QUITO — Indigenous-led protesters began a national strike in Ecuador on Wednesday after President Lenin Moreno refused to step down or overturn anti-austerity measures that have triggered the worst unrest in a decade.
Streets were empty of traffic and businesses were closed in the capital Quito and other cities, witnesses said, at the start of the day-long shutdown in Latin America's latest flashpoint over structural economic reforms.
Violent demonstrations erupted in the Andean nation of 17 million people a week ago when Moreno cut fuel subsidies as part of a package of measures in line with a $4.2 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan.
"What the government has done is reward the big banks, the capitalists, and punish poor Ecuadoreans," said Mesias Tatamuez, head of the Workers' United Front umbrella union.
"We call on all those against the IMF, which is responsible for this crisis, to join the strike."
The main indigenous group CONAIE, which has mobilized some 6,000 members to Quito from outlying areas, said Moreno's government was behaving like a "military dictatorship" by declaring a state of emergency and setting an overnight curfew.
Speaking late on Tuesday, Moreno, 66, who succeeded leftist leader Rafael Correa in 2017, stood by his economic measures and defied calls to quit.
"I don't see why I should if I'm making the right decisions," he said, arguing that Ecuador's large debt and fiscal deficit meant belt-tightening reforms were unavoidable.
HUNDREDS OF ARRESTS
With Quito seeing the worst of the unrest, Moreno has relocated his government to the coastal city of Guayaquil.
For days, protesters have been marching and barricading roads with burning tires. Masked protesters have hurled stones at security forces responding with tear gas and water cannon.
Authorities have arrested nearly 700 people, and dozens of police officers have been injured. One man died after he was hit by a car and an ambulance could not reach him amid the chaos, while another two people fell off a bridge during protests, with some unconfirmed reports that they died.
The government is hoping the United Nations or Roman Catholic Church can help mediate the crisis.
Moreno has accused former friend, mentor and boss Correa of seeking a coup with the help of fellow socialist President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.
Moreno had enthusiastically backed Correa during his decade-long rule, serving as his vice-president, but broke with him after winning election and moved economic policies to the right.
From Belgium where he lives, Correa has been applauding the demonstrators but scoffed at accusations of seeking a coup. Maduro, himself immersed in economic crisis in Venezuela, also denied involvement in Ecuador.
Moreno has support from the business elite and the military appears to remain loyal, but his popularity is less than half of what it was two years ago and Ecuadoreans are mindful that indigenous protests helped topple three presidents before Correa.
(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia and Jose Llangari in Quito, Yury Garcia in Guayaquil; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Bernadette Baum)