QUITO – Thousands of people took to the streets of Quito and other Ecuadorian cities on Monday to protest the government’s decision to endorse layoffs and pay cuts in response to the economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Protesters in Quito marched through the streets chanting “Out Moreno, Out,” referring to right-wing President Lenin Moreno, who recently took the unusual step of delegating many of his powers to unelected aides with a year left in his term.
Participants wore masks and practiced social distancing in the face of the coronavirus, which has claimed more than 3,200 lives in Ecuador, according to the official count. Most believe the true toll is much higher in light of data showing that Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, and its environs suffered 9,400 “excess” deaths in March and April compared with the same period in 2019.
Police charged at groups of students who set tires ablaze on a street near a square in downtown Quito and demonstrators took to social media to complain about the “aggressive” attitude of the motorcycle cops who confronted them.
The students were demanding the withdrawal of bills to cut the education budget and the firing of Economy Minister Richard Martinez, who was likewise denounced by union leaders for his decision to make a $324 million payment to foreign creditors during a public health emergency.
In March 2019, a year before the coronavirus reached Ecuador, the Moreno government dismissed more than 2,500 health-care employees, including 300 specialists in dealing with epidemics.
Unions representing the medical sector took part in Monday’s mobilization in the capital to blast the government’s failure to punish officials found to have exploited the COVID-19 crisis for personal gain.
Moreno was also taken to task for initially promising to prevent layoffs and then doing nothing as at least 150,000 people lost their jobs.
Truckers at the protest complained of a new fuel distribution system that effectively eliminates subsidies – a move that sparked massive nationwide disturbances when Moreno first attempted it last year.
A sign spotted at the demonstration in Quito seemed to sum up the mood: “The government lies to you, the bank cheats you, the boss exploits you and the police mistreat you … and they say that you are the criminal.”
In a recent exchange with EFE, the governor of Pichincha province, which surrounds Quito, warned that political discontent could amplify the effects of the pandemic.
Paola Pabon, a government opponent, said that Moreno’s policies are leaving people with no choice but to protest, increasing the risk of contagion.