The sun had barely risen over the slopes of Cotopaxi volcano on the morning of 19 June 2022 when the Ecuadorian police stormed the house of Leonidas Iza, the director of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), in Quito, and arrested him. Iza was held for 24 hours on charges of ‘presumed crimes’.
Less than 24 hours before, Ecuador’s powerful social movements had taken to the streets in a general strike, demanding the government lower petrol prices and respect the agreements reached following a lethal uprising in October 2019. After Iza’s detention, the strike escalated rapidly.
This level of social mobilisation is not new for CONAIE or for Ecuador. Regionally, the intensity of Ecuador’s street demonstrations is legendary. In the 1990s, they toppled three presidents, and this June, the country’s assembly fell just 12 votes short of the 92 needed to oust current president Guillermo Lasso, a former banker elected in 2021.
As the strike intensified, so did the state’s repressive response. On 19 June, the security forces took over the emblematic House of Culture, an important symbolic centre of operations for the country’s indigenous movement, and converted it into barracks. The move sparked disgust: this kind of intervention had not been seen since the dictatorships of the 1970s. According to el mapeo de la repressión, a tool created by various social organisations to chart state repression, 1,500 people were injured, 1,300 arrested and eight killed over the 18 days the protests lasted.
The latest spiral of violence must be understood in the context of the events of October 2019. That uprising was itself triggered by a decree that increased fuel prices and squeezed the incomes of ordinary Ecuadorians. The 2019 protests left eleven people dead and several indigenous leaders and trade unionists faced court cases. The most recent waves of unrest have led to the increased criminalisation of protests and social movements.
‘From 2019 onwards, the government started to create a new internal enemy,’ says Jorge Nuñez, an anthropologist who specialises in security. ‘Basically what they do is recycle 1970s anti-communist ideology… that consists of the security forces believing that they’re under threat from internal actors such as urban guerrillas. In this case, the current government has insisted on linking the indigenous movement with drug trafficking and accusing them of being terrorists.’
Criminalisation serves as an excuse to avoid the genuine problems the country is facing: inflation and the cost of living
Mesías Tatamuez Moreno, national president of the Ecuadorian Confederation of Organisations of Unitary Classist Workers (CEDOCUT), agrees: ‘We reject the government’s attitude and we reject the position of the defence ministry and the interior ministry, which spoke of an urban guerrilla. All they wanted to do was install the idea of an internal enemy, like in Colombia.’
Nuñez and Tatamuez both say that criminalisation serves as an excuse to avoid the genuine problems the country is facing: inflation is running at a five-year high and the cost of living is fast outstripping working-class incomes. According to data supplied to Red Pepper by CEDOCUT, the basic basket of goods currently costs around US$800 per month, but the minimum wage is just US$425.
Compounding the economic challenges is a crisis in Ecuador’s health sector. During the strike, president Lasso blamed roadblocks for medicine shortages in hospitals. But Tatamuez points out that this has been a problem in the country for more than a year. The president had in fact declared an emergency in the country’s health system on 17 June, before the strike started and after the deadline he himself had imposed for medicines to be restocked. ‘So far, they haven’t given us the budget to buy medicine. They haven’t even given us paracetamol. That’s why everyone is so desperate,’ according to Tatamuez.
Three months for dialogue
The conditions that indigenous movements set for ending the strike focused on negotiations to reach agreements on the main problems afflicting the Ecuadorian people. Ten discussion roundtables were established, set to last for 90 days, at which to debate key issues such as mining, extractivism, the rights of nature and the economy. With regard to the final point, the indigenous movement has specifically requested that the private banking sector be included.
The workers’ movement has also specifically requested a negotiating table to examine the creation of a new labour code that would represent all workers, rather than breaking it down into urban and rural workers. Labour organisations are also requesting a technical forum on social security, to discuss external debt. ‘The government owes over 20 billion dollars to external debt, although they say it’s eight billion, but they don’t count what they owe workers in social security,’ Tatamuez says.
‘The government initially didn’t take into account that the Ecuadorian indigenous movement is the most important political actor on the left and that although they were the ones who called the strike, they were joined by numerous social sectors, such as the trade unions, the women’s movement, intellectuals and neighbourhood organisations, among others,’ says Nuñez. These other actors could join future protests if the government fails to reach a satisfactory agreement.
The renewed vigour of Ecuador’s social movements must be understood in the context of an emboldened radical right in many Latin American countries. Despite much talk of a new ‘pink tide’ just two years ago, Ecuadorian politicians in government signed a document known as the ‘Madrid letter’, which has the stated aim of ‘halting the growth of communism’ and is vociferously promoted by parties such as VOX in Spain. Among other things, the letter promotes openly xenophobic policies and legitimises hate speech. The letter has already been signed by figures from countries including Peru, Argentina, Venezuela, the US, El Salvador, Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Sweden, Costa Rica, Cuba and others.
Faced with this hostile scenario for human rights and progressivism, Ecuador’s social movements are continuing with dialogue. When the 90-day deadline expires at the end of September, we will again see the impact of the recent strike and years of social struggle in the streets. With an ongoing cost-of-living crisis and significant chunks of the population still in extreme poverty, Ecuador’s social movements refuse to allow this situation to continue. They are again shouting ‘¡Kaypimi kanchik!’ (We are here!)