Surviving Ecuador: National riot breaks out while studying abroad

Op-eds Opinions

On September 1, along with five other UVic students, I travelled to South America for a three-month long study abroad trip organized by the university. I had been living in Ecuador for only a month when the country erupted around me.

On October 3, 2019, Lenín Moreno, the president of Ecuador, declared an end to gas subsidies and instituted cuts in public sector benefits and wages. For the past 40 years, Ecuadorians have been paying less for their gas. At the moment it costs $0.49 U.S. for every litre of gas. To compare, the average price for gasoline around the world is $1.10 U.S. In the 1970s, fuel subsidies were introduced to maintain the low cost of fuel for the country. To justify the cuts, Moreno said the deeply indebted government could no longer afford the $1.3 billion yearly cost of the subsidies. The decision to remove the subsidies was a condition of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan. Following this announcement, diesel prices doubled and gas prices increased by 25%. 

The sudden change in fuel prices caused strife for transport workers. For three days, transportation ceased and both roads in cities as well as national highways were blocked. 

Protesters took to the streets, and would throw rocks at any passing car as well as many pedestrians. We were informed by the coordinators  that the protest would be over by the end of the weekend. Moreno refused to change his mind on the decision to end subsidies and by Sunday, transit and roads were open again. Just when we thought things would go back to normal, Indigenous peoples’ groups, unions, and university students began protests, declaring that they would hold an indefinite general strike until the president changed his decision. Once again, we were assured the protests would not last more than a couple of days. However, things escalated in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, as well in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city.

For two weeks, the news was filled with footage of protesters burning tires and barricading roads. Shops and many buildings were broken into and destroyed by the protesters. When I asked one of my host parents why this was happening, she said people were trying to cause chaos for their own benefit. 

“I don’t think they had the right to react the way they did,” said Loja.

The protests cost the country $70 million in oil revenue alone. Including the damage caused by protesters, the price of enlisting the military to help control the population, and the lack of revenue the country made in that time, the total cost is much more. For two weeks, production in oil fields and export ceased. Many trees were knocked down and green spaces were destroyed. In addition, windows and traffic lights were broken and the streets were filled with rubbish. The repairs and city clean-up cost a considerable amount as well. 

As a Canadian who had never experienced a dangerous protest, I decided to explore the streets. The size of the city of Cuenca is comparable to Victoria and is located in the southern part of Ecuador. The city is considered to be one of the safest in the country, although we were recommended to refrain from going near the city centre.  In Cuenca, the riots were not as extreme as in the capital.

I tried to stay as far as possible from the burning piles of tires. With so many, the air took on a chemical consistency. After only a few minutes, my throat began to burn, the smoke made my eyes water to the point of not seeing properly, and my nose continuously ran. Most of the protesters wore gas masks and those who did not had a pieces of cloth covering their faces. Sirens and alarms rang. I chose to avoid those areas due to the many violent protesters. The police had set up a barricade around the city centre. On the other side of the barricade, I could just make out the shape of a tank. After a few minutes watching, I decided to make myself scarce and head home. 

October 8 was the largest congregation of protesters that I witnessed. The president was forced to evacuate the capitol due to violent protesters breaking into the parliament building. The other students and I began to worry. We hoped to evacuate the country before the situation could escalate any further. However, on October 13, Moreno met with various Indigenous leaders. An agreement was announced just before 10 p.m. that day, declaring that President Moreno will withdraw the International Monetary Fund-backed package known as Decree 883, which included the increase in fuel prices. In turn, Indigenous leaders promised to withdraw the blockades and end the protests. 

Loja does not believe reinstating the subsidies will help Ecuador, which is still in debt. 

“I think one way to pay off the debt is through taxes,” said Loja. “There are people and businesses in the country who evade taxes. I believe that gasoline should not be subsidized for everyone.”

With the end of the protests, we returned to classes. I found it strange how quickly life went back to normal. The streets were cleaned within a day with the help of volunteers and were safe to walk through again. Given how quickly the protests erupted as well as the sudden about-face to peace, I refuse to relax completely, unsure of if (or when) another national riot will break out overnight again.