The recent protests in Ecuador brought the capital of Quito to a standstill, forced President Lenín Moreno to relocate the seat of government, and saw the declaration of a state of emergency and a curfew. This was after the announcement of the end to 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 organisations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in recommending controversial austerity policies that operate in a context in which racial and gender inequalities are salient. This explains the pivotal role of indigenous women in the latest demonstrations, as they have been victims of different degrees and types of marginalisation.
The combination of these factors complicates the road ahead, and outlines the limited options the government will face: either it implements austerity policies that could end up driving political instability, hampering economic growth and affecting the legitimacy of the government; or it runs the risk of alienating international organisations in a moment of significant financial need, given the levels of public debt, increased volatility of oil prices and tighter global lending conditions.
Attention has been focused on the clashes taking place in Quito, but these protests and their aftermath have uncovered the social tensions arising from the marginalisation 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 (such as mining and oil drilling) in their territories, the criminalisation 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% of indigenous people live in poverty. In comparison, 25.8% of the national population live in poverty, according to 2014 data.
The austerity measures outlined by the government not only compromise the economic outlook of indigenous populations, but the increase in fuel prices will also affect the urban middle classes, who are unlikely to benefit from the social assistance programmes proposed to curb discontent, such as conditional cash transfers, implemented 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 standardised under a label of “indigeneity” closely associated with rurality, with their voices silenced and othered in a country in which inequalities occur along racial and gender lines.
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, and revising the proposed cut in fuel subsidies. But the people of Ecuador have woken up to a fragmented and polarised 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 divisions within the polity.
The acrimonious relationship between Moreno and former president Rafael Correa illustrates what happens when personal feuds play out in a national arena. Moreno was elected after acting as Correa’s vice- president between 2007 and 2013. He was expected to follow Correa’s vision of the state but, once in power, he changed his discourse and aligned his policies more to the centre-right of the political spectrum.
Because of this, Correa and the politicians supporting the opposition are attacking Moreno’s government. In some cases, they are even giving political support to agitators in the opposition, while attempting to co-opt and skew sectors of the indigenous mobilisation under the interests of Correísmo.
The problem of this personal dispute taking place at a national level goes beyond the alleged co-option 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 for decades in Ecuador, but the support of some politicians for 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.
The IMF claims these policies are geared towards strengthening the economy, but it underestimates the harmful effects of similar austerity policies. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, these measures would result in a -1.1% contraction of the economy in 2019 and an ongoing recession until 2021.
The 12 days of protests illustrated how structural (and historical) inequalities can trigger intense episodes of upheaval and even violence. The past weeks’ incidents in Ecuador exposed the tangible consequences of racism and the faultlines between different sectors of Ecuadorean society. However, a public discourse that speaks about race, identity and inequality is not central to the country’s politics. Thus, the ways these inequalities are voiced will be only in an imperfect and inadequate language, for they deal with issues of limited representation and legitimacy that are not yet fully acknowledged.
The challenge ahead for Ecuador lies in how to de-escalate conflict while embracing dissent; respect the rights and pleas of the marginalised; and outmanoeuvre 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 following years.
María Gabriela Palacio is an assistant professor at the faculty humanities of Leiden University in The Netherlands. Fabio Andrés Díaz is a research associate at the department of political and international studies at Rhodes University and a researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands