QUITO – Indigenous-led protesters began a national strike in Ecuador on Wednesday after President Lenin Moreno refused to step down or overturn anti-austerity measures that have triggered the worst unrest in a decade.
Streets were empty of traffic and businesses were closed in Quito and other cities at the start of the shutdown — Latin America’s latest flash point over structural economic reforms.
Security forces fired tear gas to block hundreds of protesters marching near the presidential palace in downtown Quito, the highland capital.
Violent demonstrations erupted in the Andean nation of 17 million people a week ago when Moreno cut fuel subsidies as part of a package of measures in line with a $4.2 billion International Monetary Fund loan.
“What the government has done is reward the big banks, the capitalists, and punish poor Ecuadorians,” said Mesias Tatamuez, head of the Workers’ United Front umbrella union. “We call on all those against the IMF, which is responsible for this crisis, to join the strike.”
The unrest threatened to inflict wider damage on an already weakened economy. The energy ministry announced it was shutting down one of the country’s two domestic oil pipelines, effectively suspending two-thirds of its distribution of crude, and protesters seized three oil facilities in the Amazon earlier this week.
Ecuador, which exited the OPEC international oil cartel last week, produced over 500,000 barrels per day in exports in the first six months of the year, worth $4.6 billion.
Manuel Hoyos, a 34-year-old taxi driver and father of two, said the price of filling his fuel tank had jumped about 50 percent from last week to $19. “Moreno is a traitor. … He said there would not be an economic package, and look at the dreadful package he’s brought in,” Hoyos said.
The main indigenous group, CONAIE, which has mobilized 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 again barricaded roads on Wednesday morning with debris, while security forces themselves blocked a major bridge in the coastal city of Guayaquil to thwart demonstrations.
Moreno, 66, who succeeded leftist leader Rafael Correa in 2017, has relocated his government to Guayaquil, where the unrest has been less than in Quito.
He stood by his economic measures and defied calls to quit.
“I don’t see why I should if I’m making the right decisions,” Moreno said late on Tuesday, arguing that Ecuador’s large debt and fiscal deficit meant belt-tightening reforms were unavoidable.
For days, protesters have been marching and barricading roads with burning tires. Masked youths have hurled stones at security forces, who have responded with tear gas and water cannon.
“Our flag is red, like the blood of the working class!” chanted the marchers in downtown Quito.
Authorities have arrested nearly 700 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.
The government is hoping the United Nations or Roman Catholic Church can help mediate the crisis.
Moreno has accused former friend, mentor and boss Correa of seeking a coup with the help of fellow socialist President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.
Moreno had enthusiastically backed Correa during his decade-long rule, serving as his vice president, but broke with him after winning election and moved economic policies to the right.
From Belgium, where he lives, Correa has been applauding the demonstrators but scoffed at accusations of seeking a coup. Maduro also denied involvement in Ecuador.
Moreno has support from the business elite and the military appears to remain loyal, but his popularity is less than half of what it was two years ago and Ecuador-ans are mindful that indigenous protests helped topple three presidents before Correa.