Allison Pujol: What we can learn from the recent Ecuadorian protests

Sunday, October 20, 2019 - 4:11pm

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While the Amazon’s fires blazed on, despite worldwide outcry and aid efforts, hundreds of protesters in Quito, Ecuador were setting fires of their own. 

On Oct. 3, Ecuador’s President Lenín Moreno declared a nationwide state of emergency after protests erupted over the end of the country’s 40-year-long subsidy for gasoline. Along with the decision to terminate the gasoline subsidy, Ecuador’s government decided to depart from OPEC to avoid committing to their guidelines on reducing output. For a country that is fairly reliant on oil (petroleum constituted a third of Ecuador’s export earnings in the year 2017), it is not surprising that Moreno’s recent policy has been met with a heated response. The end of the gas subsidy also comes on the heels of Moreno’s economic agenda, which encompasses broader structural reform including changes to the country’s central bank and the code of budget and planning.  

Domestic prices of most consumer goods have been highly responsive to the end of the subsidy. For example, the Ecuadorian price of diesel rose from $1.03 to $2.30 per gallon on Thursday, while gasoline climbed from $1.85 to $2.39, according to NPR. Ecuador is no stranger to drastic economic reforms. A financial crisis in 1999 led to systematic changes including the shift to dollarization. But Moreno’s latest change, some say, is a political ploy. The decision to end the fuel subsidy hurts Ecuador’s marginalized populations much more than the country’s economic elites, who will still be able to afford the spikes in prices. While Moreno claimed the decision was intended to help Ecuador’s economy grow and decrease the debt, the decision to end fuel subsidies also came with a hefty loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Protests have escalated well beyond demonstrations. As of last week, an estimated 50 police officers have been taken hostage by demonstrators. Carlos Pérez, the country’s minister of energy and natural resources, noted “oil industry installations are being guarded against attempts to occupy them.” Quito’s surrounding cities have faced violence as well. Pharmacies and supermarkets are being looted by enraged citizens, and there are videos of police officers beating down protesters in the streets and using tear gas. Outside of Ecuador’s domestic panic, we can already see some of the early international effects of the protests. Several major flights have been forced to reschedule or re-route as the road blockades have prevented traffic from entering or exiting the Quito airport. The result of these protests has been an odd private conversation between two persons: Moreno has accused the protesters of attempting to destabilize Ecuador’s government, while the protesters allege that the president has turned a blind eye to the effects of the policy on the lower and middle classes in the country.

Moreno ought to consider that some of the residual anger many Ecuadorians feel is a result of the lack of returns on other economic promises. For example, the president’s proposed expansion of funding for social programs in the country has not seen follow-through yet.

Because these protests center around the massive spike in prices for a variety of consumer goods in the country, and because the decision to end the subsidies has received support from the country’s elites, moving forward with an aggressive reform of the country’s social safety nets could alleviate some of the most vulnerable protesters’ economic concerns. This is especially the case given that Moreno’s loan from the IMF was, among other things, intended to expand government provision of aid to Ecuador’s poorest populations. While the loan has been cancelled due to the protests, the IMF has stated that they are open to renegotiating. The world will be watching Ecuador now and, more importantly, watching the renegotiation — to see if Ecuador uses this opportunity to do its citizens right in a time of increased social upheaval. 

Much of the news frenzy around Ecuador’s civil unrest lies in the equally enormous levels of passion and strategy behind the protests. Ecuador’s central government was forced to flee as a series of riots descended upon the capital. This, some policy analysts have suggested, is in line with the way that recent Latin American protesters have shifted their tactics to attempt to combat corruption. Guatemala, Peru and Colombia have experienced similar unrest after citizens took to the streets to protest corrupt officials. While thousands of Colombians blocked the Pan-American Highway to highlight the systemic violence indigenous people continue to endure at the hands of officials who have turned a blind eye, protesters in Peru targeted bribed attorneys general who were as well as federal judge Pedro Chávarry, who sought to unlawfully remove prosecutors from upcoming controversial cases. Just this month, Peruvian citizens took to the streets again to protest President Martín Vizcarra’s decision to dissolve the country’s current congress and hold new elections — a move that many have labeled as a blatant attempt to break Peru’s constitutional order for personal political gain. In Latin America these days, protesters’ attention is hyper-focused on the lawmakers responsible for socioeconomic problems. 

In the age of Donald Trump, the United States has seen a variety of movements develop around the need to address widespread socioeconomic disparities. Those who want to see change in the United States ought to align with those protesting government corruption in Ecuador. This is especially true for the many organizations and movements that have roots in Ann Arbor, including the fight for lecturer working standards and the recent climate strike. Many of the people in Ecuador who are currently protesting are facing a crisis that shares common ground with many of the United States’s political woes: economic policy that benefits elites, corrupt politicians and lack of reform. The world will be watching to see whether Moreno will decide to meet protesters’ demands, and the United States should certainly be paying close attention. 

Allison Pujol can be reached at ampmich@umich.edu.