October 4, 2019 / 12:30 PM / 10 days ago

Ecuador unions call off anti-austerity protests after 370 arrests in two days

QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuador’s transport unions on Friday called off protests against the scrapping of fuel subsidies by President Lenin Moreno after two days of unrest that halted transport nationwide and resulted in almost 370 arrests.

Members of the riot police aim their weapons as they clash with demonstrators during protests after Ecuador's President Lenin Moreno's government ended four-decade-old fuel subsidies, in Quito, Ecuador October 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

From the highland capital Quito to the coastal city of Guayaquil, many bus and taxi services halted service on Thursday and Friday, while demonstrators blocked roads and clashed with police. Despite the transport unions’ announcement, other social movements vowed to stay in the streets.

Moreno has set oil producer Ecuador on a centrist path after years of leftist rule under Rafael Correa and is implementing a belt-tightening fiscal package to conform with a $4.2 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) deal.

But his elimination of the decades-old fuel subsidies has incensed many Ecuadoreans and brought violent protests back to a nation with a history of political volatility.

In Quito, students lobbed stones at ranks of riot police and armored vehicles during the worst unrest for years in the country of 17 million people. Security forces used tear gas to prevent hundreds of protesters from reaching the white-walled presidential palace in the city’s colonial center.

At a news conference on Friday evening, the transport unions’ spokesman Abel Gomez said they had expressed their disagreement and handed a list of demands to the government. “Therefore today, for our side, our measures end,” he said.

But leaders for indigenous groups, students and other unions, which had joined the protests, told reporters in Quito earlier on Friday that they would continue and called for a nationwide strike on Oct. 9.

“Not even jail will stop the Ecuadorean people’s struggle,” said Nelson Erazo, head of the Popular Front, an organization that groups together unions and social movements. “These will be days of unrest.”

Moreno’s popularity has sunk to below 30% compared with above 70% after his 2017 election, but his political position appears firm given support from the business elite, military loyalty, and the lack of a strong opposition.

However, Ecuadoreans are mindful that protests toppled three presidents during economic turmoil in the decade before Correa took power in 2007.

STATE OF EMERGENCY

Moreno, a 66-year-old who uses a wheelchair after a 1998 shooting during a robbery left him paraplegic, has declared a 60-day state of emergency across Ecuador.

By Friday evening, 368 people had been arrested, mainly in Quito and Guayaquil, the Interior Ministry said. Looting was reported in Guayaquil.

Authorities say 59 police officers have been hurt, a dozen police cars destroyed, and a local government building attacked.

Truck drivers’ leader Luis Vizcaino called for dialogue with the government. “All Ecuador’s transport sectors are in crisis. ... We have to reach a halfway measure,” he said. Taxi union leader Jorge Calderon was among those detained.

Diesel prices have risen from $1.03 to $2.30 per gallon, while gasoline went from $1.85 to $2.39.

Moreno said he was open to talks but there was no possibility of restoring fuel subsidies that he said had damaged the economy and cost state coffers $60 billion over the years.

“There will be mechanisms to ease the impact on some sectors,” he said. “But listen clearly: I am not going to change the measure, the subsidy is finished, no more loafing.”

FOOD PRICES RISE

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.

The government has also been laying off some state workers. It wants to reduce the fiscal deficit from an estimated $3.6 billion this year to under $1 billion in 2020.

Ecuador also plans to leave the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 2020 to pump more oil and raise revenue.

National debt grew under Correa, who endorsed Moreno in 2017 but now calls him a “traitor.”

Moreno’s government has improved relations with the West and reached its three-year, $4.2 billion loan deal with the IMF in February, dependent on “structural measures” including raising tax revenue and bolstering central bank independence.

Slideshow (31 Images)

The deal allowed Ecuador to receive an immediate disbursement of $652 million and paved the way for an additional $6 billion in loans from other multilateral institutions.

But skepticism of the IMF runs strong throughout Latin America, where many blame its conditions for personal hardships.

Reporting by Alexandra Valencia in Quito; Additional reporting by Jose Llangari in Quito and Yury Garcia in Guayaquil; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Angus Berwick; Editing by Matthew Lewis, Rosalba O'Brien, Richard Chang and Daniel Wallis

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