Last October, there was a fearsome struggle in Ecuador against the government’s decision to end subsidies for fuel, which was reversed after nearly two weeks of protests, riots, blockades, and occupations.
In February 2019, the government of Lenin Moreno signed a $4.2 billion financing deal with the IMF, which was conditional on cutting government spending. Moreno decided to achieve this by firing a number of government workers, privatizing certain state-run enterprises, and ending subsidies for fuel.
On Tuesday night, October 1st, it was announced that subsidies for fuel — worth around $1.3 billion a year, and which had been in place for some four decades — would end that Thursday. The price shock was immediate and brutal — a more than 25% rise in gasoline prices, and a doubling of diesel prices. Trade unions and indigenous movements immediately announced their intention to strike and demonstrate against the decision.
On Thursday, October 3rd, transit workers took the lead, taking to the streets and blockading major highways and roads in the two major cities, Quito and Guayaquil. The protests almost immediately took on a militant air, with barricades being thrown up and strikers clashing with police. The government declared a state of emergency.
After two days of battling the police for control of the streets, the transport unions called for an end to the strikes, with leadership declaring that their disagreements had been expressed, and that they hoped the government would listen to their demands. Over 350 people had been arrested, including union leaders; government officials said that 60 police officers had been injured, and a dozen police vehicles destroyed.
However, other groups, especially those of the indigenous communities, continued to rally, and called for a national general strike the following Wednesday, October 9th. La Confederacion de Nacionalidades Indigenas del Ecuador (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, CONAIE), a huge nation-wide coalition of various indigenous communities, announced that they would be mobilizing indefinitely until the reinstatement of the fuel subsidies.
CONAIE drove the insurrection to new heights on Monday, October 7th. Tens of thousands of indigenous activists and militants had spent the weekend travelling from every corner of the country to the cities, particularly the capital city of Quito. There, in coordination with angry urban workers and students, they quickly overwhelmed security forces and seized control of highways, universities, government buildings, and other urban spaces, including brief occupations of the General Comptroller’s Office and the National Assembly. The Moreno administration quickly packed up and fled, relocating the government to the port city of Guayaquil. Meanwhile, CONAIE declared a “state of exception” in indigenous territories, effectively rendering them autonomous from the central government; dozens of state security personnel were subsequently arrested by indigenous militants for violating this newly declared sovereignty. Meanwhile, several oil fields in the Amazon were attacked and forced to shut down 165,000 bbl/day of production.
The battle continued on for the rest of the week. Running street battles between demonstrators and police were constant. A national strike took place on Wednesday, October 9th, with the unions coming back to the streets. Police officers continued to be arrested by the indigenous forces, usually for a scold-and-release. La Casa de la Cultura (House of Culture) became the central headquarters for the militants in Quito, where large assemblies were held to discuss and coordinate the insurrection. Occupation and sabotage of oil infrastructure continued; by Friday, October 11th, production had been reduced by 900,000 bbl/day (an odd figure given by the energy ministry, since most sources have Ecuador’s oil production at typically around 500,000 bbl/day) .
On Saturday, October 12th, peace talks were finally announced between CONAIE and the Moreno administration, even as the latter announced a curfew and deployed the military to help control the streets. But within a day, Moreno capitulated; fuel subsidies were re-instated, the IMF austerity plan was cancelled, and further talks were planned between the government and the indigenous communities to devise a different set of spending cuts and taxes. After celebrating, the thousands of indigenous activists and militants spent some time cleaning up the streets of debris, before starting the trek home to their rural villages.
Overall, the insurrection is a fascinating case-study in organization, power, and militancy. At first glance, the almost two weeks of chaos look like a series of daily riots; but this characterization overlooks the intense level of organization, planning, and logistical coordination that was present. An interview from Crimethinc with a participant lays out the dense networks of solidarity and cooperation that made the sustained insurrection possible. There was the coordination of transport for tens of thousands travelling to the capital from the mountains, jungles, and lowlands, as well as food distribution centers, volunteer medical brigades, childcare services, entertainment, popular assemblies, and so on. All of this synced up with a fierce level of militancy, where thousands armed with sticks, stones, shields, rockets, petrol bombs, and molotovs battled state security forces for control of urban territory, while their counterparts in the hinterlands staged decisive strikes on oil infrastructure. And it should be noted that none of this was a spontaneous or sudden outburst of reactive anger; they had no illusions that the struggle was about anything other than forcing the state to reinstate the fuel subsidies. They were ready to fight and shed blood from day one, and had planned accordingly.
The insurrection is also noteworthy when situated against the deepening crises and contradictions of capitalism and Earth’s ecology. On Friday, September 27th — mere days prior to Moreno’s explosive announcement — the Global Climate Strikes took place. Millions around the world, including contingents in Ecuador, rallied in the streets to protest against political inaction around fossil fuel emissions and the climate crisis. An important cause, but one with very little teeth, and which was quickly eclipsed by the potent force of the fuel subsidy protests. The contrast in form between the two movements (peaceful demonstrations vs. violent confrontation) is matched by the contrast in content (demanding political action against carbon emissions vs. demanding popular access to carbon energy). This dynamic has emerged in other parts of the world, notably in France with the successful rebellion of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) against the Macron administration’s new tax on fuel.
This could be chalked down to the different social bases of the two causes — a relatively abstract and long-term vision of conservation, embraced by professionals and the middle-class, versus an immediate and harshly material necessity to defend the already empty pockets of the laboring masses from further deprivation. But CONAIE’s history has in fact been in opposing extractive capitalism, and upholding an indigenous environmentalism. In fact, perhaps the main reason why the disruption of oil production during the uprising was so effective was because CONAIE and other groups had been engaging in such actions for many years. So why did they rise up in defense of fossil fuel subsidies?
Because, they are not naive, or detached from the day-to-day material lives of their constituents. Fossil capitalism must be stopped — but this cannot be done on the backs of the masses, who depend on carbon energy to live and yet never had any real choice in the matter. The transition must be at the expense of those who benefited: the already wealthy and powerful. Thus, the attempts by capital to impose greenwashed austerity while protecting its ability to profit must be opposed.
And in Ecuador, at least, it seems that the mainstream environmental movement has recognized this fact; in an interview with Truthout, the local leader of Fridays for the Future states her intention to connect the student/climate activist organization with the country’s indigenous movements. If this goes well, then it will be a landmark in building a militant social composition that fights against the ecological devastation of capitalism, while remaining rooted in the lives of the masses.