A veil of tear gas hangs low over the brick-littered street, shrouding protesters huddled behind ruined cars and rudimentary ramparts. In the distance, as a plume of smoke spirals skyward, an almighty din rises: “Moreno out”. In the weeks since Ecuador slashed a crucial fuel subsidy, capital city Quito has – like towns across the country – resembled a war zone. What started as peaceful dissent lurched wildly to violent uprising, encompassing issues of racial – as well as economic – inequality. But now, thankfully, a deal aimed at restoring peace looks to have been struck.    

Decades of exorbitant spending and falling oil prices has left Ecuador, a former OPEC member, in the throes of a debt crisis. Labouring under a $64bn deficit, President Lenín Moreno has pitted himself against the people, raising taxes, liberalising labour laws, and cutting public spending. Securing a $4bn emergency IMF package is the 66-year-old’s ultimate goal – but the requisite austerity measures have proved incendiary. 

When a cherished fuel subsidy – a relic of the nation’s old socialist regime – was scrapped in early October, enraged Ecuadorians rose up. Appalled at the prospect of higher gas prices, transportation unions were the first to strike. A speedy deal pacified the group, but dissent had already spread – students, workers, and left-wing activists stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the streets. As unrest ignited nationwide, a violent edge gripped the movement. Masked protesters set ablaze the national auditor’s office and raided media outlets. “They’re trying to enter the station, trying to break down the doors,” one journalist relayed to the outside world, as hooded men blocked off nearby streets with burning tires.

Amid the chaos, Moreno’s government fled to the relative sanctuary of Guayaquil, a coastal city. From there, they’ve toiled to restore order. Police have flooded the streets, and a curfew – the first since Ecuador’s 1970s dictatorship – has been implemented. The robust response is as much about public order as economics – the country’s vitally important oilfields have been caught up in the violence, forcing the state oil company, Petroamazonas, to reduce output by a third. 

Perhaps more worrying to Moreno is the unrest’s racial dimension. Arsonists, looters, and anarchists have seized the headlines, but the movement’s backbone is indigenous. Pouring in from far-flung Andean homesteads, native groups have focused their anger on the wider mistreatment of indigenous people. For them, Quito’s austerity measures are unpalatable – but their demands extend to the curbing of their territories’s industrial exploitation. 

“We are peoples and nations who defend the lives of the people. We defend the life of the world. We take care of our rainforest, we take care of our Mother Earth and our rivers and our lakes, because it’s where we live. What we want for our territories is to be free of extraction,” said Jaime Vargas, President of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador.

Native groups had refused to negotiate until the government cuts were dropped, but a mutual softening of positions paved the way to dialogue. And it looks to have borne fruit – a deal to shelf the austerity measures in return for a cessation of protests has been agreed. But much now depends on whether demonstrators, disgusted at apparent police brutality, will step down quietly. 

Many feel the authorities have acted with disproportionate aggression, using tear gas and pepper spray to dispel peaceful protesters. In one instance, a noxious substance was sprayed near the entrance of a cultural centre, where thousands of indigenous people – among them children and pregnant women – were sleeping. While no fatalities were recorded, at least seven demonstrators have been killed elsewhere, including Inocencio Tucumbi, a native leader. “Police murderers!” has been a common chant – campaign groups are now worried that, without due process, lasting stability will not return.

“Ecuadorian authorities should conduct prompt, thorough and impartial investigations into allegations of excessive force by security forces and due process violations, as well as of violence by protesters,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.      

And Moreno must now return to the economic drawing board. While deeply unpopular, his reforms were well-meaning. Years of financial rot have hollowed out the resource-rich nation – the IMF funding package would have allowed real restorative action to commence. Positively, both the government and indigenous groups have pledged to find a mutually agreeable way forward.   

For the time being, each can claim victory. Through force of will and mass mobilisation, protesters have cornered the government into concessions; and Moreno – unlike his two predecessors – has avoided full-scale rebellion and exile. But both have heady expectations for the future. Native groups demand that their conditions improve, least not the ecological harm being wrought on Amazonian communities by industrial exploration. 

The government has assented to this, but remains economically dependent on the offending oil and mining projects. For Moreno, it’s a tricky circle to square. Peace, it seems, has been won for the moment – but the path ahead is far from clear.

It's a tough moment
LET'S STAY TOGETHER