Two police officers clenching riot shields guard New Paradise. Standing at one end of Cuenca’s San Blas square, it is one of the few vegetarian restaurants in Ecuador. Worth protecting, it seems. A further hundred-or-so police officers are stationed around the rest of the square, some poised for action, hands hovering over side-pistols, others preoccupied with smartphones taking advantage of the plaza’s complimentary wi-fi. The protest was meant to start at four-pm yet at quarter-past the hour there stands just the one solitary figure decrying Ecuador’s left-wing president, Rafael Correa. A megaphone in his right hand, a victory sign raised in his left hand; both aloft, the man wears a sandwich board listing a series of lofty political desires. “Dignity for all!”, comrades.
A modest accretion of flags and banners assemble minutes later; the reds of the trade unions and the rainbow spectrum of Quechua organisations. “Correa, Falso Socialista!” (Correa, the Fake Socialist), exclaims one banner. Melancholic incantations of protest begin to grow in volume, providing the soundtrack to today’s anti-Correa event, echoed in simultaneous meetings across Ecuador.
After a protracted start the square soon swells in numbers, the atmosphere charged all the while by naked antipathy toward Correa’s administration. Such antipathy towards one of Ecuador’s most long-standing heads-of state, however, is by no means uniform in its composition. Leonardo Lopez-Monsalve, one of the protesters, is quick to admit, “this is a loose manifestation of protest; we’re not very organised”, but, he adds with a knowing smile, “we are very anti-Correa”. Indeed the inchoate assortment of political groupings on show range from a provincial women’s alliance for secure water provision, through to small-business syndicates.
Leonardo and Correa have history. As one-time leader of Azuay province’s campesino, or loosely translated, peasant, union, Leonardo was detained after being accused of throwing stones at Correa’s entourage during the President’s visit to a mining concession in 2011. Released without charge, Leonardo was soon back in the courts. This time it was he who was accusing Correa of slander in relation to claims the President made publically concerning a messy period of Leonardo’s life as a leftist militant in the 1970s.
The rancour fizzles today. “Correa”, he spits, “is a fascist”… “a president who wears the mask of the left, but who underneath is a right winger – one who goes begging to Saudi Arabia for money”.
Indeed at the time of the protest Correa was attending a summit of Latin American and Arab states in Riyadh. Despite the distance, he will have undoubtedly heard the rallying chants of “Fuera, Correa, Fuera!” (Out, Correa, Out!).
A blunt refrain to be sure; visceral and violent in tenor.
Yet if not Correa, then who?
There’s the rub.
Anti-Correa sentiment is certainly concerted, but save for the likes of right-wing, businessman Guillermo Lasso, who fell well short at the 2013 presidential election, there is no obvious contender. Leonardo suggests that there needs to be a confluence of the left and the right to oust Correa. It is an odd, even paradoxical, proposition from the veteran left-winger, not least because of the political muddle that would surely emanate downstream from such a confluence. He shrugs. Leonardo and the crowd have had quite enough.
Then there is Rafael Correa himself. His enviable approval ratings, even after nearly ten years in office, are testament to his continued popularity amongst the majority of the electorate in Ecuador, and not without reason. The Andean country has transformed immeasurably since my first visit in in 2005; replete with a new constitution and a brand of democratic socialism of continental repute. It’s just that his supporters are the quietly disgruntled ones trying to cross the square, cutting impatiently through the protesting march. Some two-hundred miles to the north of us in the capital, Quito, flags of protest are replaced by multi-coloured umbrellas, opened in supportive vigil of their leader. Nonetheless, the protests that are raining ever more steadily upon Correa must be a worry to his administration, not least with the threat of strikes looming in December, and also with his own mind not made up as to whether he can push for a fourth term (he has since claimed that he will not be standing in the 2017 elections, but I remain sceptical). Not that he is one for fretting. In a recent televised debate between Correa and his political foes, he bullishly threw hard-copies of his PhD thesis to his startled opponents as a totem of his economic pre-eminence. I long for the day when I can do the same to my students.
As per one of the longest-standing tropes in politics, so goes Correa’s opposition; the left is split, the right is nihilistic. For Correa, buttressed by considerable domestic popularity, it matters not how flimsy the cliché; it’s one he can rely on all the same
Taking a cue from the sudden setting of the sun behind the Andes, the protesters march on from the square. “Fuera, Correa, Fuera!”, the chants fade. The police vacate their posts, and once more, New Paradise is left unguarded.
Short Bio: Joe Gerlach is a Research Fellow at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.