooperatives.

Although he enjoys the support of business and the military, Moreno’s popularity has sunk to under 30%, compared with 70% after his 2017 election.

Indigenous-led protests brought down three presidents in the years before Correa’s rule.

Seven Latin American countries accused Maduro’s “regime” in Venezuela of seeking to destabilise Ecuador and expressed their backing for Moreno in a statement.

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, whom many nations recognise as president, also accused Maduro of financing the protests in Ecuador.

Nicholas Watson, managing director of consultancy Teneo, said the next two days would be pivotal as the government sought to mollify protesters.

“A destabilisation plan orchestrated by Correa is not far-fetched,” he added in a report.

“Correa has a direct interest in forcing Moreno out, not just as political revenge for Moreno’s ‘betrayal’ but in an attempt to dodge multiple judicial investigations currently underway against him and several former lieutenants.”