Tens of thousands of protesters descended on Ecuador’s capital Wednesday as unrest sparked by rising gasoline prices continued to metastasize into chaos and violence that seemed to threaten the presidency of Lenín Moreno.
With one death, more than 700 arrests, and millions in property damage, Moreno, 66, had fled the capital and was blaming his political rivals and Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro for the discontent.
On Wednesday, Ecuador Foreign Minister José Valencia said there were reasons to hope the conflict might be resolved through dialogue. But he also claimed there are factions that are within the protests and are trying to topple Moreno.
“Undoubtedly, there is the presence of agitators, people who are trying to create chaos in the country,” he told the Miami Herald. “It’s extremely clear that they are trying to change the government and end the constitutional order in Ecuador.”
Protests began gathering steam last week when Moreno announced that he was eliminating a four-decade-old fuel subsidy that he said was costing the nation $1.4 billion a year. On Monday, the protests turned violent amid clashes with the police in the historic center of Quito, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Amid the growing anger, Moreno took the unprecedented step of moving the seat of government to Guayaquil — a coastal city more than 150 miles from Quito. However, he returned to the capital late Wednesday to monitor the protests. In addition, he has declared a state of emergency and implemented a curfew.
During an interview late Tuesday, Moreno reiterated his claims that the protests had been co-opted by political actors with outside help. In particular, he said that former President Rafael Correa, his bitter political enemy, had met with Maduro recently in Caracas.
In Venezuela “they set the stage for how to agitate the country,” Moreno said, without offering proof. “They know how to steal and kill without anyone realizing it.”
He also said that an attack on the Comptroller and Attorney General’s Office was planned as a way to destroy corruption evidence that the government was collecting against Correa and members of his Cabinet.
Correa and Venezuelan officials have denied any involvement and say the protests are a genuine reaction to Moreno’s decision to adopt austerity measures as he pursues a loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
“No one is destabilizing Lenín Moreno but himself,” Correa told reporters in Brussels, where he has been living since 2017 when he left office.
Venezuela Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said Moreno and the measures he’s taking to please the IMF were to blame for the backlash.
“In our Americas the people always react to these savage IMF recipes,” he wrote on Twitter. “To evade that reality is an unacceptable irresponsibility.”
Ecuador has a long history of political instability. From 1997 to 2005, the country burned through seven presidents as waves of protests drove them out of office. Correa — who ran the country from 2005 to 2017 — brought a degree of stability even as he was accused of increasingly authoritarian practices.
Moreno came to office in 2017 as Correa’s handpicked successor but quickly turned on his boss, reinstating term limits, pursuing corruption charges against him, and embracing business-friendly policies that many have seen as a betrayal.
Moreno also accuses his predecessor of leaving the nation deep in debt and has said the austerity measures are needed to revive the economy.
Valencia said there were reasons to believe that these protests wouldn’t force a change of government. He said many of the protest groups have agreed to find a negotiated solution. He also said Moreno’s decision has some support and that the entire country hasn’t been paralyzed.
“These protests shouldn’t mean or imply danger for the democratic process in Ecuador, even if that’s what some members of the opposition are hoping for,” he said.
The powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) had called for Wednesday’s national strike, saying the economic measures were “brutal” and would hurt rural farmers. While other groups have suggested they are willing to talk to the government, the CONAIE has said it will continue protests until the fuel subsidies are reinstated.
Valencia said studies suggest that the fuel subsidies unfairly benefited the country’s wealthiest and created a black market for smugglers who sold the cheaper fuel in neighboring Colombia and Peru. Moreno has said wealthy smuggling gangs were helping finance violence within the demonstrations.
“The state-sponsored and imperial violence will not silence the people,” the CONAIE said on Twitter as thousands of its members were marching through the capital. And the group also said its members were being attacked by riot police late Wednesday.
In a tweet late Wednesday, Moreno said the marches were peaceful and that he was “happy that my indigenous brothers had separated the pernicious elements from their peaceful protests.”
CONAIE and others have accused Moreno of using the specter of criminal gangs and Venezuelan meddling to discredit their legitimate grievances.
But others aren’t so sure. Carlos Vecchio, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States and a representative of anti-Maduro forces, said he had “not a gram of doubt” that Venezuela and Cuba were behind the unrest in Ecuador.
He said Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, had financed Correa’s presidential campaign and those of other leftist leaders in the region. Maduro and Chávez have also been accused of providing support to leftist rebels of neighboring Colombia. And now that Cuba has become a central piece of Maduro’s security apparatus, helping keep him in power, the island “is using Venezuela to generate instability in the region and continue its project of expansion and control,” Vecchio said. “This isn’t new.”
Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Francisco Santos, also said he believed that Venezuela and Cuba were trying to muddy the waters in Ecuador.
“This is a very classic Cuban move of sending cells to create havoc to create all that kind of chaos which is needed to create the uncertainty in the countries,” he said. “I don’t have proof, but it will come out, believe me.”
As Ecuador has been rocked by the violence, governments from around the region have rallied around Moreno. Valencia said the administration has received the backing of more than a dozen countries including the United States, China, Colombia, Brazil, and Panama.
“All of them support democratic order in this country,” he said.