On October 2, 2019, the president of Ecuador, Lenin Moreno, announced the removal of petrol and diesel subsidies through Decree 883, sparking 11 days of protests. The protests ended on October 13, following an agreement between the government and the indigenous movement—the main group opposing the move—to repeal the decree and replace it with one drafted in consultation with the movement.
A resolution was swift, but state repression and violence from both within the resistance movement and by outside actors left eight dead and over 1,300 injured. With such a heavy toll in such a short time, one might wonder: Could the movement truly be considered a success? More importantly, what can be learned from this episode, in particular with regard to nonviolent discipline?
Ecuador’s indigenous people held grievances against the government long before Decree 883. In particular, they felt the government was failing to adequately address the widening economic gap between cities and rural areas. The government did not consult them on issues such as access to water and local impacts of resource extraction. As such, the passing of the decree without prior consultation fueled many indigenous people’s resentment and precipitated the October mobilization.
Trade unions had grievances too. Even before the October protests, they were concerned about proposed labor reforms that would affect their rights. They had engaged in dialogue with the government, albeit without tangible results (still to date). They formed a coalition with the indigenous movement to press the government to revise their economic policies.
The Ecuadorian government quickly adopted the decree without taking time to explain and defend its decision, supposedly taken to help address the country’s economic difficulties. Therefore, it was widely believed that the International Monetary Fund was imposing the decree. The government, for its part, largely underestimated the extent of indigenous grievances and disregarded the effects that lifting subsidies would have on those in need.
The first group to mobilize against the decree was the union of truck, bus, and taxi drivers, which pressured the government to adopt measures to compensate for the increase in fuel prices. Union workers launched a strike on October 3, blocking streets in cities such as Guayaquil, Cuenca, Ambato, Manta, and Quito, as well as the main highways across the country. In response, the government declared a state of emergency and relocated government operations to Guayaquil.
On October 4, the government and the drivers’ union reached an agreement that ended their protest and resulted in an increase of most public transportation fares.
On October 9, under the leadership of their nationwide organization, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), indigenous people initiated a peaceful march together with trade unions and like-minded groups.
But soon, what started as a nonviolent campaign resulted in unprecedented levels of violence for this kind of mobilization in Ecuador. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights quickly issued a communiqué denouncing violent acts of state security forces and protesters alike, calling for an urgent dialogue to reduce the violence. In areas across the country, various groups, including some opposition groups, militant youths, and indigenous people seized the instability as an opportunity to threaten local inhabitants, loot offices and businesses, attack media outlets (in particular, Teleamazonas and El Comercio), and set fire to the Comptroller’s Office.
Furthermore, one of the leaders of the October movement, Jaime Vargas, used militaristic rhetoric, which may have inadvertently inflamed a number of grassroots indigenous activists. It is unclear whether the use of petrol bombs and handmade rocket launchers, uncommon in this type of demonstration, can be attributed to this factor or the presence of infiltrated people.
While it is difficult to identify the origin of the violence, one could easily discern the dangerous spiral between state repression and the lack of nonviolent discipline among people in the streets, some of whom acted to express their opposition while others had different purposes, including to destabilize the government and hamper trials against corruption.
Even though CONAIE distanced itself from the acts of violence, the limited time for preparation and lack of nonviolent discipline—in part due to the sudden onset of the conflict but also the presence of violent flanks and outside actors—delegitimized and reduced support for the indigenous movement. As for the government, it obtained a good excuse to declare a state of emergency, then a curfew and a military presence in Quito. These factors altogether enabled the army and police to use force against people in the streets.
If the agreement between the government and indigenous leaders, which put an end to the protests, had not halted this spiral of violence, the consequences could have been worse. According to the Ombudsman’s Office, the events resulted in eight deaths, 1,340 injured, and 1,192 detained nationally.
Interestingly, nonviolent resistance took place against violence at all levels of society, exerting pressure on both CONAIE leaders and the government to initiate a dialogue mediated by the United Nations, the Church, and various universities. A march for peace and freedom was organized on October 9 in Guayaquil, and people gathered on Shyris avenue in Quito on October 8 and 9, mobilizing thousands of people in favor of peace.
Likewise, thousands of citizens mobilized for peace via social networks, distancing themselves from messages that denigrated the other side. Ecuador’s football team opened a friendly game with a placard “Ecuador country of peace,” and various messages in favor of a negotiated end to the conflict spread across the country. Some universities also organized zones of peace and humanitarian shelters, and even began mediating between the parties. One example was the Catholic University of Ecuador (PUCE), which successfully intervened in a violent clash between furious protesters and police officers on October 12. Students stepped between the parties holding banners that said “zone of peace and humanitarian shelter.”
Pot banging, a nonviolent tactic used in 2005 to precipitate the dismissal of then-president Lucio Gutiérrez, was revived in Quito on October 12, after the most violent day of protest and the curfew announcement. Hundreds of Ecuadorians, at home and in the streets, banged their pots at night for more than an hour to show that they were against violence and in favor of peace. However, although this action, promoted by the municipal radio of Quito and through social networks, gathered many, it was controversial because others spontaneously joined the pot-banging protest to oppose the measures by the government. Perhaps peace protesters could have used a different symbolic tactic, such as placing white candles in their windows.
These eleven days of protests in Ecuador allow us to draw important lessons for those who study and engage in or with civil resistance movements. CONAIE and trade unions had organized several nonviolent campaigns since the 1990s to pressure powerholders for change. In all of them, they maintained nonviolent discipline and were thus able to bring about important social transformations, such as the recognition of a multicultural and multi-ethnic state, the recognition of indigenous collective rights and greater participation of indigenous people in political life, as well as advances in labor rights.
So, what went wrong in the above episode?
The October protests, while aiming to continue the struggle against social injustice, were tarnished because of the amount of violence that took place. CONAIE ultimately succeeded in derogating the decree, but because violence broke out—initiated by the state, protesters, and others—they received neither the backing of middle classes nor that of mainstream media. This had been key for success in previous campaigns.
A few takeaways can be identified from this case. First, not only governments but also other actors can use agents provocateurs to sew violence amid nonviolent protests in order to pursue their interests. Protesters must not remain naïve to this. There are ways that protesters can pre-empt such attempts, for example by staying out of the streets and instead organizing dispersed nonviolent tactics such as boycotts and strikes. They can also inform themselves on how to make repression backfire against the government.
Secondly, movements might consider imitating nations’ armies and engage in regular training—nonviolent discipline training, that is—as a way to stay prepared for responding to injustice. Many movements around the world train in nonviolent discipline on a regular basis, enlisting the help of such groups as the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), which supports the Regional Program for the Study and Practice of Strategic Nonviolent Action in the Americas, which takes place every year in Quito.
Movements might also consider making more concerted efforts to shape a staunchly nonviolent stance in their public relations—including long before conflict breaks out.
People with grievances today can no longer afford to rush into the streets at the first sign of injustice. The Ecuador case only underscores the importance of ongoing movement work.
María Belén Garrido is a research lecturer at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador, a researcher at FLACSO, Ecuador, and a Ph.D. student at the Catholic University of Eichstätt/Ingolstadt. Her main expertise is in peace and conflict studies.Read More
Cécile Mouly is a French scholar based in Ecuador. She is a research professor specialized in peace and conflict studies at the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), and a practitioner in the field. She holds a Ph.D. in International Studies from Cambridge University.Read More