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Ecuador’s President Moves Seat of Government to Escape Protests

GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador — President Lenín Moreno of Ecuador moved the seat of his government from Quito, the capital, to the coastal city of Guayaquil late on Monday in an attempt to protect his government from the large protests against austerity that have racked the country over the past week.

Ecuador has been in turmoil since last week, when Mr. Moreno announced a number of measures — part of an austerity plan imposed by the International Monetary Fund — that are meant to lower debt and prime the economy for growth.

The measures caused a spike in fuel prices, enraging many transportation workers, young people and Indigenous groups, who have suffered years of economic malaise as Ecuador has sunk into billions of dollars of debt and then tried to slash its way free.

As the protests mounted this week in Quito, Mr. Moreno declared a state of emergency, allowing him to suspend certain civil liberties and move the president’s seat away from the capital — a measure that has never been taken before. The protests and his responses to them threatened to tumble Ecuador into chaos, worsening instability in a region already struggling with millions of Venezuelan refugees and their country’s economic collapse.

The protests in the capital continued on Tuesday, as large groups of masked demonstrators clashed with the police, breaking several barricades and approaching the presidential palace at the heart of the city’s historical center. Some roads and businesses were closed, and the government said it had made hundreds of arrests in the past week.

Mr. Moreno made the announcement about Quito during a very brief televised appearance from Guayaquil, flanked by the vice president, the minister of defense and the chiefs of the military forces — a signal to Ecuadoreans that his government has the army’s support.

When Mr. Moreno was elected in 2017, he inherited a debt crisis that ballooned as his predecessor and one-time mentor, former President Rafael Correa, took out loans for a major dam, highways, schools, clinics and other projects. Mr. Moreno has since moved away from Mr. Correa’s leftist policies; he has tried to cut social spending and government agencies and drill deeper in the Amazon for oil, Ecuador’s most valuable export.

But anger against Mr. Moreno’s efforts boiled over into mass protests when he announced the end of a fuel subsidy that had been in place for 40 years, and which Mr. Moreno claimed cost the country $1.3 billion a year.

Jaime Vargas, the president of an Indigenous organization, the Confederation of the Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, said in a statement that unless the economic measures were abolished “there will be no dialogue.”

He said the protests were a defense of “our life and our territories” against the “greed, destruction and exploitation of natural resources by the state, with many of our people at risk of extermination.”

Mr. Vargas condemned the violence at the protests, but also attributed it to government actions, saying that the authorities had “tried to discredit, to tarnish the political image and the struggle of the Indigenous movement.”

In his remarks, Mr. Moreno claimed, without offering proof, that his former ally and now adversary, Mr. Correa, had orchestrated the demonstrations in order to destabilize his government. He also suggested Mr. Correa was working with Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro.

“What’s happening these days in Ecuador is not a social manifestation of dissatisfaction and protest in the face of a decision by the government,” Mr. Moreno said. “The sacking, the vandalism and the violence demonstrate that there is an organized political intention to destabilize the government and break with order, with democratic order.”

In March, Ecuadorean officials accused Mr. Correa of corruption, and he is living in self-imposed exile in Belgium, where his wife is from. In an interview with the Reuters news agency, Mr. Correa denied any wrongdoing or links to Mr. Maduro, saying, “They are such liars.”

He attributed the protests to austerity measures that ran against his own policies, and said, “People couldn’t take it anymore, that’s the reality.” Mr. Correa also said he was preparing a defense against the charges against him.

On Monday, the march toward Quito turned violent, with episodes of looting — including at the facilities of 31 flower-exporting companies, according to an exporters association — and attacks on field workers and farmers who refused to join the march.

Juan Sebastián Roldán, the president’s chief of staff, said in a news conference on Monday that the Indigenous leaders, who are marching with tens of thousands toward the capital, had lost control over their people, and that the march had been infiltrated by Mr. Correa’s supporters to create chaos.

“Indigenous people have never sacked nor robbed during their protests,” Mr. Roldán said. “Stop this infiltrations. The ones doing this are those who wanted to turn Ecuador into Venezuela.”

He also told Ecuadorean radio that the government was open to mediation with the United Nations or the Roman Catholic Church. During his news conference Monday, Mr. Moreno said that although he would not bring back subsidies, he wanted to open a “fraternal dialogue.”

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