Ecuador: despite the pandemic, workers protest the government’s proposed budget cuts. It’s time to organise!

In Ecuador, where the impact of the coronavirus has been especially severe, the government is cynically using the emergency as a cover for a swathe of attacks on the working class. But the workers and youth of the country are fighting back!

Ecuador is among the Latin American countries hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. An analysis in the New York Times has suggested that the number of those who have died in Ecuador is 15 times higher than the official count, which leaves no doubt of the damage the virus can cause in countries dominated by capitalism.

The government is decidedly responsible for exacerbating the ravages of the pandemic across the country. Massive layoffs, low wages, small businesses in bankruptcy, marginalised informal workers, farmers who cannot sell their produce, corruption, price premiums, and an utterly overwhelmed healthcare system are all part of a reality brought about by a government that is a lackey and servant to the IMF.

Before the pandemic hit the country, the economy was already in recession. By the time the pandemic runs its course in Ecuador, it is estimated that GDP will decline by at least another seven to eight percentage points. Added to this is the international collapse of oil prices, creating an even larger deficit than expected, since oil is Ecuador's largest export commodity.

The number of deaths officially reported as due to the coronavirus in Ecuador rose to 2,736 this Sunday, while the number of probable deaths from the disease comes to an additional 1,654. The number of people currently infected has reached 33,182, according to official data. So far, 95,047 samples for the coronavirus have been taken for PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and rapid tests.

The October insurrection was the result of a fierce effort on the part of the workers and the people. However, little change has come from it: using the pandemic as a pretext, the government is trying to eliminate the subsidies we are fought for, claiming it's a necessity due to the drop in oil prices. They have the audacity to play with us like this. Let us never forget: we must settle this once and for all.

Death and corruption

It is estimated that, by the end of the pandemic, 508,000 people will request unemployment insurance due to business closures. We have victims not only of the coronavirus but of capitalism as well. The nation already had an underemployment and unemployment rate of 24.6 percent in December 2019. The country has 17.5 million inhabitants, and about 8.5 million are economically active, but not all of them receive a formal salary. Around 50,000 workers have been terminated from their duties and are now at home without salary or compensation for dismissal. The Ministry of Finance estimates that 233,000 people will join informal employment due to the crisis.

Last year, millions were cut from the social services budget, including public health. Today, the government hypocritically classifies the country's health personnel as “heroes.” No doctor or nurse chose their career to become a martyr. They do not want to sacrifice their lives; they simply want to carry out their work with dignity. Meanwhile, the government does not invest enough money to attend to the health emergency caused by the coronavirus. It prioritizes the payment of foreign debt, rather than using those resources for medical supplies to care for people affected by the pandemic.

Ecuador coffin Image fair useEcuador's healthcare system has been overwhelmed, and the impact of the virus has been worsened by corruption / Image: fair use

In March, the government paid USD 791.2 million in external debt service, not USD 324 million, as had been originally stated. The Central Bank of Ecuador (ECB) published the Financial System Liquidity Management report for March 2020. On 23 March, the finance minister announced that he would pay USD 324 million to 2020 bondholders to access immediate financing of USD 2 billion through multilateral organizations. Several experts questioned this measure, stressing that the payment was unnecessary if the financing for Ecuador was to come from multilateral organizations. An additional USD 17 million in interest was pardoned for the holders of these papers.

Overpricing and corruption have characterised the government during this crisis. Officials representing the area of Cantón Milagro announced that they had provided protective equipment for medical personnel. The very next day, healthcare professionals reported that they had not received the equipment and, moreover, the reagents delivered to the hospital were being used exclusively by hospital managers and their families. Hospital workers carried out a sit-in outside the hospital in protest.

Since the onset of the pandemic, most of the people who have sought treatment at Hospital León Becerra (in Guayaquil) requested care for respiratory problems. However, instead of being admitted, they received recommendations to follow “the protocol,” which consists of calling 171: the line authorised by the national government for telemedicine. And they were told to call the number only if they were in respiratory crisis, since apparently only then would their condition be considered serious.

Most of the deaths in Hospital León Becerra have been due to “atypical pneumonia” and it has not yet been confirmed if those deaths were in fact brought on by the coronavirus. These figures have not been clarified by the hospital nor by the national health authorities.

Also, the hospital apparently made a deal with funeral homes in Milagro. When a patient who had been admitted for diabetes died of diabetes-related cardiac arrest, his family received a medical report stating that the death was caused by coronavirus. Hospital staff then told the family that only three funeral homes in Milagro handled coronavirus deaths. These funeral homes would have charged them USD 1,700 for a coffin.

This has not been the only case of corruption during the pandemic. Through the public procurement system, Los Ceibos Hospital (IESS) in Guayaquil acquired 4,000 anti-drip body bags for USD 148.50 apiece, totalling USD 594,000. However, the price of these bags on the market ranges from USD 3.80 to 12.80. In other words, a surcharge of USD 135.70 per bag was somehow imposed.

On 31 March, another complaint was lodged against senior IESS officials. The IESS entered into a contract to acquire 130,000 masks in addition to other supplies. Under the terms of that contract, N95 masks, which cost USD 3.90 apiece on the open market, cost USD 12 per unit. Also under investigation is a network of officials and hospital employees responsible for delivering corpses in Guayaquil, who demanded money from the relatives in order to give them their relatives’ corpses back.

More cases of corruption are reported every week. The bourgeoisie and their loyal dogs attack us, knowing that we cannot go out into the streets due to the pandemic. Many continue to enrich themselves using the state as a tool to do so. We must all understand that corruption cases are inherent to the bourgeois state and that is why we must fight the system at its root.

Government attacks the workers

As the pandemic rages on, Moreno is promoting an economic adjustment plan that would cut almost USD 100 million from the university budget, affecting 32 public universities, 300,000 students, and 17,000 contract teachers. All told, the state budget would be cut to levels unheard of, even during the 1990s. The Public Education Defence Front asserted that the Central University (UC) would fire 33 percent of teaching staff, represented by 800 contract teachers, who teach more than 10,000 hours of class.

In response, thousands of outraged university students took to the streets to reject the cuts. In the midst of the protests, clashes took place between government officials and students gathered at the Central University. The Constitutional Court (CC) of Ecuador put a stop to the proposed cuts, but nevertheless we are moving toward privatization of public education. Moreno’s measures always favor the private sector.

The “government of all” ignores the daily needs of its population: food, rent payments, education, etc. Although it is true that this pandemic does not discriminate among social classes, the lower-earning sectors suffer the most from the consequences of the economic, health and political crisis. This is a class struggle.

Lenin Moreno's government and the media have tried to convince us of the need for unity between rich and poor. 74 right-wing assembly members representing big business and bankers waited for a golden opportunity to get the most out of the current crisis. It arrived in the form of the inhuman “humanitarian law” through which they sought to apply their anti-worker policies in accordance with the IMF and Moreno’s government. They seek to undermine the organization and unity of workers to diminish their rights. They want to legalise dismissals without compensation, lower wages, establish new forms of labor contracting, and eliminate benefits. Under the law, companies in crisis can fire workers for three months and then rehire them for only three more months. Without fanfare, the ruling classes quietly snatched the fruits of years of unity, organization, and struggle from working people. What happened in the National Assembly on the night of 15 May will not be forgotten by the workers and the people of Ecuador.

In response to these issues, a group of Ecuadorian social organizations, research centers, intellectuals and concerned citizens have formed an “Alliance for Unity for Life.” This group released a manifesto on May Day, published by more than 100 Ecuadorian organizations, including the Federation of Ecuadorian Indigenous People (FEI) and other transportation, agriculture and indigenous communities, that demanded the resignation of the Moreno government.

The alliance has demanded: the declaration of a humanitarian crisis in the entire national territory of Ecuador; suspension of the payment of external debt, rejection of any attempt to eliminate subsidies, lay off workers or lower their wages; and nationalisation of hydroelectric plants, refineries, and mines. The resignation of the entire government of Lenín Moreno and Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner, and the installation of a government of national liberation by the National Assembly, are also called for.

For a workers’ government!

All of these demands are apt and comprise a good platform to unify the struggle. But the end goal is unclear. The resignation of the entire government is proposed, and the manifesto identifies clearly who would be responsible for all these measures. But who would replace them? A “government of national liberation”... made up of whom? The National Assembly? The Assembly is populated mostly by parties loyal to the interests of the capitalist oligarchy, which is responsible for the current disaster.

What we must propose instead is a government of the workers. Let those who produce all the wealth govern the country. During the October insurrection, the question of power was clearly raised. On one side was the government of Lenín Moreno and the entire capitalist oligarchy (and behind them US imperialism), and on the other were the workers, youth, indigenous peoples, and the peasants: that is, the working people. At that time it was proposed that the People's Assembly take power. This situation of dual power (the power of the street mobilised against the power of the government and bourgeois institutions) was finally resolved in favor of Lenín Moreno, according to the agreement signed by the CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) leadership.

It is time to learn fully the lessons of the last 20 years of revolts and insurrections. Every time the people in the streets brought down a government, its replacement ended up applying the same policies or very similar policies. We are not talking simply about changing governments, but changing systems entirely. It is capitalism in crisis that is responsible for the attacks on the working class. It is time to end it and fight for a system based on collective ownership of the means of production, factories, natural resources, land, and their democratic administration by workers and peasants for the benefit of the majority.

That is why we think that the slogan of “government of national unity” will lead to confusion. Unity with whom? Unity of the people with the oligarchy? It is impossible to reconcile opposing interests. The unity that is needed is that of the working people: of workers and peasants so that once and for all we govern from below. For a Workers’ Government!

Our task now is to carry out that which is ordained by history. We cannot give in to class conciliation: we must fight for a planned economy, safeguard the life of the country by nationalising the health sector and large industries, refuse to pay the external debt, and create a real contingency plan, designed to meet the needs of the working class.

Although the coronavirus pandemic is global and affects everyone, regardless of the class to which one belongs or their ideology, employers demand that production continue. And although we can criticise selfishness, the lack of scruples, and misery inflicted by these demands, we have to go further and criticise their basis: private ownership of the means of production. That is, the fact that a very small percentage of the population controls and dominates the economy on a global scale.

We workers have no other choice but to organise and raise our understanding of the nature of the government and businesses. While defenders of the current capitalist system remain in power, there is no possibility of economic development, freedom, or justice for the peoples of the world. Now more than ever it is time to organise. Only an organised working class can take charge of our destiny. Nothing moves without our permission. Starting in your neighborhood, start by creating local assemblies and begin to discuss these proposals.

Down with the government of Lenín Moreno! Down with the capitalist oligarchy! Down with imperialism!

For a Workers' Government! All power to the Workers’ Assembly!