Ecuador: The great game

Ecuador: the Great Game

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.

Palacio del Gobierno surrounded by soldiers and barbed wire. Tension is high despite the Christmas holidays. Quito, 2019

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?

50% of Ecuador’s GDP comes from the sale of “el crudo”, crude oil. Its discovery in the north of the Country, dates back to 1941 when it was invaded by Peru with the aim to take over its wells. Since then Ecuador has succeeded in winning back the deposits but is still unable to refine its oil and has to rely on Peru, paying for the service

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!”

A Waorani guard stands in front of police outside the Constitutional Court as he waits for his tribal members who are meeting inside, in Quito, Ecuador, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. The Waorani and Cofan are demanding the court issue a ruling protecting their right to live without mining and oil exploitation of their land in the Amazon rainforest. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

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.

The economic crisis which has hit the city of Quito has increased “el trabajo sexuel” in the historic centre where women wait under the Ecuadorian sun for hours to find “clients”. Quito 2019

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.

Huare is the eldest brother. At school he learns Spanish while at home he speaks Waorani. Nobody in his family works, not even the younger “educated” ones, as the oil companies pay for them not to do so. It is a form of pernicious and corruptive welfarism which has already produced its effects: the biggest dream of young Waoranis is to work for oil companies, driving the large trucks which constantly travel along the Via Auca. Rio Shiripuno, 2019

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.”

Thousands of kilometers of tubes run across the north of the country and though the Amazon forest, to their outlet on the coast and in Peru. In the outskirts a deep hatred has surged regarding the exploitation of oil which increases closest to the drilling plants. Via Auca, 2019

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.

Huare, Dawa and Gaba junior, belonging to the Waorani community, play in the river near their village. Their school is two hours away by boat. Rio Shiripuno, 2019

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.

Not all Waorani have accepted interaction. One group, that of Tagae, went deep into the jungle and remained isolated. The Tagaeri have been called the “patas coloradas” (red legs) and everybody fears them. Here Gaba as he prepares “curare”, an extract made with plants form the Amazon forest which the natives use as poison on their arrows. Rìo Shiripuno, 2019

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.


Marta has never left her city where she restores religious icons. 95% of Ecuador’s population is Catholic. While the natives claim to be Catholic, they tend to merge Catholicism with traditional beliefs

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.

Marta has never left her city where she restores religious icons. 95% of Ecuador’s population is Catholic. While the natives claim to be Catholic, they tend to merge Catholicism with traditional beliefs

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.