Waving brooms to “sweep out corruption” and chanting anti-government slogans, hundreds of protesters began a day-long march toward the presidential palace Thursday that was expected to swell into the thousands overnight —setting the stage for a showdown three days before Pope Francis kicks off a South American tour here.
President Rafael Correa, who had been calling for calm ahead of the papal visit, accused the marchers of being part of an internationally backed plot to end his 8-year-old government.
“Unfortunately, there are clear indications that coup plotters will try to take the Carondelet [presidential palace],” he wrote on Twitter. “Through violence they want to topple a government that has immense national and international support.”
Correa called on his followers to crowd the iconic square in front of the palace to defend his “Citizens Revolution.”
The recent wave of demonstrations began in early June over Correa’s proposal to boost the inheritance and capital-gains taxes, but have evolved to include a wide range of gripes. They’re the most sustained protests that Correa — a charismatic socialist and U.S.-educated economist — has faced since first taking office in 2003.
Nelson Erazo, the president of the Popular Front labor union, said his group was demanding more workers rights and that the administration resume making contributions to social security. He called Correa’s coup allegations ridiculous and said they only fueled tensions.
“We’re not the coup plotters, the coup plotters are in Carondelet,” Erazo said, calling Correa’s plans to end term limits an anti-democratic “attempt to stay in power indefinitely.”
Thursday’s protests brought together a confluence of forces. Erazo and other labor leaders said that their march had been planned weeks in advance and is part of a build-up to a national strike. More recently, opposition politicians and social media networks have been urging people onto the street.
Organizers said they planned to march in the direction of the presidential palace but it was unclear whether police would allow the pro- and anti-government forces to meet.
Inspired by the ideas of French economist Thomas Piketty, Correa sent congress emergency bills to reformulate the inheritance and capital-gains taxes as a way to redistribute wealth. Amid the backlash, however, he pulled the initiatives and called for national dialogue. But he has hinted that the tax push will resume once the pope leaves on Wednesday.
The administration insists the inheritance tax would affect only the wealthiest 2percent and would help give the poor more opportunity.
“This is aimed at the richest,” Correa told reporters this week. It will “break the inertia, which has lasted centuries, and which has allowed maybe 500 families to dominate us forever — precisely because of the inheritance of that political power.”
He has painted the protesters as high-class malcontents intent on dodging taxes and upending his policies. Borrowing a page from Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Correa has increasingly accused the protesters of being part of a larger plot.
On Twitter, he said organizers had “millions of dollars” in backing and that some had CIA connections. Interior Minister Jose Serrano on Wednesday said that the opposition planned to capture the international airports in Quito and Guayaquil, and block bridges to Peru and Colombia.
On Thursday, Dolores Pastor, a secretary, had joined a few hundred others to chant outside congress. She called the coup claims a “big lie.”
“We’re here to protest his attitude and all the laws he keeps imposing on us — that’s why we’re angry,” she said. “We’ve lost our fear and we’re going to keep protesting until he makes changes.”
Correa, who won reelection in 2013 with a sweeping majority, has used his popularity and control of congress to reshape the nation. He has won plaudits for reducing poverty and using the country’s oil wealth to build roads, schools and hospitals. He also has tackled entrenched interests to overhaul education and the health system.
But critics accuse him of overreaching — using his might to stifle political dissent and clamp down on the media. As oil prices have collapsed, he has made unpopular moves: slapping taxes on imported goods, eliminating the government’s 40 percent contribution to social security and nationalizing the savings accounts of the teachers’ union and others.
In June, the Central Bank slashed the country’s 2015 economic growth forecast from 4.1 percent to 1.9 percent.
Adding to the unease is Correa’s move to eliminate term limits, which would allow him to run for reelection in 2017.
In that sense, the recent tax proposals were just the last straw, said Simón Pachano, a political analyst with the Latin American Faculty for Social Sciences, FLACSO, in Quito.
“He’s created a deep degree of uncertainty and mistrust,” Pachano said of the president. “And the administration doesn’t seem to recognize that it has made a strategic mistake. … Now it doesn’t know what to do, so it just keeps radicalizing and that keeps hurting it more.”
Despite the protests, Correa remains popular. He won reelection two years ago with 57 percent of the vote. (His nearest rival, Guillermo Lasso, won just 23 percent.) And he still has approval ratings near 46 percent, according to a CEDATOS poll from June.
On Thursday, administration supporters began gathering outside the presidential palace — having their pictures taken next to a life-size cutout of Correa and singing pro-government anthems set to the tune of Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It.
Marta Marquez, 75, said she came to the plaza to support the only leader who has ever worked for the poor and overhauled the country’s infrastructure. She said her government pension has allowed her to enjoy her retirement in dignity.
“We’re here to defend the best president we’ve ever had,” she said “Long live the president.”
A SLIPPERY SLOPE
Street protests are a sensitive issue here. From 1997 to 2005, three presidents were driven out of office after discontent spilled onto the streets.
Ecuador, one of the smallest countries in South America, is perhaps best known for the Galapagos Islands, being the world’s largest banana exporter and providing safe haven for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. (He’s been holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London for three years fighting extradition to Sweden.)
But the pope’s arrival has the nation under the spotlight. Correa has asked the opposition not to politicize the visit and said he would consider skipping the pope’s mass in Quito on Tuesday to keep hecklers from spoiling the event.
Protest organizers say they’re not out to mar the papal visit and don’t have demonstrations planned for those days. (Social media sites, however, have been calling for a march on the presidential palace Tuesday at the end of Pope Francis’ mass.)
Ándres Páez, an opposition deputy who has been organizing demonstrations, said he’s promoting a national campaign to collect letters that will be delivered to Francis.
“We’re not going to spoil the pope’s visit,” Páez said. “But that doesn’t mean we are going to let him leave the country without knowing what’s going on here.”