“Just in case,” he said, lazily rapping the tips of his fingers against the side of a gas mask dangling from his vest. After weeks of faint rumors of a coup plot, nobody seemed in the mood to take chances, least of all stringers from prominent wire agencies. This one and a small flock of other photo-journalists were snapping away shots of the first wave of opposition protests of the night.
It was July 2, and Ecuador’s opposition was knee deep in a renewed campaign to oust the progressive, left-wing government of President Rafael Correa. Many anti-government marchers I spoke to had complaints ranging from the new labor law, to social security reforms. The latter appeared to have infuriated a brigade of medical students and professionals, who marched in white coats and tweet jackets. Others accused the government of trying to block them from protesting, while they themselves blocked 10 de Agosto, the main traffic artery running through the center of town (for Melbournites, imagine the worst nightmare of the Herald Sun and its politics of “won’t somebody pleeaase think of motorists”).
The march I found myself in was the left-wing opposition, while the right was expected to rally later. In a curious alliance of convenience, a handful of leftist unions and social movements critical of the government had joined hands with Ecuador’s far-right against Correa. Even though the left and right were holding separate marches, the former’s protest carried the fingerprints of the latter. This gave the march an awkward mix of classic left emblems like Che stencils and wonky hammer and sickle flags, along with placards calling for the government to stop trying to tax the rich. One woman carried an improvised sign made of an industrial-sized Hessian bag slathered in the words, “No more taxes!” Presumably, she was referring to Correa’s proposed (and now indefinitely shelved) high income inheritance tax, which would have impacted richest 2% of Ecuadorians. I briefly wondered how popular Hessian bags were among Ecuador’s economic elite as a medium of communication, as the demonstration made its way into Quito’s colonial center.
By the time the march hit downtown, it was evident the government was taking as many risks as those stringers. A heavy police presence was centered around Plaza Grande, where government supporters were holding their own counter rally. The plaza was ringed with police barricades, with just one carefully monitored entrance on the side of the plaza furtherest from 10 de Agosto. Anyone taking that entrance was flanked on both sides by row after row of riot police.
Once inside the plaza, it was like stepping out of a lead sky thunderstorm into a summer day. Amid the throngs, drum bands pounded away, stilt walking clowns wobbled and kids smooshed their faces into ice cream cones. The packed square felt even more overcrowded when people started singing, dancing and cheering pro-government slogans.
A few protesters jeered as they passed the police lines. One drunk man oozed a steady stream of incomprehensible blather at a younger looking cop, who in turn ignored him completely. Deeper in the crowd, a few terrified wayward backpackers were frantically trying to escape the human tide, excusing themselves in English at every turn. Despite the tension, there was initially no violence. Later in the night, some opposition protesters attempted to storm Plaza Grande, smashing into police lines and trying to bludgeon the cops with blunt objects.
As the march passed, I couldn’t help but note how closely Ecuador’s opposition seemed to be following a rulebook laid out by Venezuela’s right-wing. Like the Venezuelan right, the opposition here has ditched dialogue with the government in favor of endless demands for the president’s immediate resignation and awkward hyperbole.
In recent days they’ve even started a Twitter campaign calling for #LaSalida – “the exit.” An identical social media campaign has been the centerpiece of the Venezuelan opposition’s crusade to have President Nicolas Maduro removed from office for well over a year (identical, down to the words “La Salida”). Yet like their Venezuelan counterparts, Ecuador’s opposition doesn’t have the muscle to try an armed coup, after botching their chance in 2010 (just like the Venezuelan opposition botched their chance in 2002). Over a year ago, Venezuela’s opposition settled into a long game aimed at wearing the Bolivarian Revolution down. A brick wall in the National Assembly to harry the government, and a wall of protesters and armed gangs in the streets to demoralize, intimidate (and occasionally shoot at) Chavistas. Private industry has largely halted production of basic goods, exacerbating the starvation of Venezuela’s economy. Meanwhile, the Venezuelan opposition has staged a well-oiled marketing campaign abroad, couching its old-school reactionism in Western friendly terms; like claiming they stand for “liberalism”, not merely gutting social services and sticking it to Hugo Chavez’s ghost. The Venezuelan far right has even adopted Guy Fawkes masks to make them look even more righteous in Western eyes. Now, Guy Fawkes has already started making appearances on Quito’s streets, but it’s yet to be seen whether Ecuador’s opposition plans on following the Venezuelan right into the same pit. Will Ecuador’s opposition turn violent and try to scuttle the economy, and chastise the country until it capitulates? Will they try to win power by crushing the poor?