Sunday, 14 August, 2022
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Ecuador president faces ouster vote as fuel price protests enter 13th day

Ecuador's National Assembly began a no-confidence hearing Saturday for President Guillermo Lasso, as he lifted a state of emergency nearly two weeks into sometimes violent nationwide protests led by Indigenous groups against rising fuel prices and living costs.

Opposition lawmakers called the parliamentary session over what they say is Lasso's role in "the serious political crisis and internal commotion" that has left six civilians dead and dozens injured on both sides in 13 days of revolt.

The Assembly will vote on whether or not to oust the conservative ex-banker who took power a year ago, and who is self-isolating after a Covid-19 diagnosis.

The debate, during which Lasso will be given a chance to state his case, came at the request of the 47 opposition lawmakers in the leftist Union for Hope coalition.

Lasso's dismissal would require 92 votes out of 137 in the assembly, in which opposition parties are in the majority. The body's Twitter account said 135 out of that 137 lawmakers are taking part.

Once the debate is concluded, lawmakers will have 72 hours to decide on a course of action.

If they vote to unseat Lasso, Vice President Alfredo Borrero will assume interim power and call new presidential and legislative elections.

The attempted ousting comes as an estimated 14,000 protesters are taking part in a nationwide show of discontent against rising hardship in an economy dealt a serious blow by the coronavirus pandemic.

Most of the ire is concentrated in the capital Quito, where some 10,000 people, most from other parts of the country, have gathered for daily protests, marching with sticks and makeshift shields, and chanting "Out Lasso, out!"

Shortly after the debate began, Lasso lifted a state of emergency that had been in force in six provinces over the protests.

Indigenous leaders and government representatives also held a first meeting on Saturday in Quito, with a view to beginning a dialogue, according to the president of the Parliament, Virgilio Saquicela.

- 'Until we have results' -

On Friday, Lasso accused demonstrators of attempting "a coup" after two straight days of violent clashes with police and soldiers.

Protesters in Quito threw rocks and Molotov cocktails and shot off fireworks near the congress building. The security forces repelled them with tear gas.

The protests were called by the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie), credited with bringing down three presidents between 1997 and 2005.

Conaie leader Leonidas Iza told AFP this week demonstrations would continue "until we have results. We can no longer hold back the anger of the people."

The action has been costly, with losses of some $50 million per day to the economy as protesters have blocked key roads with burning tires and tree branches.

Production of fuel -- Ecuador's biggest export -- has been halved, according to the energy ministry.

"Basic necessities are very expensive and our products from the field... are worth nothing," potato farmer Miguel Taday, 39, told AFP of his reason for joining the demonstrations.

Protesters are demanding a cut in already subsidized fuel prices, which have risen sharply in recent months, as well as jobs, food price controls, and more public spending on healthcare and education.

The government has rejected the protesters' demand for a fuel price cut, saying it would cost an unaffordable $1 billion per year.

The International Monetary Fund on Friday approved the release of $1 billion in funding for Ecuador following two reviews of a $6.5 billion loan deal, of which $4.8 billion has been disbursed so far.

The payment is meant to bolster Ecuador's economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, restore fiscal sustainability and reduce public debt.

Austerity measures adopted by then-president Lenin Moreno led to a wave of demonstrations in 2019 that left 11 dead and thousands injured, but compelled the government to cancel plans to cut fuel price subsidies.

No negotiations have been programmed to try and bring an end to the latest standoff, in which both sides accuse each other of intransigence.

"We will continue to fight... The rank and file have said that we will not return without results," said Wilmer Umajinga, 35, protesting in Quito since Monday.