Inside Ecuador's mass movement against neoliberalism

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Image: Ivan Castaneira

In October, Ecuador erupted into 11 days of massive nationwide protests. Two years of neoliberal policies had taken a toll on the economy, hitting poor people the hardest. 

The protests were a blunt response to the economic policies of Ecuador's President, Lenin Moreno. In March, Moreno borrowed $4.2 billion (USD) from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to reduce the fiscal deficit expanded under his government. Under the agreement, Moreno agreed to institute a series of sweeping economic reforms, which will undoubtedly hurt Ecuador's already precarious economy. Such reforms, a common feature of IMF-mandated neoliberal policy reform, are a serious form of structural violence.

Protesters across the country demanded the reversal of the reforms, but Moreno instead moved to persecute and repress dissident opinion. The level of physical and psychological state violence quickly escalated as people took to the streets in protest. The UN reported up to nine deaths, 1,507 injured people, and the illegal detention of 1,382 protesters, including minors, students, reporters and Indigenous leaders. The UN also noted an inappropriate use of police and military forces on the streets. Moreno's government argued that all police action was dissuasive, and continues to criminalize protesters. 

Care, solidarity and organization by protesters

The October mobilizations took different forms, from care work to solidarity on social media. For the first time in recent years, an open, plural, and transversal spectrum of social movements converged against a government that has been incapable of responding to social and popular demands. Everyone -- students, workers, artists, unions, popular feminist movements, Indigenous and peasant movements, human rights organizations, parts of the transportation sector, the middle class and the poor, cities, and rural towns -- came together in solidarity. 

The Indigenous and peasant movements mobilized thousands of people, demonstrating impressive courage by putting their bodies on the front lines of resistance. The actions of Indigenous women and other popular feminist movements were particularly inspiring given the aggressive masculinity associated with police brutality. Women firmly and loudly demanded a peaceful right to protest. Medical students created a massive human chain to protect protesters in shelters. People blocked main traffic arteries and occupied state facilities all over the country. Altogether, people orchestrated a unified national shutdown.

The number of hours of care work that went into supporting the protests is difficult to estimate. Some universities, the Ecuadorian Culture House, and other small shelters opened their doors to welcome people arriving in Quito from other parts of Ecuador. Doctors and medical students took care of injured protesters, and lawyers accompanied the legal proceedings for illegitimate detentions. Thousands of people donated food and toiletries, organized large collective meals, and provided child care.

Perhaps one of the most invigorating moments was the cacerolazo in Quito. When Moreno imposed a curfew after 10 days of protests, people in the capital came out of their homes to bang on pots and pans throughout the night. This act of encouragement was pivotal for building solidarity in the midst of the government's psychological terror.

At the time, a shelter volunteer tearfully shared a voice message that circulated around activist networks on social media: 

"Hearing you all making noise, for the people (fighting), for the people who died, and for what we are living is like a hug sent through the air, ... believe me, ... it's music what is playing... After so much pain, after so much anguish and uncertainty, listening to you ... has that enormous weight of emotionality."

As the protests continued, mainstream media tightly controlled the narrative, creating a media fence that served to censor protesters' demands from the streets. The media also delegitimized the protests as vandalism, absolving the government's actions and policies. Alternative and communitarian media sought to break the media fence by amplifying voices from the street despite systematic intimidation. Social media was also key to establishing networks of trust and counteracting disinformation.

When the government finally agreed to dialogue with protesters, Indigenous movements pushed for a publicly televised transmission of the negotiations mediated by the UN. The dialogue lasted a couple of hours, during which Indigenous leaders spoke about a moral economy and defending the dignity of poor people. Moreno was eventually pressured to repeal the reforms. The dialogue represented a historic victory, especially because the process was led by Indigenous movements despite a racist state campaign that discredited their mobilization as criminal and illegitimate.

After almost two weeks of highly confrontational state violence, protesters were finally heard. But victory is never absolute. The fight against neoliberal reforms never really ends. Still, the protesters' demands that the government repeal unpopular policies has resulted in a collective form of organization in civil society that needs to be kept alive.

The international struggle against neoliberalism surges

Nobody could have ever predicted where this volatile 11 days of protest would end up. There is still a lot of uncertainty about the political future of Ecuador. But we need to continue to fight for the people's right to resist. The October mobilization was loud and clear.

The demonstrations served as a form of popular political education, especially to young people exercising their right to protest for the first time. Protests were educational not only for the newly initiated, as Ybelice Briceño Linares, a feminist activist, shares

"there are lessons for those from the tradition of the Latin American left accustomed to a sectarian, hierarchical and sexist political rationality... It was a wake-up call for those trained in the approach of strategic reason, tactics, and of heroic actions, which did not give rise to affection, fear, fragility, or self-care because these were all considered forms of petit-bourgeois weaknesses."

It is indeed an inspiring moment. The world is waking up to an international rallying call against devastating neoliberal, patriarchal and racist policies that have resulted in enormous social and ecological devastation around the world. October was an inspiring melting pot of popular demands for justice in Latin America, with massive demonstrations in Chile, Haiti, Colombia, Bolivia, Mexico, Honduras, Peru and Costa Rica. Similar demonstrations to fight for people's ́ lives are taking place in Lebanon, Hong Kong, Kurdistan, and amongst farmers in India.

Current global demonstrations could have the remarkable potential of a much-needed reinvigoration of a new type of politics, one that emphasizes the intersectionality of social demands, a plurality of voices, the horizontality of decision-making, and the importance of rooting our politics in care and dignity. 

No matter where we are, the fight against neoliberal imposition and the racialized logic of capital is a common struggle. Reclaiming autonomy against an unequal socio-economic system extends beyond national borders, and we must defend all lives the world over.

Diana Vela Almeida is a postdoctoral fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and a member of the Collective of Critical Geography of Ecuador.

Image: Ivan Castaneira

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