Political deadlock and fragmentation: the aftermath of mass mobilisations in Ecuador

By María Gabriela Palacio & Fabio Díaz Pabón

A version of this article appeared in Mail & Guardian, 22 Oct 2019

The recent protests in Ecuador brought Quito to a standstill, forced the government of Moreno to relocate the seat of government and saw the declaration of a state of emergency and a curfew, following the announcement of the end of a fuel subsidy- in place for the last four decades, and a series of austerity reforms.

Protests illustrate the deeply seated divisions between indigenous groups and other sectors of the population, the malign role of some politicians in opposition to the current government, and the role of international organizations such as the IMF in recommending (controversial) austerity policies that operate in a context where inequalities among racial and gender lines are salient. This also explains the pivotal role of indigenous women in the latest demonstrations as they have been victims of different degrees and types of marginalization.

The combination of these factors complicates the road ahead, and outlines the limited options the government will face: either it implements austerity policies that can end up driving political instability, hamper economic growth and affect the legitimacy of the government; or it runs the risk of alienating international organizations in a moment of significant financial need, given the levels of public debt, increased volatility of oil prices and tighter global lending conditions.

Whereas attention has been centered in the clashes taking place in Quito, these protests and their aftermath have uncovered the social tensions, the outcome of the marginalization and impoverishment of indigenous populations in Ecuador. Indigenous groups were not only marching against the imposed austerity measures by the IMF, but also voiced their rejection of extractive industries (mining, oil drilling) in their territories, the criminalization of the right to protest, the inequalities in the allocation of revenues from oil and mining projects, and the significant decline of agriculture — the most significant source of income for indigenous people in the country. Poverty rates are strikingly higher among indigenous people: 64.8 per cent of indigenous people live in poverty, in comparison to the national poverty rate, where 25.8 per cent of the population is poor (according to 2014 data).

The austerity measures outlined by the government not only compromised the economic outlook of indigenous populations. The increase of fuel prices would also affect the urban middle-classes, unlikely to benefit from the social assistance programes proposed to curve discontent, e.g. conditional cash transfers, set in place to cushion the effect of these measures. Nevertheless, some sectors in Ecuador, claim modernity should be pursued, and the quest for “development” should not be thwarted by “backward” indigenous groups. These claims are informed by veiled racism — the legacy of colonialism, and illustrate how diverse indigenous groups are standardized under a label of indigeneity closely associated with rurality, with their voices silenced and othered in a country in which inequalities take place along racialized and gendered categories.

Thus, while the government has managed to avoid a further escalation of the violence by negotiating with leaders of most salient indigenous groups (led by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador-CONAIE) and revising the proposed cut in fuel subsidies, the Ecuadorean society has woken up to a fragmented and polarized society and the pressing need to obtain public revenues to finance the functioning of the government. This quest for a political settlement is made more difficult by the political divisions within the polity.

The acrimonious relationship between the current president Moreno and former president Correa illustrates how a personal feud takes place on a national arena. Moreno was elected after acting as Correa’s Vice President between 2007 and 2013. He was expected to follow up on Correa’s vision of the state, but once in power, he changed his discourse and aligned his policies more to the center-right of the political specter. Because of this, Correa and the politicians supporting the opposition are attacking Moreno’s government and, in some cases, giving political support to agitators within the opposition while attempting to coopt and skew sectors of the indigenous mobilization under the interests of Correísmo.

The problem of this personal dispute taking place at a national level goes beyond the alleged cooptation of indigenous groups by political groups and the accusations against indigenous people of being pawns of Correa. These actions have the power to erode the trust in representatives and institutions. Indigenous protests have taken place across decades in Ecuador, but the support of some politicians to riotous violence might affect the legitimacy of institutions.

In March 2019, the IMF approved a $4.2 billion loan for Ecuador, as part of a plan to reduce public debt and restore investors’ confidence as the economy is faltering. In exchange, the IMF is demanding cuts in public expenditure.

Whereas the IMF claims these policies are geared towards strengthening the economy (IMF Press Release №19/72 March 11, 2019), it underestimates the harmful effects of similar austerity policies. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), these measures would result in a -1.1 per cent contraction of the economy in 2019 and continued recession through 2021.The 12-days of protests illustrated how structural (historical) inequalities can trigger intense episodes of upheaval and even violence. The incidents of last weeks in Ecuador exposed the tangible consequences of racism and the faultlines between different sectors in the Ecuadorean society. However, a public discourse that speaks of race, identity and inequality is not central to the Ecuadorian politics, and thus the ways these inequalities are voiced will only be done in an imperfect and inadequate language, for they deal with issues of limited representation and legitimacy that are not fully acknowledged yet.

The challenge ahead for Ecuador lies in how to de-escalate conflict while embracing dissent, respect the rights and pleas of the marginalized, outmaneuver sectors that promote instability, while keeping creditors, such as the IMF, happy. Should Ecuador fail to do so, fragmentation will deepen, and political instability will become central in the years to come.

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