Protests in Ecuador – An Inexperienced Expat’s Experience

We got caught in a protest

I’ve only been living in Ecuador for 2 months, so I’m still getting use to things. All that settling in was disrupted on the night of October 2nd when my partner Sara, a teacher, got a message saying her school was cancelled because there were protests.

“Ah, these Latin Americans get fired up so easily” I thought to myself. I figured it would blow over in a couple days, but from that point on things only got hotter.

The president Lenin Moreno had taken a loan from the International Monetary Fund. He had agreed to make some changes in order to be able to pay the loan off. The first big change was to put an end to the 40 year old fuel subsidies that the Ecuadorians had grown acustomed to. Overnight the fuel costs shot up 123%, and immediately taxi drivers, bus driver, truckers, and other jobs that would heavily be affected, took to the streets to protest.

Moreno also declared that starting wages for public workers would be cut by 20%. People would be making less money and the price of pretty much everything that needed to be shipped was going up due to the cost of fuel increasing. Many feared poverty, a place that they were just climbing out of.

The protests in Ecuador escalated. All roads leading outside the province were blocked. Businesses were closed. Quito started to fall apart. There were fires, violence, looting, and vandalism. We mostly stayed home for the week, only going out to grab groceries in the valley town of Cumbaya.

After having to cancel our long weekend getaway and being stuck in the house for a week and a half, we decided to venture out to a nearby town to walk around, shop, and just get some fresh air. We went to Tumbaco, a short 25 minute bus ride away. Tumbaco and Cumbaya, the closest towns to us, had been relatively quite only getting some road blockages on the very first day of protests. The protesters were blocking roads around it, but not in the towns, and not between where we lived – halfway between Quito and Cumbaya – and the valley towns. It would be a quick bus ride in and out.

We arrived in Tumbaco and got off the bus at Santa Maria grocery store. We made a note to return there later to grab a few essentials and we headed into the downtown. While shopping at a kitchen supply store, suddenly the shop starting shutting up, pulling down its shutters and scurrying people out. We left and immediately noticed everyone was closing up. People were rushing through the streets to get to their cars. There was a slight, but obvious panic. I later heard that Santa Maria, the very grocery store we were planning on going to, was looted and some people were even hurt.

We decided to head home, not knowing exactly what was going on and not having the Spanish ability to ask anyone. When we got back to the main street we could see smoke pouring up from the road. The protesters had reached Tumbaco and they were blocking off all the roads. We headed over to another street that would lead us out of town. Taxis weren’t stopping. Ubers were non-existent. We started walking towards Cumbaya where we hoped we would be able to find a ride home.

Unexpectedly, we ran into a one of the few people we know in Ecuador, a friend who was just leaving his apartment to go to the grocery store. We explained the situation and he invited us in to wait it out.

At around 2:30 it became obvious that things weren’t going to change. President Moreno had suddenly called a 3PM curfew. We had around 15 minutes to get to our home.

We decided to try again for a taxi. One stopped and said he could take us, but he didn’t seem sure how far he’d be able to go. He flew through the streets, flying over speed bumps, and even driving on the wrong side of a pretty much empty highway. When we got to Cumbaya, it was obvious that the only ways out were blocked and lined with protesters. Because of all the mountains in the area, it is pretty easy to block off the limited number of roads out of town. The streets were on fire with tires and wood piles. The protesters were wearing scarves, masking their faces. The driver said he couldn’t take us any further, so we got out and decided the only way home was to walk up the mountain.

It was about an hour to our apartment, but the hill was steep and we had to go through the road block. We weren’t sure how people were going to react to some gringos strutting by, so we carefully approached it, using another couple who seemed to be doing the same thing as a sort of decoy. When we got to the line of fire and angry people, one guy approached the couple in front of us. He asked them where they were going. We slid around them and kept walking.
Protesters block a road in Cumbaya, Ecuador
This was the moment of truth.

Suddenly there was a buzz in the sky. I looked up, as did everyone else, and saw that there was a drone hovering over us. It had a small camera attached to it. The crowd reacted. They started yelling and chanting “Fuero Moreno!” – “Out Moreno!”. We rushed past the crowd. Taking advantage of the well timed distraction, we made it safely past the road block.

It was a relief to get through it, but we still had an hour climb ahead of us in the hot sun at 2500 meters above sea level. As we walked the empty highway, cars flew by making runs from the roadblock in Cumbaya to the roadblock further up the highway. We weren’t sure how far up the highway the next one was. We past many gated communities along the road and all of them had their residents out at that gate, armed with sticks and bats. The people were ready to protect their communities. A few of them yelled out at us, asking if there were still problems in Cumbaya. “Si!” I said, grateful that the word for yes is so short in Spanish, as we were going at a pretty good pace up a pretty large hill at a pretty high altitude. Every once in a while, a motorcycle with hoodlums on it would whiz by, and every time it did I was a bit worried it would stop. But we managed to make it home. Our neighbors met us at the gate. They too were guarding the community that we shared.

After a few questions about the state of Cumbaya, we went back to our safe haven, our lovely apartment on the cliff, where we breathed many heavy breathes and tried to relax. We’ll reminisce about this adventure one day, but for now we refresh Twitter, translating messages about the protests. The curfew is indefinite. The roads and the airport around us are all closed. All we can do is wait.

At about 8:30 pm, we were settled in bed, watching TV and putting the day past us. Suddenly, a clanging noise started up. It quickly spread. I stepped out onto our terrace to see a group of people banging spoons on the side of pots. After a quick Google search I discovered that this was called “cacerolazo”, a form of protest popular in South America and other parts of the world. It means to strike your stew pot. The noise echoed across the very valley that we were stuck in today, and where the protesters still stood blocking the road. On Twitter, people were talking about how they were doing it to show their support for the protesters. Others were saying they were doing it to show their support for the government. It was clear that this problem wouldn’t be solved by making a lot of noise.

The next day we tried to relax, but it was difficult to avoid checking the news at least every hour. Notifications flew in from the WhatsApp group that our residential community had created. Some of our neighbors were stranded. The security guard had been working for 30 hours, but his relief had just arrived after having to walk for 5 hours. There were rumors and accusations too, but overwhelmingly there were people who wanted to lend a helping hand. “Can someone make a hot meal for the security guard?” “I have a spare bedroom that he can take a nap in.” They even organized shifts for groups of people to watch the gate.

I spent most my day was watching TV and occasionally going to the terrace to watch the 3 or 4 helicopters that were circling the valley. As the evening approached, I noticed a small jet fly across the sky and land at the airport. This was odd because the airport was closed. A quick check on Twitter and I saw that the president had just arrived back in Quito (he had fled to Guayaquil when things started getting crazy). I watched as a helicopter buzzed by, heading straight for the airport. A short while later, one after another, three helicopters flew deep into the valley where it looked like they landed. I checked Twitter again. There would be a meeting between the government and the indigenous people. Unlike most countries, the indigenous people of Ecuador have a lot of power. They had many stipulations, but they agreed to sit down the with president to sort this all out. Lucky for us, one of the stipulations was that the meeting had to be televised. We easily found a stream on YouTube and started to watch. With our very limited Spanish we were only picking up bits of the debate, but it seemed obvious that President Lenin Moreno was not playing it cool. He kept mentioning Correa, the former president who Moreno was actually VP to, and it seemed as though he was insisting that Correa had conspired with Venezuela to have him ousted. The whole idea seemed a bit crazy to me. The people were protesting because of the fuel subsidies that HE had decided to abolish. Moreno’s wheelchair, which he was confined to after being paralyzed during a robbery, was no longer making him look sympathetic. Now it was giving him more of a Bond villain vibe.

After hearing multiple people from both side, they took a 15 minute break. The 15 minutes stretched well past that time. After an hour, I was pretty sure they weren’t coming back. I went to bed next to my phone, checking it every once in a while and even getting up to look out the window at the now dark area where I had seen the helicopters land. At around 9PM it was announced that Moreno had agreed to drop the bill. The fuel subsidies would be reinstated.

It was a relief, but I’m not sure if this is over yet. They still have to draft up a deal and there are many pieces of this puzzle that need to fit just right.

But as I sit here on the morning after the meeting, I can hear the noises of Ecuador that I haven’t heard in over a week. It seems as though over the course of a few hours things have changed back to normal. The curfew is over. The airport is open. The roads are cleared. The schools will re-opened tomorrow. The people who were stranded have returned home. My fingers are crossed for my new home.

Quito’s Historic District 2 Days After the Protests

I venture into the heart of Quito and its tourism industry to see what the state of the historical district is. I have to say, I was pretty surprised. And it’s all because of one word: Minga!