Thousands of people across cities in Ecuador defied Chinese coronavirus social distancing advice on Monday to protest against economic cuts passed by President Lenin Moreno aimed at tackling the crisis.
Last week, Moreno announced aggressive public spending cuts including the closure of state companies and embassies around the world. The move infuriated leftist trade unions, who complain that they are paying for the austerity rather than Ecuador’s elite.
He also confirmed the liquidation of the TAME airline, a state-run carrier that has lost over $400 million in the last five years. Public sector working hours have been reduced by 25 percent and civil servants are facing a hefty 16 percent pay cut. Around 150,000 people have lost their jobs as a result of the lockdown. The government claims the current cost to the economy stands at $8 billion.
Around 2,000 people marched in the capital Quito, waving flags and banners and shouting anti-government slogans calling for a restoration of the education budget and opposition to police repression. Demonstrations also took place in other major cities, including Guayaquil, the epicenter of Ecuador’s coronavirus outbreak, where union leaders claimed that hundreds marched through the city.
“If the coronavirus doesn’t kill us, the government will,” one trader union leader in Guayaquil told Reuters news agency.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) May 26, 2020
Despite violating lockdown measures, participants in Monday’s protests wore masks and attempted to respect distancing measures by keeping a reasonable distance between one another.
VIDEO: Hundreds of people march to the Government Palace in Ecuador's capital to protest against lower wages, the loss of jobs, and budget cuts that have taken place during the quarantine to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus pic.twitter.com/hHhZ4aezBy
— AFP news agency (@AFP) May 26, 2020
Abuses of power on behalf of the Ecuadorian police were recently reported by Human Rights Watch, who condemned the “apparent excessive force to break up a peaceful protest held on May 14 by civil society groups, beating and injuring demonstrators.”
The Executive Director of the country’s Americas Division, José Miguel Vivanco, noted the use of excessive police force at a protest of around 40 people earlier this month:
Fifteen police officers arrived at the demonstration, held at Centenario Park, broke the protester’s social distancing measures, and beat them with clubs, according to the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CDH), a local non-governmental organization. Videos and images shared by other civil society organizations and media outletscorroborate this. Several protesters were injured. Police also attacked journalists who were covering the demostration, according to Diario Expreso.
Police also arbitrarily detained four human rights defenders during the protest, according to the Alliance of Human Rights Organizations and CDH. For several hours, neither CDH staff nor the Ombudsperson’s Office were able to contact those arrested. According to CDH, the police report said the four detainees had verbally assaulted police officers.
Vivanco added that at a court hearing the following day, a judge ruled that the police had failed to provide evidence of a crime and dropped all charges against them.
Similar left-wing demonstrations broke out across Ecuador last October after Moreno proposed an end to a decades-old gasoline subsidy introduced under Rafael Correa’s former socialist administration. As part of the pushback, leftist groups began burning roadblocks and looting businesses to pressure the government into scrapping the policy, which they eventually did. There were also reports of organizers employing foreigners, particularly struggling Venezuelans, to participate in the violence in return for payment.
Ecuador remains the South American country most severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic. According to the latest figures, at least 3,203 have died as a result of the virus, equivalent to 187.48 per million people, placing it just behind the United States in terms of severity. At one point, the situation became so severe that corpses were being left in the street, forcing the government to construct a mass grave for their disposal.