Fernando Bastías Robayo in Guayaquil, Ecuador

Fernando Bastías Robayo from the local human rights organization CDH reported during protests in the city of Guayaquil. Photo: Standing Committee on the Defense of Human Rights (CDH)


Corona measures create new protests in Ecuador

In the autumn, Ecuador was shaken by mass protests after the government wanted to introduce a austerity package in the country. In May, new protests erupted against the government's corona measures. The government is now worried about the spread of infection while human rights organizations report violence.

On October 3, 2019, nationwide protests broke out in Ecuador. The government had just decided on austerity measures and phased out the country's oil and fuel subsidies. It caused great dissatisfaction among the population. The government stuck to the reform package, as the measures were deemed necessary to reduce the budget deficit and meet the requirements of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

In February 2020, I met Violeta Sánchez, one of many who took part in the protests. For 11 days she was in the middle of the action. She supported the indigenous people who had gone to the capital to protest. She mainly helped with food, sleeping places, tear gas masks and organizing medical help.

At a café in the capital Quito, she says that the first protests in October were held by the transport unions and students. Soon, various groups of the indigenous population also joined, with adults, children and the elderly moving to the capital. Already when they arrived, the police had had violent clashes with protesters.

- The police's response to protests has always been brutal, but never as brutal as recently, says Violeta Sánchez.

The second day at the park el Arbolito was the most dramatic. She says that the area was filled with so much tear gas that hundreds of children had to be evacuated due to shortness of breath. Volunteers used a megaphone to let the police pass.

- We had to go out on our knees with our hands over our heads. 200 children who are being suffocated, it can not be a proportionate way to respond to protests, she says.

The violence escalated rapidly, which accelerated negotiations. After 11 days, a negotiated solution was reached. Decree 883 on the abolition of fuel subsidies was withdrawn and protests ceased. By then, 1 people had been arrested, 192 injured and eleven had lost their lives, according to official figures. The UN and human rights organizations stated that the police and military had used violence. Some of the protesters had also committed crimes such as stoning and attacks on police, reporters and buildings.

Since the outbreak of covid-19, investigations into what happened in October have been slower. Ecuador has been hit hard by the corona virus and the worst affected area has been Guayaquil, the country's largest city.

To cope with the crisis, the government decided at the end of May to cut back on the public sector, cut wages, reduce resources for education and close down some state-owned enterprises. The decisions caused new protests around the country, where around 4 people gathered in different cities.

The mayor of Quito appealed to the residents to choose other forms of protest to avoid the spread of infection. The government stated that the distance restrictions were not respected and that there were people who did not wear face masks.

"We are concerned that those protesting are exposing others to risk and that they are hindering attempts to limit the infection," Interior Minister María Paula Romo told Primicias newspaper on May 25.

Doctors check body temperature
Control of body temperature in the capital Quito. Photo: Fernando Sandoval / National Assembly

Protests also took place in Guayaquil. Among other things, citizens criticized the local government's handling of the corona pandemic. Guayaquil made international headlines when the city's funeral services collapsed and the remains of those who died in covid-19 were lying on the city streets. About 50 people gathered in the park Bicentenario to show their dissatisfaction with this. According to Human Rights Watch, the demonstration was met with violence from the police - who also tried to stop the media and human rights organizations from reporting on the incident.

At the government's press conference on May 25, the Minister of the Interior assured that the government and the police act with great caution so as not to end up in provocative situations.

- Of course, it is our duty to ensure the work of the media. Unfortunately, we have had some exceptions where it has become violent, said the Minister of the Interior.

Fernando Bastías Robayo from the local human rights organization CDH was in Guayaquil when the police stopped the protests and he tried to document the events. Via Zoom, he says that there is a tendency to break up and prevent protests. In his view, NGOs and human rights defenders must identify shortcomings in the current system - even during a pandemic. The role of the state is then to take in the criticism and repair the errors.

- We at CDH work a lot with three themes: memory, repair and non-repetition.

He adds that the focus of the state must be to ask himself: what were my mistakes?

- There were shortcomings in crisis management, in the health care system and in the removal of the bodies from the streets. To guarantee the principle of non-repetition, the shortcomings should be remedied, he says.

According to Fernando Bastías Robayo, this is not happening at present. Instead, there is a reluctance on the part of the authorities to accept mistakes, both regarding the protests in October and during the pandemic.

- There is a risk that in a few months we will have an explosion of protests due to the crisis - a new October. Only then do we know if you have learned anything from the events of the autumn.

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