Ecuador’s Uprising Is Only the Beginning
Public pressure for fuel price relief could echo across the region.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: High fuel prices inflame political tensions in Ecuador, Mexico’s foreign minister gambles on WhatsApp, and Colombia releases a long-awaited truth commission report.
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Adding Fuel to the Fire
On June 13, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, known as CONAIE, began staging protests across the country calling for a suite of economic policy reforms. The demonstrations escalated to block traffic and shut down economic activity nationwide before they were finally called off in talks with the government yesterday. The impact was heavy: By June 26, Ecuador was only producing half the amount of oil—its top export—as it had two weeks prior. Dozens of people were injured in confrontations with authorities, and at least six died.
CONAIE’s original demands included increased fuel subsidies, price controls on agricultural goods, and an end to government decrees that eased mining and oil drilling. In yesterday’s talks, which were brokered by Episcopal church leaders, the government of conservative President Guillermo Lasso agreed to raise fuel subsidies, cancel a decree meant to ease oil exploration, revise his mining decree to be more sensitive to Indigenous land rights, and work with Indigenous groups on economic development policies.
Lasso’s initial resistance to the demands came in part because of their costs, which run counter to efforts to reduce Ecuador’s deficit as part of an ongoing loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund. That deal requires Lasso to reduce rather than increase fuel subsidies this year. But Lasso is politically weak—his party holds less than 10 percent of seats in Ecuador’s Congress—and protesters seem to have correctly surmised that they could harness this precarity to extract concessions.
In some ways, the protests were reminiscent of CONAIE-led marches opposing the removal of fuel subsidies in October 2019, when Ecuador’s federal government temporarily relocated from the capital, Quito, to the port city of Guayaquil over safety concerns. But this month’s strike intensified more quickly than the one in 2019, cultural studies scholar Inkarri Kowi wrote in GK.
“Since the first day there were patrol cars burned, private companies intimidated, and police detained,” Kowi noted. Over 100 cases of harassment and aggression against journalists, mostly by protesters, were registered by press freedom group Fundamedios.
While the protests in Ecuador appear to be Latin America’s first major political upheaval linked to the current gas and food inflation—a vestige of the COVID-19 pandemic that has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine—they are unlikely to be the region’s last. In the past month, truckers have protested in both Argentina and Peru; in the latter, ongoing efforts by the country’s opposition to impeach President Pedro Castillo could finally succeed.
Central banks in many Latin American countries have carried out a series of strong interest rate hikes in the past few months to curb inflation. The Bank for International Settlements’ Agustin Carstens said this week that without that measure, inflation in the region could be even higher. Still, as in the United States, interest rates are only one part of the inflation puzzle, and raising them now slows down economic growth precisely when countries had hoped to fully recover from the COVID-19 slump.
Protests and efforts to otherwise force concessions from Latin American governments in the current inflationary moment will likely gain more momentum against leaders who are already weak. That was certainly the case in Ecuador. It may have also been part of Colombian President-elect Gustavo Petro’s thinking over the past week as he formed alliances with parties in the center and center-right that he had spent years opposing as a leftist.
Even so, there are limits to what domestic policy can achieve for Latin America’s economies amid the current global price shock. For this reason, there is a real role for international actors such as the IMF and other creditors to play. Like Ecuador, Argentina is also party to a deal with the fund that was reached based on expectations of removing fuel subsidies this year. Honduras and Costa Rica have IMF deals without requirements on fuel subsidies, but the new presidents of both countries have criticized and suggested they may seek to renegotiate their respective agreements.
So far, no official IMF renegotiations for the four countries have been announced. Even if they take place in the upcoming months, high fuel prices will likely continue to pressurize politics across Latin America for some time.
Monday, July 4: Chile’s constitutional assembly presents its finalized draft constitution to the public.
Tuesday, July 12: Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador meets with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House.
Thursday, July 21: The leaders of South American trade bloc Mercosur meet for a leaders’ summit in Paraguay.
What We’re Following
Colombia’s truth commission. An investigative committee in Colombia on Tuesday published an 896-page report on the country’s half-century internal conflict involving government forces, paramilitaries, and guerillas such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The report, which was compiled as part of Colombia’s peace process, found the number of people killed in the conflict from 1958 to 2016—when the FARC signed a peace deal with the government—was over 450,000, nearly twice the previous estimate by government-backed researchers.
A dataset that began in 1985 showed that approximately 45 percent of victims were killed at the hands of right-wing paramilitary groups, and 21 percent were at the hands of the FARC.
The report was highly critical of U.S. policy toward Colombia over the years, noting that the “largely U.S.-driven approach” to the war on drugs hardened the conflict, and it recommended decriminalization and regulation of drugs. According to the New York Times, documents the Colombian researchers consulted said that the CIA believed that the Colombian military provided right-wing paramilitaries with a target list of union leaders before the paramilitaries killed them in a 1988 massacre.
“Remain in Mexico.” Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against efforts by Texas and Missouri to block Biden’s termination of the so-called Remain in Mexico policy put in place by his predecessor, Donald Trump. The ruling on procedural grounds sends the case back to a district court.
The Supreme Court opinion fell short of fully endorsing the Biden administration’s actions but pointed out that requiring the White House to continue such a program constrains the executive’s ability to conduct diplomacy with Mexico.
The policy, formally known as Migrant Protection Protocols, requires asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for their court dates in the United States. Immigration rights groups celebrated the decision and urged Biden to terminate the program immediately, but it was not immediately clear whether the White House plans to wait for a final lower court ruling before doing so.
Bullets, not hugs. López Obrador promised to change Mexico’s militarized approach to the war on drugs when he took office in 2018. But under his purview, security forces have received more funding and have rarely been punished for accused abuses of power, Jared Olson reported in Foreign Policy last week.
Olson’s story examines an military attack on a car of men in Tamaulipas state in March. The military forces claimed they thought the men had drugs and guns but produced no evidence, and a military spokesperson declined to comment on the case. According to Mexican outlet Milenio, among 988 complaints of abuse of authority by Mexico’s National Guard—a force López Obrador established in 2019—only half of the ensuant investigations been concluded and only two had established guilt as of May.
Gil’s unearthed album. Brazilian singer, songwriter, and former culture minister Gilberto Gil turned 80 last Sunday. To celebrate, Google launched a virtual museum with his recordings and interviews that took four years to research.
Amid the process of looking through old recordings, researchers Chris Fuscaldo and Ricardo Schott unearthed an unreleased 1982 album of Gil’s from a stint in New York City. It was produced by Trinbagonian American percussionist Ralph MacDonald and mostly includes songs in English, including collaborations with such singers as Roberta Flack. The songs draw on Caribbean, Brazilian, and Nigerian rhythms.
The album can be heard as part of the exhibit, alongside Gil’s telling of the recordings and why they were never more widely published (though he released Portuguese versions of some in later years). “I felt that the Brazilianness was lacking” in the music, he said, despite the fact that the Brazilian artists involved were “excellent.” The full trajectory of Gil’s work is explored in English, Spanish, and Portuguese as part of the digital exhibit, which includes 900 videos.
Question of the Week
The president of which Latin American country attended the G-7 summit in Germany this week?
Argentine President Alberto Fernández was representing the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. He told Argentine media he called for peace in the war in Ukraine and pressed for peripheral countries to be better included in global financial architecture.
In Focus: Can Election Law Keep up With Social Media?
Last week, Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard announced what he said was his WhatsApp number on Twitter, encouraging people to get in touch with him. In a report for Rest of World, Daniela Dib laid out how the move could be part of a strategy to identify and connect with potential voters ahead of Mexico’s 2024 presidential elections. Ebrard is thought to be one of the ruling party’s top two picks for its candidate to succeed López Obrador, who cannot seek reelection due to a one-term limit.
Ebrard reportedly raked in nearly 1 million messages within the first 48 hours after the move. Mexican law would permit him to use WhatsApp to campaign with mass messages during the election period, National Autonomous University of Mexico political scientist Rafael Morales told Foreign Policy in an interview. That’s a striking difference from Brazil, where election authorities in 2019 banned mass messaging on apps like WhatsApp for use in political campaigns. In Brazil’s 2018 elections, supporters of now-President Jair Bolsonaro used such mass messaging capabilities to spread misinformation and purchased the capabilities without declaring their spending, a violation of campaign finance rules.
In the face of new technologies, Morales said, election law usually only catches up “after there’s been a problem.” WhatsApp is traditionally less popular than Facebook and Twitter when it comes to Mexico’s political conversation, but Ebrard’s efforts could shift that, he said.
In Brazil, authorities have been racing to catch up with the fact that a significant number of Bolsonaro’s supporters have migrated from WhatsApp to the app Telegram ahead of October general elections. The Supreme Court ordered Telegram to be banned in the country in March after it ignored court orders on actions like removing a post by Bolsonaro with misleading information, then rescinded the ban when Telegram addressed the concerns. Amid a congressional probe into fake news, Twitter introduced a capability to flag disputed content in Brazil.
In both Mexico and Brazil, bills that would aim to regulate social media platforms are currently being considered in Congress. Until they are approved, efforts to protect the integrity of election information on social media remain ad hoc.
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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