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In the South American country of Ecuador, indigenous groups have clashed with the government over fiscal issues and environmental protections for years. In 2019, protests broke out against then-President Lenin Moreno’s decision to cut oil subsidies. The government implemented this measure, amongst others, in order to reduce an increasing fiscal deficit. However, ending the subsidies caused petrol and diesel prices to nearly double overnight. The hike in prices most heavily impacted the country’s poor – around 30% of Ecuadorians live under the poverty line. Indigenous communities, students, and other groups protested vehemently against the measures, leading to an intense backlash from state security forces. Eleven people perished in the process. Ultimately, the government recalled the changes and the protests came to a close without harshly damaging the state of democracy.
In 2020, Ecuador feared that the onset of COVID-19 would incite another period of conflict. Ecuador’s economy took a major hit during the first wave of the pandemic. The country experienced 64% more deaths than anticipated, suffering one of the highest excess death rates in the world. Unemployment rose dramatically, hundreds of thousands fell below the poverty line, and economic activity plummeted as the country endured lockdown. The price of oil, Ecuador’s primary export, dropped during the pandemic. This, in combination with the impacts of lockdown, led Ecuador to experience one of the worst economic downturns of any country in the world. Despite having made some improvements since 2020, Ecuador remains in a fragile state as it attempts to rebuild from the impacts of the pandemic.
In June of 2022, fears of economic discontent were realized. President Guillermo Lasso passed a series of economic policies, including some that once again reduced fuel subsidies. These policies were Lasso’s attempt to achieve requirements set out by a loan agreement between Ecuador and the International Monetary Fund. Citizens in Ecuador reacted as they did in 2019, with massive protests spreading across the country. Indigenous communities spearheaded the protests, calling for lower fuel and food prices. On June 13, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador set out an official list of demands. These demands included a cut in fuel prices, price controls on agricultural goods, more spending on education, and the end of decrees that eased oil drilling and mining regulations.
Despite a peaceful start, the June protests quickly intensified. Both sides of the conflict became increasingly violent. Protesters blocked main roads and burned local infrastructure. The road blockages created a food shortage and prevented access to medical care – two individuals died because ambulances could not get through the chaos. Protests also caused unprecedented damage to local infrastructure. They caused an estimated $110 million in damages to major cities.
Police forces have been criticized for their heavy-handed response to protests in Ecuador. Human rights groups have accused President Lasso of allowing violent responses towards protestors. According to Amnesty International, state security forces employed arbitrary arrests, excessive force, and intimidation of the media and civil society. In one night, 16 people suffered injuries as a result of repression by local police.
On June 30th, the government struck a deal with the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador. This agreement promised a decrease in fuel prices and set limits to oil harmful oil drilling and mining activity. The government has 90 days to set changes into motion. New fuel prices went into effect on July 1st, and protests abruptly ended. The international community acknowledged the decrease in violence – the United States improved its travel alert for Ecuador from “Level Three: Reconsider Travel” to “Level Two: Exercise Increased Caution.”
While the situation seems to be improving, international observers are hesitant. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the economy, and international fuel prices continue to rise. With oil as a primary export, the increasing fuel prices should benefit Ecuador. However, the income accumulating from those exports does not seem to be trickling down to the rest of the country. The country still lacks proper infrastructure and education spending. Experts fear that Ecuador is fragile, and any further economic downturn could cause a recurrence of conflict.