Ecuador’s Protests Leave Lasso in a Catch-22

World Politics Review, 11.07.2022
Nora S. Brito, académica del Council on Foreign Relations

On June 30, the government of Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso reached an agreement with the country’s leading Indigenous organization, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or Conaie, and other civil society organizations to bring an end to social protests that had ground the country to a standstill for 18 days. The protests, which began in rural areas and later converged on Quito, the capital, were triggered by rising fuel prices and escalating inflation. But they took place against the backdrop of a surge in violent crime linked with drug trafficking, exacerbated by a deteriorating justice system limiting the government’s efforts to respond effectively.

These twin crises have also been accompanied by political stalemate between the executive and legislative branches. As a result, Lasso, who has been in office just over a year, has been unable to secure votes from both allied and opposition parties to pursue his economic agenda of liberal reforms to stimulate growth and create jobs. According to the agreement with Conaie, Lasso now has 90 days to implement a 10-point agenda, which includes lowering fuel prices, establishing price controls on agricultural products and putting a moratorium on new oil and mining projects, as well as increasing investment in health, education and security. If he is unable to do so, social conflict will define his tenure and may cost Lasso any chances at a second term.

Last month’s protests began on June 13 with peaceful roadblocks in 11 of Ecuador’s 24 provinces. The next day, however, national police detained Conaie’s president, Leonidas Iza, for 24 hours, until a judge ordered his immediate release. Violence subsequently escalated, resulting in six deaths and hundreds injured over the course of the protests. At the height of the demonstrations on June 26, the government made several concessions, including lowering the price of fuel by 10 cents per gallon, as well as offering debt forgiveness and increasing fertilizer subsidies to small- and medium-scale farmers.

However, this was not enough to satisfy the protesters’ demands. After an Ecuadorian soldier was killed in an attack on a convoy carrying fuel on June 28, Lasso halted talks and indicated that any further negotiations could not include Iza. Nevertheless, on June 29, the government agreed to resume a dialogue that was thereafter mediated by the Catholic Church.

Ecuador’s agriculture sector, which imports 60 percent of the raw materials it uses, has been brutally hit by the effects of the war in Ukraine, which caused a spike in prices for raw materials—including fertilizers—and closed off access to Russian and Ukrainian markets for important exports, such as bananas and flowers. In 2021, banana exports to both countries totaled $786 millions, while Russia buys 15 percent of Ecuadorian flower production. Close to 6.5 million Ecuadorians live in rural areas, of whom more than 40 percent live in poverty and over 20 percent in extreme poverty. Rising poverty levels have particularly affected Indigenous populations, where more than 60 percent of children now live in poverty.

Last month’s protests echoed in several ways the demonstrations that paralyzed the country in October 2019, when then-President Lenin Moreno eliminated fuel subsidies as part of an austerity drive, causing the price of diesel to more than double. Student groups, labor unions, local transportation unions and thousands of Indigenous people led by Conaie staged nearly two weeks of protests. Riots broke out and, at times, turned violent. Eight people were killed and over 1,000 demonstrators and 458 law enforcement officers  were injured. Moreno moved his government out of the capital to the coastal city of Guayaquil due to fears for their security and accused protesters of attempting to forcefully remove him from power. During a televised negotiation, Moreno subsequently reversed some of the austerity measures that his administration had put in place, defusing the crisis. However, Human Rights Watch concluded  that during the protests, “security forces used excessive force against protesters and journalists,” while noting that some demonstrators had also used high levels of violence.

A similar dynamic was on display last month. As the demonstrations progressed, many protesters behaved violently, looting and destroying private and public property. However, as in 2019, Ecuador’s security forces were criticized for their violent response to the protests, with many observers pointing the finger at Lasso for emboldening them. Organizations such as Amnesty International called on Lasso “to cease stigmatizing and repressing those exercising their right to peaceful protest, to publish detailed information on the number of people injured and detained, as well as the charges against them, and to address the structural causes that have led various sectors of the population to demonstrate.”

Complicating the social crisis is the political paralysis in Quito. Though Lasso won the 2021 presidential election, his party, Creating Opportunities, or CREO, only holds 12 of the 137 seats in the National Assembly. While no party won a majority, former progressive President Rafael Correa’s Union for Hope party, or UNES, secured 49 seats. This has made it almost impossible for Lasso, a former banker who campaigned on a pledge to increase jobs through structural reforms, to pass the legislation he argues is necessary to make good on his promises. The resulting animosity between the two branches has been palpable; when legislators rejected Lasso’s investment bill, the president accused them of being “corrupt and thieves.” This political stalemate has also damaged the population’s views of both the administration and the National Assembly, with disapproval ratings of 80 percent and 90 percent, respectively, for how they have handled the economy and other key issues.

June’s protests triggered an impeachment process led by UNES, but it only mustered 80 of the 92 votes needed to remove Lasso as president. Though it failed to dislodge Lasso this time, the political maneuver showcased the antagonistic relationship between the administration and the National Assembly, and underscored the fact that Lasso remains vulnerable and will continue to face governance challenges.

Lasso now finds himself in a Catch-22. If his government fails to address the escalating economic and social crisis, and does not meet the demands it agreed to with Indigenous groups, protests could erupt once more. But his lack of support in congress makes it unlikely that he will be able to achieve any significant policy successes or fulfill the promises he made during the presidential campaign. Three years separated these latest protests from Ecuador’s last major social uprising. Lasso now has three months to try to stave off the next one, and the clock is already ticking.

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