QUITO – Clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces intensified on Monday as thousands of indigenous activists arrived in Ecuador’s capital, forcing the beleaguered executive to evacuate the presidential palace and move its seat down south.
As riots in the streets of downtown Quito escalated, President Lenin Moreno’s government fled to Ecuador’s most populous city, Guayaquil, located some 390 kilometers (240 miles) to the southwest of the capital.
“What happened wasn’t a social demonstration of protest in reaction to a decision by the government. What we have here is a political demonstration intending to break the democratic order,” Moreno said, adding that “paid and organized foreign individuals” were using the indigenous protests as a front to loot and destabilize.
The narrow alleyways in Quito’s historic center once again turned into a battleground as several clusters of protesters burned tires, vandalized public property and threw firebombs and rocks at police clad in riot gear.
Hundreds of officers, both on foot and on horseback, deployed tear gas in a bid to block the tide of protesters struggling to reach the presidential palace.
Monday’s protests were attended by left-wing militants, trade unionists and youth groups with different ideologies – but united by their opposition to Moreno’s administration – as well as the newly-arrived indigenous rights activists.
The unrest was sparked by the government’s decision last week to nix fuel subsidies as part of a liberal reform package stemming from a deal with the International Monetary Fund that depends on imposing austerity measures to reduce Ecuador’s deficit and foreign debt.
So far, authorities have failed to provide official figures on casualties, but many among the opposition have denounced what they described as excessive use of force by the police.
In Guayaquil, Moreno gave an address that was broadcast on both television and radio in which he called for calm and accused his leftist predecessor, Rafael Correa, of carrying out a “coup attempt.”
The embattled president appeared next to Vice President Otto Sonneholzner, Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrin and four generals in combat uniform.
Since Moreno announced the drastic budget cuts, especially the fuel subsidy’s elimination, there have been strikes, protest actions and general turmoil throughout the country. Over the weekend, indigenous leaders – representing up to 7 percent of the country’s population – said they would join the protests.
In reaction, the government declared a state of emergency, rolled out tanks and armored vehicles, suspended classes and halted operations at three oil refineries in the Amazon region.
The energy ministry said in a statement that the oil fields had been taken over by groups of people who were “alien” to the operation.
Moreno, who has said he isn’t willing to backpedal on the controversial reforms to appease the opposition, has been living through the most dramatic political situation since he took over the presidency from Correa – a former ally turned bitter enemy – in 2017.
His only consolation may be the fact that his decision to declare a state of emergency was backed by the constitutional court, though it reduced the extraordinary measure’s maximum extension from 60 to 30 days.