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Indigenous-Led Anti-Austerity Protests Shut Down Quito Forcing Ecuadorian Government to Move Capital

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Tens of thousands of people, led by indigenous leaders, are expected to again bring Ecuador to a standstill today in massive ongoing anti-government protests. Demonstrators flooded the streets of Quito Tuesday to decry government-imposed austerity measures and a steep hike in fuel prices, despite a severe police crackdown. Civil unrest has been growing since President Lenín Moreno ended a decades-old fuel subsidy program last week as part of a so-called reform plan imposed by the International Monetary Fund after Ecuador took a $4.2 billion loan from the IMF earlier this year. Hundreds of people have been arrested as the government cracks down on protesters and the media. Tuesday’s mass demonstrations come one day after Moreno said he was temporarily moving government operations from Quito to the southern city of Guayaquil. We go to Quito to speak with David Cordero Heredia, a law professor at Pontifical Catholic University. He is one of the lawyers representing protesters who have been detained in this latest round of protests.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Ecuador, where tens of thousands of people, led by indigenous leaders, are expected to again bring the country to a standstill today in massive ongoing anti-government protests. Demonstrators flooded the streets of Quito Tuesday to decry government-imposed austerity measures and a steep hike in fuel prices, despite a severe police crackdown.

Civil unrest has been growing since President Lenín Moreno ended a decades-old fuel subsidy program last week as part of a so-called reform plan imposed by the International Monetary Fund after Ecuador took a $4.2 billion loan from the IMF earlier this year. He also announced plans to cut public sector job wages by 20%, require public workers to pay a day’s worth of pay to the government each month, and slash their vacation days in half.

On Tuesday, the sixth consecutive day of massive demonstrations, protesters successfully pushed through security lines at the National Assembly before being pushed back by police. Indigenous protesters approached the presidential palace. Police responded with violence and tear gas. On Tuesday night, President Moreno declared an 8 p.m. curfew in areas near government buildings. This is one of the protesters, Santiago Iguamba, in the streets of Quito.

SANTIAGO IGUAMBA: [translated] Just like in the period of the economic reforms in 1983, we want these economic measures to be canceled. Indigenous communities are here in front of you. We have the vote. Long live the indigenous movement!

AMY GOODMAN: President Moreno declared a state of emergency last week, allowing police to raid homes without warrants and suspending the right to assembly. Hundreds of people have been arrested. The government is also cracking down on the media. Police raided the community radio station Radio Pichincha Universal on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the defense minister, Oswaldo Jarrín, has called protesters “terrorists” and “criminals,” threatening them with the threat of lethal weapons in a television interview Monday.

Yesterday’s mass protests come one day after President Moreno said in a national address he’s temporarily moving the government from Quito to the southern city of Guayaquil. He accused his political opponents of attempting a coup, and vowed not to restore the fuel subsidy.

PRESIDENT LENÍN MORENO: [translated] What has happened here in recent days is not a manifestation of social discontent in protest of government decision. No, the lootings, vandalism and violence show there is an organized political motive here to destabilize the government and break the constitutional order, break democratic order.

AMY GOODMAN: Ecuador’s former President Rafael Correa said Tuesday Moreno must resign or call early elections. And protesters are vowing to stay in the streets. This is the indigenous leader Jaime Vargas speaking to reporters in Quito earlier this week.

JAIME VARGAS: [translated] Different social groups are going up against the neoliberal government of Lenín Moreno, mobilizing, uniting and organizing as the only way to defend the interests of the Ecuadorian people.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Quito, Ecuador, where we’re joined by David Cordero Heredia, a law professor at Pontifical Catholic University. He’s one of the lawyers representing protesters who have been detained in this latest round of protests. He was previously a human rights fellow at Cornell University.

Professor Cordero Heredia, thank you so much for being with us. I know there’s a bit of a sound delay. But if you can start off by talking about — just talk about what’s happening in the streets right now and what they are responding to. And what are their demands?

DAVID CORDERO HEREDIA: Hi, Amy. Good morning. Do you hear me? OK.

Right now we are in a state of exception, since last week. We got protests in the streets, manifestations, especially for the indigenous movement. We calculate like over 2,000 indigenous peoples are now in the capital. Yesterday, there was a very tough repression from the Armed Forces of Ecuador. Because of the state of exception, the president is able to use the Army to repress people in the streets. So we are very, very worried about that. We know that the international standards about human rights prohibit to use the Army to repress people in the streets in these kind of manifestations. We demand to the Constitutional — we demanded to the Constitutional Court to take a role in this and to revoke the order of President Moreno of the state of exception and to demand him to respect human rights of the people in the streets. And the court, sadly, disappointed the people of Ecuador, and he said that the state of exception is constitutional. So, right now we’ve got 30 days in which the president will have full powers and the use of the full Armed Forces of Ecuador.

We got several detainees. The president himself said yesterday that over 2,000 people all over the country are detained. We know for sure that yesterday, yesterday night, 83 people were detained, indigenous people especially, in the protests in the streets. And they were not taken to the official place where they should be presented to a judge. That is the Unidad de Flagrancia, where they should be conducted. We suspect that they were taken to a military base in the north part of the city. But we don’t have — right now we don’t have official information about them. We are very, very worried about them. We presented an habeas corpus writ to the courts. And we are trying to know where they are.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Professor Cordero Heredia, I wanted to ask you — most people, when they hear the word “austerity measures,” it’s kind of vague. But some of the specifics that this IMF deal is requiring of Ecuador are amazing, considering where Ecuador has gone in the past few years. They’re talking about raising fees for all government services and for utilities, imposing a new value-added tax, a consumption tax, raising the ceiling on interest rates so that banks can charge whatever interest rates they want. And they’re also prohibiting the Central Bank from lending money to the public sector. And so, all of this stuff, considering where Ecuador has gone — during the reign of his predecessor, the poverty rate in Ecuador dropped from 64% in 2000 to only 21%. That’s an astonishing drop in the number of people in poverty. And this is going to really reverse all of these gains that were made under President Correa — although there are many criticisms of President Correa. How did this happen, especially since Lenín Moreno is from the same party as President Correa?

DAVID CORDERO HEREDIA: Yes, this is really interesting. What is going on now in Ecuador is that we got a budget gap that should be filled in some way. I think the whole population is — know, is conscient, that some kind of measure should be taken. This problem started with President Correa, who was not — who was not efficient using or taking measures of — economic measures in Ecuador. And he gave President Correa — President Moreno a big problem regarding budget. So, it’s not a problem that started with President Moreno; it started with President Correa. And when President Correa needed extra funds to fund in the state, he started a very aggressive campaign of extraction of oil and mining, especially in the Amazon region, in indigenous peoples’ territory, without consultation. And the indigenous movement had been protesting since Correa, and now with President Moreno, because these two presidents have been ineffective of finding another way to funding the state than the extraction of oil and mining.

So, the problem is not recent, but right now President Moreno, of all the measures that he can choose to take, he’s taking the recipe of the IMF. So, basically, he is going to decrease tax for the wealthies. He’s going to increase gas prices by eliminating subsidies. And that is going to impact the most poor people in the society, especially because the fares of the bus fares will be increasing and the whole chain of prices will be affected.

And also the changes to the labor laws, and that is really, really worrisome, because he wants to dismantle the workers’ protection that we have in the law for several decades. And in the past, maybe 20 years ago, when we were discussing the Free Trade Zone of the Americas, indigenous peoples rised and protested against that initiative, and actually they were able to stop that. And now we’ve got the same attempt to dismantle workers’ protection. And there is a strong campaign against public officers right now. And some of the measures that Moreno is willing to introduce attack directly to those workers. They’re trying to decrease the paid vacations to them. They’re going to take one day of salary of the public services. And also, the new people that will work for the state will work with less payment and with less stability in their work contracts.

So, we got all of these measures that are going to impact the worker class in Ecuador. And what we see with President Moreno is the lack of dialogue with the social movements and with the workers, and with the worker class especially. We see, as Naomi Klein describes in [her] book about the doctrine of — The Shock Doctrine, that there is a package of neoliberal measures that will be better received if the society is weak. And they are trying to weaken the society by repression, by using the Army, by using the Army against protesters. That’s where we are living now in Ecuador.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor David Cordero Heredia, as you speak to us from Quito, Ecuador, if you can talk about the state of the media? What media is allowed to operate, and what media is getting shut down? We were just showing video of Radio Pichincha Universal, the radio that was reporting on what was happening on the ground, being stormed and shut down by police. Now Pinchincha is saying that the radio director, Washington Yépez — there’s an order to put him in jail on accusation of inciting discord among citizens. What are people learning? And also, do you have a death toll? Reports of gas bombs being thrown at medics, in hospital tents, and the defense minister saying they will use live ammunition, the president and defense minister calling the protesters “terrorists.”

DAVID CORDERO HEREDIA: Yes, indeed, Amy. We are receiving reports of journalists that have been attacked by the police. We got several images that are in the internet now.

And we’ve got to divide the media right now in the independent media and the mainstream media right now. And what mainstream media is doing is taking the discourse of the government. And the discourse of the government basically is that President Correa and — or, former President Correa and President Maduro from Venezuela are putting these protesters together, and is diminishing the response of the indigenous people and the students and the workers, that are the people who actually are in the streets. So, in one side, we’ve got that discourse, and the media is reproducing that discourse. On the other side, we’ve got the independent media. And independent media is reporting the aggressions of both the police and the Army to the protesters right now, but the Armed Forces are not discriminating between these two groups. So the only reports of police brutality that we can see in the mainstream media is basically the brutality against journalists and not against the people. And besides that, what the mainstream media is reporting is basically the riots that actually are happening right now in some parts of the country, and are reporting the discourse of President Correa and his allies, and tweets from President Maduro saying that they are supporting the march.

But actually, what happened is that the indigenous peoples movement have been in resistance of President Correa’s presidency. And probably President Correa’s presidency was the most hard repression government that we have seen in the last years against indigenous peoples. Human rights organizations defend over 200 indigenous leaders that were prosecuted by President Correa’s government. And so, right now, that President Correa and his allies are trying to say that they are supporting the people, are supporting the indigenous movement, is a lie. And what is happening right now in Quito is that we have protests. We have social movements that are tired of being the ones to be impacted or to be asked to sacrifice in these moments of where we need to take new economic measures. So, this discourse is the one that we can hear on the mainstream media.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor, just quickly, if you could comment? You mentioned Venezuela and President Maduro. What’s been the impact of the continuing crisis in Venezuela and the flight of so many Venezuelans out of the country to the situation right there in Ecuador?

DAVID CORDERO HEREDIA: Well, we are receiving — we are receiving thousands of people from Venezuela that are fleeing from a humanitarian crisis that is happening in Venezuela. And the impact to the society — the economical crisis is the crisis that we can wait of one of these kind of situations, but we had a lot of support from the international community and U.N. agencies. However, we got an increasing discourse from the government, a xenophobic discourse. President Moreno have put in force some measures to ban the migration from Venezuelan people. Some of them, or most of them, are refugees under international law; however, they’ve got to apply to a humanitarian visa from Colombia, basically, before enter to Ecuador. And all this discourse of xenophobia, or all this discourse about the security being impacted by Venezuelans, is deeply impacting the Venezuelan population living in Ecuador.

And one of the things that he’s taking advantage, President Moreno, is about what people feel about the Venezuelan migration in Ecuador. So, he’s blaming Venezuelans, and he’s blaming President Maduro of some of the violence that have been happening in the streets, but he doesn’t have proofs of that. And probably the — right now the protests are happening all over the country, so probably some people from Venezuela are participating in those, but he doesn’t have proof of that. And as human rights organizations, that are with the people in the streets or in the jails checking what is going on, we don’t have evidence that Venezuelans are participating in the protests or they are producing the violence. So, this discourse of Maduro sending Venezuelans to destabilize the government of Moreno is a lie.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Professor, is a national strike called for today?

DAVID CORDERO HEREDIA: Yes, workers shall be joining the national strike today. Also, indigenous people, that are coming from all over the country, are walking from their communities to the cities. So, the national strike is continuing.

They are demanding — they are demanding not just to go back with these neoliberal measures that Moreno is trying to implement, but also to stop the extractivism in Ecuador. The indigenous peoples — now that we are talking about climate change all over the world, indigenous people are offering us an alternative, a sustainable alternative of living. They want to protect their jungles. They want to protect their territories. And that is the message that they have to the world, that they’ve got another way to see the world, that they can join the conversation about climate change, and that will be a very important — important ideas that we should take into account. However, former President Correa and President Moreno is not listening to them, and they want to extract more oil and destroy their territories and displace them.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Professor David Cordero Heredia, law professor at Pontifical Catholic University in Quito, Ecuador, one of the lawyers representing protesters who have been detained in this latest round of protests in Ecuador.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Julián Castro, yes, a presidential candidate, but also was on the border trying to escort migrants into the United States. We’ll find out what happened. Stay with us.

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