Ecuador national strike raises pressure on defiant Moreno

QUITO (Reuters) – Ecuadorean protesters held a national strike and clashed with security forces on Wednesday after President Lenin Moreno refused to step down or overturn anti-austerity measures that have triggered the worst unrest in a decade.

Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno (C) gestures during a news conference, in Guayaquil, Ecuador October 8, 2019. REUTERS/Santiago Arcos

Streets were empty of traffic and businesses were closed from early in Quito and other cities during the shutdown, in Latin America’s latest flare-up over unpopular structural reforms.

Security forces fired teargas to break up hundreds of protesters marching near the presidential palace in downtown Quito, the highland capital.

Violent demonstrations erupted in the Andean nation of 17 million people a week ago when Moreno cut fuel subsidies here as part of a package of measures in line with a $4.2 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan.

“What the government has done is reward the big banks, the capitalists, and punish poor Ecuadoreans,” said Mesias Tatamuez, head of the Workers’ United Front umbrella union.

The main indigenous group CONAIE, which has mobilized some 6,000 members to Quito from outlying areas, said Moreno’s government was behaving like a “military dictatorship” by declaring a state of emergency and setting an overnight curfew.

Protesters again barricaded roads on Wednesday morning with debris, while security forces themselves blocked a major bridge in the coastal city of Guayaquil to thwart demonstrations.

Moreno, 66, who succeeded leftist leader Rafael Correa in 2017, has relocated his government to Guayaquil where there has been less unrest than in Quito.

He stood by his economic measures and defied calls to quit.

“I don’t see why I should if I’m making the right decisions,” Moreno said late on Tuesday, arguing that Ecuador’s large debt and fiscal deficit necessitated belt-tightening reforms.

‘BLOOD OF THE WORKING CLASS’

For days, protesters have been marching and barricading roads with burning tires. Masked youths have hurled stones at security forces, who have responded with tear gas and water cannon.

“Our flag is red, like the blood of the working class!” chanted marchers in downtown Quito, where anti-Moreno and anti-IMF graffiti covered walls.

“Moreno out!” and “Police murderers!”, some shouted.

Authorities have arrested nearly 700 people in a week of unrest, and dozens of police officers have been injured.

One man died after he was hit by a car and an ambulance could not reach him amid the chaos, while another two people fell off a bridge during protests, with some unconfirmed reports that they died.

Oil Minister Carlos Perez said the OPEC member nation had lost 232,000 barrels of production from the unrest, worth more than $12.5 million, after protesters entered some fields.

Soldiers were helping state oil company Petroamazonas retake control of the important Sacha field, the ministry said, but half a dozen others remained closed.

The government is hoping the United Nations or Roman Catholic Church can help mediate the crisis.

Moreno has accused former friend, mentor and boss Correa of seeking a coup with the help of fellow socialist President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.

Moreno had enthusiastically backed Correa during his decade-long rule, serving as his vice-president, but broke with him after winning election and moved economic policies to the right.

From Belgium where he lives, Correa has been applauding the demonstrators but scoffed at accusations of seeking a coup. Maduro, himself immersed in economic crisis in Venezuela, also denied involvement in Ecuador.

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Moreno has support from the business elite and the military appears to remain loyal, but his popularity is less than half of what it was two years ago and Ecuadoreans are mindful that indigenous protests helped topple three presidents before Correa.

“I feel betrayed by Moreno,” said printer and father-of-eight Luis Calvopina, 53. “I don’t want him to quit, but I do want him to reverse this stupidity that he has done.”

Reporting by Alexandra Valencia, Mitra Taj, Carlos Garcia Rawlins and Jose Llangari in Quito, Yury Garcia in Guayaquil; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Tom Brown

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