Ecuador vents its presidential ire on the streets ahead of papal visit

As President Rafael Correa scrambles to roll out the red carpet for the first papal visit in 30 years, many in this Andean nation seem intent on sending their leader a less welcoming message.

On Thursday, for the fourth straight week, protesters will take the streets of major cities, including the capital, to decry Correa’s policies. The tumult comes just days before Pope Francis is scheduled to kick off a South American tour here on Sunday.

The rumblings began in early June over Correa’s proposal to boost the inheritance and capital-gains taxes, but have evolved to include a wide range of gripes. They’re the most sustained protests that Correa – a charismatic socialist and U.S.-educated economist –has faced during his eight years in power.

“The government believes these protests are over the inheritance and capital-gains tax but that’s not the case,” said Andrés Páez, an opposition deputy who has tried to put himself at the front of the movement. “People are protesting because of the continual abuse by the president, people know this situation can’t continue.”

Fueled by social media, the demonstrations began after Correa – inspired by the ideas of French economist Thomas Piketty – proposed reformulating the taxes as a way to redistribute wealth. Amid the backlash he pulled the initiatives and called for national dialogue, but he’s hinted the tax push will resume once the pope leaves July 8.

The administration says the inheritance tax will only affect the wealthiest 2 percent and help give the poor more opportunity.

“This is aimed at the richest,” Correa told reporters this week. It will “break the inertia, which has lasted centuries, and which has allowed maybe 500 families to dominate us forever – precisely because of the inheritance of that political power.”

He’s painted the protesters as high-class malcontents intent on dodging taxes and upending his “Citizen Revolution.” Borrowing a page from Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Correa has said the protests are part of a larger, internationally backed destabilization plot.

Mesías Tatamuez, the president of the Cedocut labor union, began sporadic marches in 2014 demanding, among other things, the decriminalization of protests and the revocation of a law that allows the government to dissolve civil society organizations if they stray from their stated missions. (That law has been used to go after environmental and free-speech groups.)

Tatamuez’s organization will be joining in Thursday’s march along with doctors, indigenous groups and a farmer’s association. On the eve of the protests, Tatamuez said his group’s goal is to force the government to listen, not to rattle democracy.

“Not a single one of our demonstrations has been about destabilizing the government,” he said. “The only one who is adding wood, charcoal and gasoline to that fire is Correa himself, who continually insults us.”

After a June 25 protest, he noted, ruling party deputy Gina Godoy said she felt the “hate” of young marchers who were “drunk or on drugs.” She later apologized but the insult echoes the administration’s dismissive tone, Tatamuez said.

Correa, who won re-election in 2013 with a sweeping majority, has used his popularity and control of congress to reshape the nation. He’s won plaudits for reducing poverty and using the country’s oil wealth to build roads, schools and hospitals. He’s also tackled entrenched interests to overhaul education and the health system.

But critics accuse him of overreaching – using his might to stifle political dissent and clamp down on the media. As oil prices have collapsed he’s made unpopular moves: slapping taxes on imported goods, eliminating the government’s 40 percent contribution to social security and nationalizing the savings accounts of the teachers’ union and others.

In June, the Central Bank slashed the country’s 2015 economic growth forecast from 4.1 percent to 1.9 percent.

Adding to the unease is Correa’s move to eliminate term limits, which would allow him to run for re-election in 2017.

In that sense, the recent tax proposals were just the final straw, said Simón Pachano, a political analyst with the Latin American Faculty for Social Sciences, FLACSO, in Quito.

While the laws might not have a broad effect they create the perception that the administration is going after inheritance and real estate through the capital gains tax, he said.

“He’s created a deep degree of uncertainty and mistrust,” Pachano said of the president. “And the administration doesn’t seem to recognize that it has made a strategic mistake … Now it doesn’t know what to do, so it just keeps radicalizing and it keeps hurting it more.”

Pachano said the recent spate of protests is over “Correa’s entire economic and political model” rather than a specific policy.

Despite the protests, Correa remains popular. He won re-election two years ago with 57 percent of the vote. (His nearest rival, Guillermo Lasso, won just 23 percent.) And while his popularity has taken a beating recently, he still has approval ratings near 46 percent, according to a CEDATOS poll from June.

He’s also out to prove he can still move masses. He’s called on followers to gather around the Carondelet presidential palace Thursday night in answer to the opposition protests.

Diego Rodríguez, a 39-year-old cab driver, said he was considering going to the presidential rally.

“This is the only president who has truly worked for the people of the country,” he said. “The only reason there are protests right now is because he’s touching the pockets of the rich … but us middle class and poor people are breathing easy and we support him.”

Street protests are a sensitive issue here. From 1997 to 2005, three presidents were driven out of office after discontent spilled onto the streets. Unlike the largely middle-class marches of today, however, those were often fueled by the poorest.

Ecuador, one of the smallest countries in South America, is perhaps best known for the Galapagos Islands, being the world’s largest banana exporter and providing safe haven for WikiLeak’s founder Julian Assange. (He’s been holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London for three years fighting extradition to Sweden).

But the pope’s visit has the nation in the spotlight. Correa has asked the opposition not to politicize the visit and said he would consider skipping the pope’s mass in Quito on Tuesday to keep hecklers from spoiling the event.

“If they’re trying to damage the president, they will end up damaging the country,” he said, when asked about potential protests at the event. “I think that the vast majority of the country, the Catholic people, will reject any attempt to politicize the arrival of Pope Francis – especially during the mass.”

Organizers say they’re not out to mar the papal visit and don’t have demonstrations planned for those days. Páez, the legislator, said he’s spearheading a national campaign to collect letters from across the country that will be delivered to Pope Francis.

“We’re not going to spoil the pope’s visit,” Páez said. “But that doesn’t mean we are going to let him leave the country without knowing what’s going on here.”