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ANYONE observing events in Ecuador in recent days could be forgiven for thinking they had been transported back to the Latin America of the 1990s.
Then, huge protests against IMF-imposed austerity were regularly met with violent state repression. Such events returned to Ecuador’s streets with a bang last week.
The mass demonstrations under way in Ecuador follow new attacks on living standards designed to meet the terms of a multibillion-dollar IMF loan. The immediate spark to the huge street protests was the removal of subsidies on fuel that affects not only transport costs but drives up food prices.
Cuts in public spending were also announced, with mass public-sector lay-offs planned and an assault on public-sector workers’ conditions that includes halving holiday entitlement to just 15 days per year.
Faced with a backlash to these elite-friendly measures, Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno decreed a state of emergency that suspends the constitution for 60 days, removes the right to free assembly, allows for the censoring of the media and employs the armed forces to maintain order.
Over 350 people have since been detained. Shocking scenes of police brutality include tear gas and flares fired at head height into crowds and widespread beatings. Armoured military vehicles entered the capital city on Sunday night.
Amnesty International warned that “the decision to deploy the armed forces to control demonstrations only increases the risk of human rights violations” and called on “all allegations of excessive use of force, arbitrary detentions and other human rights violations that have occurred in the context of the current protests and the state of emergency” to be properly investigated.
So much of this echoes the turmoil that rocked Ecuador around the turn of the century.
Then, neoliberal assaults on living standards created such political volatility that seven presidents came and went in just 10 years. A number were forced from office by powerful street protests.
Stability only returned to Ecuador when socialist Rafael Correa became president in 2007. His progressive alternative not only ended the economic crisis and achieved incredible reductions in poverty and inequality but secured 14 consecutive election victories.
That success was achieved by ripping up the IMF rule book. A regular theme in Correa’s speeches was that “people must prevail over capital and society must prevail over the market.”
But in the two years since President Moreno was elected — actually on a manifesto to defend and continue Correa’s policies — he has sought to purge all remnants of that progressive state-led development model.
The repressive measures over recent days are part of a pattern as Moreno has sought to close off all avenues of resistance.
Moreno has systematically targeted those challenging his lurch to neoliberalism.
Former president Correa himself is effectively in exile in Belgium, with a raft of wholly unsubstantiated allegations preventing his return to Ecuador.
Former foreign minister Ricardo Patino, a close Correa ally during his decade in government, recently received political asylum in Mexico after facing jail threats, while Moreno’s own vice-presidential running mate is in prison, in a case that raised widespread concerns about a lack of due process.
Moreno even oversaw the axing of all the members of the Constitutional Court, undermining the important separation of powers that accompanies any presidential system.
President Correa’s more Latin America-focused foreign policy did not escape Moreno’s sharp change of direction either. Moreno reversed Correa’s brave decision to end the US’s military role in the country, which had included removing the largest US military base in South America.
Moreno, in contrast, is preparing for US military planes to be able to use the environmentally fragile Galapagos Islands.
Moreno also handed over Julian Assange to be extradited to the United States over his role in WikiLeaks’ exposure of war crimes, soon after signing the IMF loan.
This reorientation may be popular with Ecuador's long-powerful right-wing political parties and economic elites but it has destroyed Moreno’s own base of support. Polls show he has 75-80 per cent levels of disapproval.
Whether or not Moreno survives until the end of his presidency in 2021, he and those around him are finished politically.
His only hope now is that Ecuador’s right-wing parties keep him in office while he does their bidding.
In fact, Moreno himself told a press conference over the weekend that although he’s doing the heavy lifting to create a more market-friendly economy, it will be one of the two main right-wing parties — both linked to the economic and social disasters of the past — that will be the beneficiaries when they end up leading the country in the future.
The Ecuadorian people will have a say in whether that is the case — and the huge protests in recent days again exposes the myth that Latin America’s “pink tide” is over.
Latin America’s future remains deeply contested. The right has been forced onto the back foot in many countries across the region and has been able to offer nothing more than a return to the old free-market dogma accompanied by a worrying use of anti-democratic practices.
In Brazil, the right only holds the presidency because of the jailing of former president Lula, the favourite to win the 2018 presidential election, on trumped-up charges.
In Argentina, more than one in three people are now in poverty following the neoliberal government’s signing of the largest-ever IMF loan.
That means leftwinger Alberto Fernandez is set to win the presidency later this month in another significant gain for progressives after the election of Lopez Obrador in Mexico last year.
In Bolivia Evo Morales is expected to be re-elected president in the coming weeks.
This week, tens of thousands of indigenous people will be marching on Ecuador’s two major cities, with students and trade unions also vowing to continue their national protests.
The IMF may be back in Ecuador. But so too is the spirit of resistance and with it hope of a return to a government of the progressive left in the near future.
Lee Brown lived and worked in Ecuador for a number of years.
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