October 5, 2019 / 3:23 PM / a month ago

Ecuador indigenous groups, workers keep pressure on Moreno

QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuadorean indigenous and union organizations kept protests going on Saturday and promised no let-up in their push to overturn austerity measures by President Lenin Moreno’s government that have convulsed the nation for three days.

People block a road during protests after Ecuador's President Lenin Moreno's government ended four-decade-old fuel subsidies, in Cayambe, Ecuador, October 5, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Demonstrations had turned violent and were shaping into a major challenge for Moreno, who won election in 2017 and has set his oil-producing nation on a centrist track after years of socialist rule under predecessor Rafael Correa.

But he got a reprieve on Friday night when transport unions called off their strike after paralyzing roads for two days in opposition to the end of fuel subsidies.

Indigenous groups, however, continued on Saturday to block some roads around the Andean nation of 17 million people. Barricades of burning tires, rocks and branches were erected in some places, witnesses said, as police urged demonstrators to disperse.

“The indigenous movement is mobilizing indefinitely in the whole country,” Jaime Vargas, president of the CONAIE umbrella indigenous group, told Reuters.

“With or without jail, our resolve is firm.”

Moreno, 66, has declared a two-month state of emergency and authorities have arrested 379 people after protesters hurled stones and battled police on Thursday and Friday during Ecuador’s worst unrest for years.

Struggling with a large foreign debt and fiscal deficit, Moreno’s government recently reached a three-year, $4.2 billion loan deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), contingent on belt-tightening economic reforms.

As well as ending fuel subsidies, the government is reducing the state workforce and planning some privatizations. Moreno says the fuel subsidies, in place for four decades, had distorted the economy and cost $60 billion.

“These are tough but indispensable decisions which the government thinks will have a positive impact in the medium and long term,” Foreign Minister Jose Valencia told reporters, saying benefits for the poor had been raised.

NATIONAL STRIKE

With rising food prices adding to the social pressure, protesters have called for a national strike on Wednesday.

“The Ecuadorean people are indignant at this package, which is a prize for businessmen and bankers, to comply with the IMF’s recipe,” said Mesias Tatamuez, head of the Workers’ United Front umbrella union.

Despite such militancy in other sectors, transport services were gradually returning on Saturday, with taxis back on the streets of Quito though there were still no buses.

It was unclear why the transport unions called off their strike, though leaders said they were satisfied the government had heard their complaints. Officials have promised a revision of fare tariffs to compensate for fuel price rises.

Moreno’s popularity has sunk to below 30% compared with above 70% after his 2017 election, but he has the support of the business elite, the military appears loyal, and the political opposition is weak.

However, Ecuador has a history of volatility and sudden government changes: protests toppled three presidents in the decade before Correa took power in 2007.

Moreno, who uses a wheelchair after a 1998 shooting during a robbery that left him paraplegic, has promised a firm hand, and various transport leaders were rounded up in recent days.

Dozens of police officers have been hurt in the unrest.

Slideshow (14 Images)

Ecuador hopes to save about $1.5 billion a year from ending fuel subsidies. Along with tax reforms, the government would benefit by about $2.27 billion.

Moreno’s government has improved relations with the West and reached its loan deal with the IMF in February, dependent on “structural measures”.

Correa calls Moreno, his one-time protege and vice-president, a “traitor”.

Reporting by Alexandra Valencia in Quito; Additional reporting by Cristina Munoz in El Chasqui, Alberto Fajardo in Cayambe and Yury Garcia in Guayaquil; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Daniel Wallis

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