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Uprising at the Equator

Astrid Prange / groJuly 5, 2015

"Even Francis cannot save you!" is written on the banners held by demonstrators in Quito protesting against Ecuadorian President Correa. Political tensions have been rising ahead of the pontiff's arrival.

Hundreds of people gather during a protest against the government in downtown Quito, Ecuador June 25, 2015. Ecuador's President Rafael Correa eased its proposed redistribution of wealth to avoid an escalation of conflict with the business sector on Thursday amid mounting political pressure and mass marches by opposition groups throughout the country. REUTERS/Javier Amores
Image: Reuters/J. Amores

President Rafael Correa's reform plans for inheritance and property tax have brought about discontent. Ecuador's government also recently introduced a special customs duty on imported goods. At first, only the middle and upper classes took to the streets. But now, representatives of indigenous organizations, unions and physicians have joined the ongoing protests.

Politics in the country have become strongly polarized over recent days. President Correa has been using radical rhetoric: In the country's media, he has described the protests as a gentle coup d'etat. He believes that powerful groups aim for a conservative restoration, which strives to undermine the progress made by neighboring countries with progressive governments such as Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil.

The opposition refuses to be intimidated. "If the government continues to turn a deaf ear, then I will call for a mass demonstration," wrote Quito's Mayor Mauricio Rodas in the online news provider "Ecuador inmediato". He added, "The government must drop its arrogant, authoritarian style; it must stop persecuting citizens who think differently."

The Vatican to mediate?

Even if President Correa has temporarily repealed the controversial tax law in consideration of the Pope's visit, the protests on the streets continue. Now, all involved are hoping for a diplomatic miracle from the Vatican. Uruguay's former foreign minister, Luis Almagro, the recently-elected Secretary of the Organization of American States (OEA) asked Pope Francis to mediate in the dialogue between the rival groups.

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa (R) walks as preparations are underway at the Bicentenario Park, where Pope Francis will hold a mass during his visit, in Quito, Ecuador
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa is under pressureImage: Reuters/G. Granja

"The people are not going to the streets just for economic reasons but also because their civil liberties have been restricted," said Ana Isabel Lopez Garcia from GIGA, the German Institute of Global and Area Studies. The government has continually increased its power while limiting press freedom. In June 2013, a media law was passed which changed the way the government politics were covered by the press. The law requiring "verified, balanced, precise and contextualized information" about public matters has led to an upsurge in sanctions against domestic media.

Restraining critics

Working in the country has also become difficult for non-governmental organizations. The government in Ecuador reserves the right to inspect the annual plans of NGOs and to change them if need be.

Despite constrained freedom of speech, Correa still enjoys the support of Ecuador's people, thanks to a stable economy. According to the World Bank, the country's economy has grown by 5.2 percent in 2012 and 3.8 percent in 2014. Even the government's welfare programs have paid off: Between 2006 and 2014, the level of poverty in the population has gone down from 37 percent to 22 percent. Nonetheless, the World Bank foresees less growth in the future. An analysis states, "The fall of oil prices and a stronger dollar have a negative effect on the balance of trade: they make exports more expense and decrease revenues for public investment." In light of the global economic situation, the reduction of poverty in Ecuador thus becomes an even greater challenge.

Supporters of Ecuador's President Rafael Correa gather outside the presidential palace as protesters were marching against Correa's government in Quito, Ecuador, July 2, 2015. REUTERS/Guillermo Granja
Supporters of President Correa have also held rallies, like this one on July 2Image: Reuters/G. Granja

Is that the reason why Correa is raising inheritance tax? The president has lost political oversight of the debate on this issue. "In the center of Quito, where government supporters normally meet, police forces now protect the government building from demonstrators," writes the Ecuadorian human rights activist Karla Morales in the newspaper "El Pais." She summarizes the situation by saying "There is no clearer symbol for a political crisis."