Thousands of indigenous marchers are expected to descend on Ecuador’s capital Wednesday to kick-off a national strike that could be a turning point for the administration and the opposition.
Beginning last week, members of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or CONAIE, began walking from different points of the Andean nation toward the capital of Quito.
There, they’ll be joined by labor groups and opposition organizations that are demanding that President Rafael Correa table constitutional reforms, including plans to end term limits that would allow him to seek reelection in 2017.
Speaking from Machachi, about 35 miles south of the capital, CONAIE President Jorge Herrera said he expected 30,000 indigenous protestors to converge on the capital beginning Wednesday. The march will dovetail with a national strike that has been called for Thursday.
“We plan to stay on the street until we get concrete answers,” Herrera told the Miami Herald. “The people are tired and they feel like they’ve been tricked.”
Herrera said protestors were willing to close down access roads into Quito to limit the food supply if necessary.
Correa, a U.S. trained economist, has called the march “a failure” and said that it didn’t represent the will of the nation. Even so, he said this week would be “crucial” for Ecuador’s future.
“These arrogant, petulant elites that are accustomed to toppling governments want to return to the past,” he wrote in a series of Tweets. “How easy it is to destroy and how difficult it is to build. Everyone should react and show our indignation and rejection of the past.”
From 1997 through 2005 popular uprisings ousted three presidents and Correa himself only came to power via election after Lucio Gutierrez was toppled. The CONAIE often played a leading roll in those changes.
Herrera said this time demonstrators have no intention of undermining the constitution.
“What we are looking for is political reform,” he said, “and getting rid of the president is not the solution.”
Over the last eight years, Correa has won plaudits for plowing the nation’s oil wealth into new roads, schools and hospitals, and helping reduce poverty. He won reelection in 2013 with a sweeping majority as he’s embraced the ideals of Venezuelan-style 21st Century Socialism.
But critics accuse him of overreaching — using his legislative might to stifle dissent and clamp down on the media. As oil prices have collapsed he’s made unpopular moves: slapping taxes on imported goods, eliminating the government’s contribution to social security and nationalizing the savings accounts of the teachers’ union and others. Critics accuse him of hocking the country’s future by taking on billions in debt that will be repaid through future oil contracts.
In a sense, the protests may determine Correa’s ability to stay in power after his term ends in 2017, said Luis Verdesoto, a Quito-based political analyst.
If the opposition shows its strength in this week’s strikes, it has a chance of derailing the amendment to scrap term limits. Those changes must be pushed through the Correa-controlled congress by the end of December.
“But if the strike is not successful, the regime will try to squash the opposition,” Verdesoto predicted. “There will be very tough days ahead.”
The strike is the culmination of sporadic protests that began in June after Correa announced that he was overhauling capital gains and inheritance tax. While many sectors of society were expected to join Thursday’s action, its ultimate success may depend on how unified labor groups and the business community are, Verdesoto said.
On Tuesday, the ALBA bloc of nations, which includes Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador, expressed support for Correa. In a statement from Caracas, the group said it “rejected the attempts by the Ecuadorean and international right-wing to destabilize and frustrate the democratic, political, institutional and economic changes” that Correa’s administration has brought.
Herrera said Correa is misinterpreting the strike if he thinks it’s anything other than citizen discontent. He also said the president could defuse the tensions by agreeing to talk. Instead, protesters are being ridiculed, he said.
“This impasse will force us to paralyze the country,” Herrera said, “but it will be the fault of President Correa and his government.”
Miami Herald Andean Correspondent Jim Wyss is based in Bogotá, Colombia.