-Dan Maxon, PJC Direct Trade Partner

Dan Maxon runs El Billete Imports, buying Ecuadorian textiles and handicrafts directly from the weavers and artisanos, with many of the products available in the P&J Store. Below is his take on the recent civil unrest in Ecuador.

Image from Slate.com

Over the last 8 years or so, Ecuador went on a major spending spree. A new International Airport, major road, utility and other infrastructure investments, hydroelectric projects and more were rapidly constructed. Much of the money was borrowed from China, while simultaneously Chinese goods began flooding the markets, replacing locally and regionally made goods at cheaper prices (hard to do in a country that requires so little money to live in). More and more electronics, knock-off designer labels and bootleg CDs started popping up in all the stores of the market town I‘ve been visiting and working in since 2010.

Then, in the Spring of this year, negotiations with the International Money Fund began so Ecuador could pay back their crippling debt. The years of government development and operation were funded by future oil sales. Ecuador is the smallest producing member of OPEC (the US buys half their oil), and after a failed attempt to have rich nations pay Ecuador to leave its oil in the ground (2010-2013), oil drilling was proposed in some of the most bio-diverse and unspoiled regions of the Amazon Basin. The homes of isolated tribes barely touched by modern times, known now as the Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini (ITT) block, was opened for drilling after protests and road blockages were put down.

IMF negotiations led to a loan package with strings attached that proved devastatingly unpopular with the indigenous people from the Highlands and elsewhere, in particular the lifting of decades-old fuel subsidies which resulted in the doubling of diesel prices, and large increases in gasoline prices. Almost immediately after the announcement, the taxi drivers and truckers went on strike and citizens had blocked the Pan American Highway throughout the country, calling for a country-wide work stoppage. Although the taxi drivers and truckers soon settled, the people had just begun. Within a week of the President’s announcement of the end of fuel subsidies, some 70,000 indigenous people from around the country had converged on Quito, the capital. The President and his cabinet fled to Guayaquil, and protests formed as military blockades failed to keep people out of the city proper.

Meanwhile in Otavalo, 90 km north of Quito and the area I’ve come to know and love over the years, the highways in and out of town were blocked. Cars were prevented from traveling even within the city, and protesters strongly discouraged shops from opening. The city’s famous outdoor craft market was empty of sellers, the Plaza bare. The fresh food markets and grocery stores were short of food and essential supplies quickly despite the limited hours. Things were worrisome, stressful, and tense. Yet support remained strong, and some of my friends made their way to Quito to support the action there. As the protests progressed in the capital, one friend posted on FB: (loosely translated here) “Thank you for the food and blankets, we have enough. We need gas masks and shields”. I’m sure the same scenario was playing out in other Highland communities.

As the protests intensified in the streets of the capital, President Moreno agreed to step up the dialogue with indigenous leaders and reconsider the IMF loan and its consequences. Things came to a head over the weekend of Oct 12-13. Moreno declared a 3 pm curfew and increased militarization in Quito with a pledge to take back public spaces, now occupied by protesters.  Sunday saw increased violence, and late in the day, he withdrew from the IMF program that required an end to the fuel subsidies, and pledged to work with the indigenous groups to establish new government economic and social policies. The protesters quickly became street cleaners, removing barricades and caches of bricks before piling into buses and trucks to return to their highland villages and homes on Monday.

Over the span of eleven days, and not for the first time, unrest and upheaval ruled in Ecuador. I was forced to cancel a work trip there, with transportation around the country being impossible. As so many people return to their homes to celebrate their victory, uncertainty still looms. The country remains under economic stress, but the indigenous people have insured a voice at the table when it comes to laying out the next chapter of Ecuador’s tumultuous history.