By William Neuman
Protesters calling for the ouster of President Rafael Correa have filled the streets of Ecuador’s largest cities in recent weeks in some of the largest anti-government demonstrations here in years, creating tensions on the eve of a visit by Pope Francis.
Both the government and the opposition have been using the pope’s visit to get their messages across, giving rise to complaints that they are usurping the historic event for political ends.
Some government opponents have used social media to urge people to shout a slogan at the end of the pope’s two giant Masses in the country: “Francis yes, Correa no!”
For its part, the government has erected enormous banners and billboards with texts from the pope’s writings or speeches that criticize inequality and society’s obsession with money.
Some critics say the billboards create the appearance that the pope supports leftist government policies.
“All that’s missing is for them to put on the billboards, ‘We approve the inheritance tax and the capital gains tax,’ ” said Jaime Nebot, an opposition member and the mayor of Guayaquil, the country’s largest city, according to local news reports.
Uncharacteristically for Mr. Correa — a vociferous president who once waded into a scrum of protesting police officers, opened his shirt and dared them to shoot him “if you are brave enough” — he suggested this week that he might avoid confrontation and skip the pope’s Mass here in the capital, which is to take place on Tuesday.
Francis arrives in Ecuador on Sunday at the start of a three-country visit to South America. “I could tell our supporters that if anyone starts to shout something during the Mass, that they should start clapping,” he said. But that would be “playing their game,” he added. “If there is a possibility of that, I prefer not to go to the Mass to avoid making our country look bad.”
The protests started last month in response to proposals to significantly increase taxes on inheritances and capital gains.
Enraged upper and middle classes spilled into the streets in a series of increasingly large demonstrations.
Mr. Correa tends to be unflinching, and sometimes combative, in the face of criticism. But he took the rare step of backing down and withdrew the tax measures.
Yet the protests grew and broadened into a roar of indignation at his aggressive governing style and a panoply of unpopular policies.
On Thursday in Quito, the government and its critics held dueling demonstrations. Mr. Correa filled the city’s main square, in front of the presidential palace, with thousands of supporters, many of them government workers.
Patricia Pérez, 35, a lawyer who works for the government, praised the president’s building of highways and creation of student grants to study abroad.
“I’m not going to trade the president we have for the same politicians from before who had their chance and sunk the country,” she said.
Later, thousands of Correa opponents marched through the streets chanting, “Correa, get out!” They were prevented from reaching the main square by armored riot police.
Many of the protesters carried black flags, which they said represented mourning.
“Democracy has died with this guy,” said Eduardo Prócel, 65, a business consultant, who carried a black flag.
Isabel López, 46, an engineer, said she planned to hold a sign at the pope’s Mass in Quito reading, “Save us, Pope.”
She said the sign would list some of what she considered the transgressions of Mr. Correa’s government, including corruption of youth and support for same-sex civil unions.
Fausto Trávez, the archbishop of Quito, said that both the government and the opposition were trying to take advantage of the pope’s visit for political ends.
“The pope is not coming to do politics or to give political speeches,” said he said. “He is coming to evangelize.”
Credit: The New York Times, www.nytimes.com