Writing about South America has often meant recounting the movements of the world with the almost certainty that every contraction, however slight and local, is actually the symptom of humanity’s cosmic malaise. If the South American continent is the face on which we can read the expressions of the Spirit of Time, then Ecuador is its biggest mole. Such a small yet significant outgrowth, a complex and fragmented social laboratory. The violent demonstrations of last October, with 7 dead and 1,340 injured, not only shed light on the struggle against something, but represent a moment of universal reflection on the frail social balances on which a world made of unfair economic models and cultural conformism is built. The protests in Ecuador began on 3 October, when the government approved a set of economic measures known in South America as the paquetazo.
Among them, President Lenin Moreno’s Decree 883, which put an end to ten years of state subsidies on fuel. This package followed the austerity requests of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a condition for repaying the loan of $4.2 billion, contracted by Moreno in 2018. Why is an oil-rich country forced to apply for a loan?
The accusation against the president is that he has moved away from the guidelines of Rafael Correa’s previous socialist administration, in which Moreno was vice president. His neoliberal turnabout was welcomed by the larger cities with the most tourist attractions as an important opening to foreign investment. By contrast, the outer-city areas and the countryside, which do not benefit directly from tourism, have suffered from expropriations because of drilling for oil. During the days of the rallies, communities and students, helped by local volunteers, created permanent garrisons occupying the universities and La Casa de la Cultura. On 9 October, just 900 metres from the latter, the demonstrators burst into the National Assembly to the cry of “Moreno out!”
While international media praised the indigenous revolt as a class movement against the government of vested interests, there are those who tell a different story. According to some journalists, such as Álvaro Vargas Llosa, columnist for the Washington Post, the natives have been used. Under suspicion is Conaie, the largest association representing the indigenous people of Ecuador. It was the powerful Conaie that summoned the natives to Quito en masse. The increase in the price of fuel is said to be only a pretext to demonstrate against Moreno’s neoliberal turnaround and to ask for more rights. It is interesting at this point to report the Human Rights Watch data on personal freedom and rights in Ecuador, which indicates Moreno’s presidency as the turning point towards a freer and more independent society and press.
Another piece of the mosaic can be found in the social and cultural structure of the country. A number of different indigenous ethnic groups coexist in Ecuador. They are classified as minorities, even though together they make up 53% of the population. They include the Achuar, Shuar, Kichwa, Otavalos and Waorani, who are recognised as having a central cultural role. They are seen as possessing the power of the earth and therefore enjoy a hieratic aura. Yet los indígenas live in the outer suburbs and the countryside, they are the poorest and last, the outcasts of globalisation. For them there seems to be no place in the new Ecuador.
Miguel Ángel is an activist of Otavalos descent who took part in the October protests. “While the police officers were outside the government headquarters, less than two blocks away people were shopping in the mall, drinking coffee and smoking their pipes as if nothing was happening. That’s when we realised our problems did not interest our country.” There is a strong sense of frustration among the indigenous protesters, mainly due to the realisation that, suddenly, a game of Risk is being played over their heads. “Both presidents (Correa and Moreno) sold the country to foreigners. Our green gold was corn and now we find ourselves saddled with PetrolChina, which is exploiting our oil fields.”
The October protests are only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, the last piece of the puzzle, perhaps the crucial one, is to be found in Ecuadorians’ relationship with their greatest resource: oil. You only have to spend some time with the people to realize they are suffering from a collective Stockholm syndrome, where everyone has a relationship of psychological dependence on the black gold. Ecuador derives about 50% of its GDP from the sale of el crudo.
From Coca you enter what is now Yasuní Park. Here tourism is gold, like oil. Via Auca runs perpendicularly through the jungle, like a scar in the green rainforest. The road is dotted with churches and small built-up areas where the oilfield workers live, almost all of the Shuar ethnic group. Tankers drive through continuously, creating a small passing economy. Tiny supermarkets selling Coca-Cola and other products imported from the United States have sprung up along the roadsides.
Gaba’s family lives on the right bank of the Shiripuno River, in the Amazon rainforest, five hours by boat from the last town. The language they speak is Sabela, an unwritten language perhaps older than Latin. His nephew, Nenkerey, who speaks Spanish, says that Gaba is crazy about Coca-Cola.
In 2019, an Ecuadorian court upheld a ruling that prevents the government from selling land in the rainforest to oil companies. A move that activists have called a historic victory for the indigenous Waorani tribe who have always lived there. But despite the ruling, President Moreno is pushing to open up more rainforest and develop its oil and gas reserves, in the clear hope of reviving the economy and reducing the huge fiscal deficit and external debt. Activists are convinced that strong pressures from the IMF and the United States are behind it, seeking to remove control of the wells from Chinese corporations.
Very substantial powers, perhaps incomprehensible for the inhabitants of the rainforest, are involved. Only by setting foot in this small, rich strip of land can one realise the disturbing intrusiveness of the outside world, with its pretensions and interests. A vicious world, which has already contaminated matter and spirit. A world that never questions itself and is making inroads with its most seductive weapons, ranging from Coca-Cola to the Lord’s Prayer.
The whole of South America is a tinderbox waiting to explode, and countdown has begun. Just think of the riots in Chile, Venezuela, Bolivia or Argentina. In some respects the continent resembles Africa, where neo-colonial and commercial powers are unscrupulous in ousting governments and trampling on established and individual rights, merely for geo-economic and geopolitical issues.