¡Kaypimi kanchik! – Ecuador’s indigenous movement versus the cost-of-living crisis


IMAGE/Eduardo de Leon Herencia

The sun had barely risen over the slopes of Cotopaxi volcano on the morning of 19 June 2022 when the Ecuadorian police stormed the house of Leonidas Iza, the director of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), in Quito, and arrested him. Iza was held for 24 hours on charges of ‘presumed crimes’.

Less than 24 hours before, Ecuador’s powerful social movements had taken to the streets in a general strike, demanding the government lower petrol prices and respect the agreements reached following a lethal uprising in October 2019. After Iza’s detention, the strike escalated rapidly.

This level of social mobilisation is not new for CONAIE or for Ecuador. Regionally, the intensity of Ecuador’s street demonstrations is legendary. In the 1990s, they toppled three presidents, and this June, the country’s assembly fell just 12 votes short of the 92 needed to oust current president Guillermo Lasso, a former banker elected in 2021.

As the strike intensified, so did the state’s repressive response. On 19 June, the security forces took over the emblematic House of Culture, an important symbolic centre of operations for the country’s indigenous movement, and converted it into barracks. The move sparked disgust: this kind of intervention had not been seen since the dictatorships of the 1970s. According to el mapeo de la repressión, a tool created by various social organisations to chart state repression, 1,500 people were injured, 1,300 arrested and eight killed over the 18 days the protests lasted.

Internal enemies?

The latest spiral of violence must be understood in the context of the events of October 2019. That uprising was itself triggered by a decree that increased fuel prices and squeezed the incomes of ordinary Ecuadorians. The 2019 protests left eleven people dead and several indigenous leaders and trade unionists faced court cases. The most recent waves of unrest have led to the increased criminalisation of protests and social movements.

‘From 2019 onwards, the government started to create a new internal enemy,’ says Jorge Nuñez, an anthropologist who specialises in security. ‘Basically what they do is recycle 1970s anti-communist ideology… that consists of the security forces believing that they’re under threat from internal actors such as urban guerrillas. In this case, the current government has insisted on linking the indigenous movement with drug trafficking and accusing them of being terrorists.’

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