BY CAROLINE VAN SLOBBE
This week, I have experienced the specific scent and feel of teargas for the first time. It is in first instance itchy, as if someone put pepper in your nose and eyes. Then it starts to hurt. You cannot breath normally and you start to cry. You want to run away, preferably to the nearest fire. The smoke helps, but it takes time before you’re back to normal. That stuff is not innocent, like you often hear on the news about protests, mostly elsewhere in the world. It doesn’t kill initially, but it does make people blind. It creates panic and people start running in all directions, falling over each other. The police in Ecuador is currently using a lot of teargas.
Initially I intended to write a blog about the climate strike that was organised in Quito on the 27th of September, the day that worldwide people took the streets for “greener” policies and measures of governments and companies. I wanted to write about the reasons why many of my Ecuadorian friends involved in a social-ecological movement were not joining the strike. “It’s organised by people with comfortable lives in rich countries, who are forming the biggest threat to our planet”, was what they told me. It confused me initially, to be honest, because why would they not go to strike for a cause they shared, only because the initiators of the strike are from rich countries? A few days later, whilst writing about the relatively small number of people that showed up (about a thousand), and pondering about why my friends had not joined the strike, I received a message that the city centre was in chaos because of protests. I went outside to have a look, a few-minutes-walk from where I live. That was the 3rd of October and only the beginning.
“Fuera Lenín, Fuera!”
Thousands and thousands of people are on the street. Taxi’s and busses have blocked the main road. Teargas hits my nose and eyes, even from a safe distance. People are scanting “Fuera Lenín, fuera” (away with Lenín Moreno, the president) and spraying “Mierda FMI” (Shit International Monetary Fund, IMF) in graffiti on the walls of the closed shops. People are making fires on the street and others are selling sigarettes, both help against teargas, as I learn. Around the corner I can see confrontations with the police further down. I’ve never seen a mass like that, and so furious. The police uses teargas in order to prevent the protesters from going to the palace, where the president is seated, they respond by throwing stones at the police. The government announced a state of exception for sixty days.
The motivation: a stop on fuel subsidies. This might be an example of a “green policy” that was demanded by the climate strikers worldwide last week, but people here are furious and scared. The stop on subsidies is part of a list of measures, announced by President Lenín Moreno a few days earlier, to “improve the Ecuadorian economy”. The budget cuts are ordered by the International Monetary Fund in exchange of a loan. The measures hit people hard, especially the poor who could already hardly get by when the subsidies were still in place. Because of the higher fuel prices, transport and foodprices have increased to such an extent that people cannot afford it anymore.
Actually, this was only the trigger, the so-called last straw that broke the camel’s back. People are angry at Moreno and his government, that in their eyes only enriches its capitalist self, elite classes, and foreign companies. The administration threathens the land of indigenous peoples by giving out mining and oil concessions, even though Moreno in election time promised not to. The fact that the USA military is allowed a basis at the Galapagos Islands, plus the orders by the IMF, is perceived as that the country is sold out. I’ve spoken with many people who feel threathened in their security, not only by the economic measures, but also by enormous police and military agression in the last days.
Framing and censorship in the media
I find it frustrating that international news media are scarcely and/or inaccurately reporting about the events in Ecuador. One of the first messages I read were written by the Dutch NOS and Algemeen Dagblad, reporting about some tourists that are stuck and that it’s better not to travel here. It embarasses me. Overall, Ecuadorian and international news media predominantly report about“violent protests” and “vandalists” destroying the city. We read about the “economic damage” of the unrest, and that the government is “open for dialogue”. Although (most of it) is not ontrue, it is framing the events in such a way that the protesters are “criminals”, even “terrorists” who destroy the country and don’t want to talk.
We do not read in de media that the police is incredibly aggressive, and violently cracks down on peaceful protesters. The fact that the police intruded a university buidling, used as a refuge for indigenous people who came from the countryside, throwing teargas where old people and women with children were resting, unable to leave the building, remains unreported. Violence by the protesters (that is, only some of them) means fighting by hand, throwing stones found on the street and throwing back the teargas units where they came from, for self-defence. Violence by the police means throwing teargas not only to the frontlines but in the crowds with bystanders too, it means rubber bullets, tanks and armored cars through the streets. Once I was witnessing things from a very safe distance, I thought, close to where children were playing in the park. But suddenly I saw about thirty police officers on motorbikes entering, hunting down the people through the park. There are at least 7 deaths, amongst whom an indigenous leader and a child, more than 500 injured, and more than 700 people in jail without any trial.
Ecuadorians are forming one big block
I have spoken to dozens of people, from die-hard protesters to people on the street who try to avoid the unrest to go to work, and bystanders, shop owners, my neighbours, taxi-drivers, scientists. I haven’t met a single person who is pro Moreno or against the protests. “La rebellión se justifica”, they all say: the protests are justified, and the president must go. President Moreno’s statement that he is open for dialogue is widely questioned. He has announced not to be willing to change the measurements, and not giving in to “terrorists”.
Photo’s by autor, all taken near Parque el Arbolito
It is generally known amongst the Ecuadorians that mainstream media are not to be trusted. Instead, a system of civilian “journalism” has been set up through Facebook and Twitter. People forward videos of what happens throughout the country, also at the frontlines of the protest. Which roads are free to go and which ones are blocked is shared on social media platforms. There are posters of “how to prepare against teargas?” and about where and when in the city indigenous people will arrive from the countryside to join the protests, and about people who are wounded by police violence.
At the time of writing, the 9th of October, the largest protest so far has been announced. CONAIE, the national organisation for indigenous people, says that about 40.000 indigenous people have come to Quito to join the protests, and more will come. This morning I woke up by the sound of helicopters. The view over the city is blurred by smoke. Teargas is reaching my terrace. I had never experienced it before, but that smell and feeling is so specific that I will never forget it. In the past week it has become clear to me why my ecologist friends did not join the climate strike: there will simply be no ecological justice without social justice.
In a next blog, I will write about the challenges of doing fieldwork, and about other things you don’t read in the media: the incredible solidarity amongst Ecuadorians and tranquility amidst the chaos.
Caroline van Slobbe is PhD-researcher at the Social and Cultural Anthropology department of the VU. Her research revolves around ecological movements, social imaginaries of water, and human-nonhuman relations in Ecuador and the Netherlands.