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Protests rattle Ecuador following election fraud claims

April 04, 2017

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Supporters of Ecuadorean opposition leader Guillermo Lasso gathered in the streets for a second night Monday to protest what they consider fraud at the ballot box that tilted a presidential runoff in favor of his leftist rival.

Sunday’s razor-thin election win by ruling party candidate Lenin Moreno bucked the trend of right-wing electoral victories in South America following 15 years of leftist domination. Even as calls from Latin American governments congratulating Moreno poured in, Lasso, a conservative banker, vowed to keep up the fight against the installation of an “illegitimate” government.

“We’re not afraid of the miserable cowards who are on the wrong side of history,” he told a crowd of a few thousand supporters outside the National Electoral Council in Quito. By nightfall, many supporters went home but a few hundred die-hards, some with children in tow, remained in a peaceful vigil. A line of riot police looked on.

The scene was much calmer than the one on election night, when thousands of outraged Lasso supporters shouting “fraud” crashed through metal barricades to almost reach the entrance of the electoral council’s headquarters in Quito. Scuffles also broke out in Guayaquil, where tear gas was fired to break up the crowd.

With more than 99 percent of polling places counted, Moreno had 51 percent of the vote while Lasso stood at just under 49 percent. Key to Lasso’s challenge of the results in all of Ecuador’s 24 provinces were three exit polls that showed him winning. One by pollster Cedatos, which accurately predicted the results of the first round, gave him a victory by six percentage points.

Part of the problem is the opposition’s distrust of the National Electoral Council, which it says has become an appendage of the executive in the way the electoral board in Venezuela has all but lost independence under President Nicolas Maduro, a key ally of Correa.

“We’re looking at an unprecedented situation: those behind the fraud are the judges themselves,” Lasso told foreign reporters, adding that his campaign would seek a recount once the results are certified. “We expect they’ll deny our requests but in doing so they’ll be confirming the fraud.”

Despite such heated rhetoric Lasso so far has failed to present any evidence of vote tampering except for a single voting act of 248 ballots from a rural area whose tally is says was reversed in favor of Moreno when official results were computed.

The Organization of American States said its mission of electoral observers that visited at random 480 voting centers nationwide found no discrepancies between the tallies and the official results and encouraged Lasso to issue complaints through institutional channels.

Correa accused Lasso supporters of trying to deny the results and provoke violence. On Monday, he sent a flurry of tweets saying the Lasso campaign had hired Cedatos. “By force they want to achieve what they can’t at the ballot box,” he said.

He also appeared alongside Moreno at changing of the guard ceremony at the presidential palace. Before a crowd of hundreds of supporters, the apparent President-elect sang “happy birthday” to Correa, who turns 54 later this week.

For weeks Ecuadoreans polarized by 10 years of Correa’s iron-fisted rule had been bracing for a contested vote. With Ecuador’s economy slated to shrink by 2.7 percent this year as oil prices remain low, analysts had been anticipating that Lasso would rally support from the 60 percent of voters who backed anti-Correa candidates in the first round and join the growing list of Latin American nations — Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Venezuela — shifting to the right in recent elections.

The majority of voters also said they were hungry for change amid ongoing corruption allegations related to bribes that Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht paid to officials in Correa’s government and a $12 million contracting scandal at state-run PetroEcuador.

Yet in the final weeks of the race, Moreno inched ahead in polls amid an aggressive campaign led by Correa to cast Lasso as a wealthy, out-of-touch politician who profited from the country’s 1999 banking crisis. Moreno, 64, also benefited from last-minute doubts that the pro-business Lasso if elected would gut social programs that have endeared poor voters to Correa’s “Citizens’ Revolution.”

Outside the region, the election was being closely watched by supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been living under asylum at Ecuador’s embassy in London since 2012. Before the election, Lasso had said he would evict the Australian activist, who is wanted for extradition by Sweden, within 30 days of taking office. Moreno said he would allow him to stay.

On his Twitter account shortly after the results became known, Assange took a jab at Lasso’s pledge. “I cordially invite Lasso to leave Ecuador within 30 days (with or without his tax haven millions),” he wrote.

Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.

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Leftist claims win in Ecuador election; rival cries foul

April 03, 2017

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Leftist candidate Lenin Moreno appeared to have won Ecuador’s presidential election but his opposition rival refused to recognize the results, calling on his supporters to take to the streets to guard against “fraud.”

Sunday’s second-round runoff in the Andean nation of 16 million was being watched closely as a barometer of whether the left, which had dominated South American politics for the past 15 years, could stop a string of right-wing victories across the region.

With more than 97 percent of voting acts counted, Moreno garnered 51 percent of the vote while conservative banker Guillermo Lasso stood at just under 49 percent. A difference of about 224,000 votes separated the two candidates with a smaller number of ballots still left to count.

Lasso said he would challenge the results in all of Ecuador’s 24 provinces after three exit polls showed him winning. He also questioned why results that took three days to calculate following the first round of voting in February were announced so quickly in Sunday’s runoff.

“This is very sickening. We’re not going to allow it,” Lasso told supporters, adding that he had shared his concerns with the head of the Organization of American States in a phone conversation. He accused President Rafael Correa of trying to install an “illegitimate” government and called on his supporters to protest peacefully but firmly.

Thousands of outraged Lasso supporters shouting “fraud” crashed through metal barricades to almost reach the entrance of the electoral council’s headquarters in Quito. By midnight a few hundred protesters remained.

In Guayaquil, where Lasso is from, supporters shouted “Get out Correa!” and threw sticks at riot police in formation before being pushed back with tear gas. There were reports of small scuffles and clashes in other cities.

Correa accused Lasso supporters of trying to disavow the results and provoke violence, while the head of the electoral council, a favorite punching bag of the opposition, appealed for calm. “Ecuador deserves that its political actors show ethical responsibility in recognizing the democratic will expressed by the people at the voting booths,” National Electoral President Juan Pablo Pozo said while announcing results.

So far the only evidence of possible fraud presented by Lasso’s campaign are the results in one tiny provincial voting center that it said were reversed when they were reported to electoral authorities in Quito. There was no immediate comment from the OAS, which sent a mission of electoral observers.

Moreno, meanwhile, said he would start work immediately on his transition. With Correa standing behind him, the two joined supporters in singing leftist classics in an outdoor rally. Outside the region, the election was being closely watched by supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been living under asylum at Ecuador’s embassy in London since 2012. Before the election, Lasso had said he would evict the Australian activist, who is wanted for extradition by Sweden, within 30 days of taking office. Moreno said he would allow him to stay.

On his Twitter account shortly after the results became known, Assange took a jab at Lasso’s pledge. “I cordially invite Lasso to leave Ecuador within 30 days (with or without his tax haven millions),” he wrote.

Three exit polls had shown Lasso winning, including one that accurately predicted the first-round results and gave him a six-percentage point victory. A quick count of voting acts by a respected local watchdog found there was a technical tie with a difference of less than 0.6 percentage points separating the two candidates. The group refrained from saying which candidate had the advantage.

Correa said the exit polls had “lied.” “The moral fraud of the right-wing won’t go unpunished,” he wrote on Twitter. For weeks Ecuadoreans polarized by 10 years of Correa’s iron-fisted rule had been bracing for a contested vote

With Ecuador’s economy slated to shrink by 2.7 percent this year as oil prices remain low, analysts had been anticipating that Lasso would rally support from the 60 percent of voters who backed anti-Correa candidates in the first round and join the growing list of Latin American nations — Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Venezuela — shifting to the right in recent elections.

The majority of voters also said they were hungry for change amid ongoing corruption allegations related to bribes Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht paid to officials in Correa’s government and a $12 million contracting scandal at state-run PetroEcuador.

Yet in the final weeks of the race, Moreno inched ahead in polls amid an aggressive campaign led by Correa to cast Lasso as a wealthy, out-of-touch politician who profited from the country’s 1999 banking crisis. Moreno also benefited from last-minute doubts that the pro-business Lasso if elected would gut social programs that have endeared poor voters to Correa’s “Citizens’ Revolution.”

Moreno, who has used a wheelchair since being shot in an attempted robbery two decades ago, cuts a softer image than the infamously irritable Correa which was on display Sunday night as he addressed supporters.

“It’s time for peace and union. Everyone will have a new opportunity and we will seek dialogue and harmony,” said Moreno. “Our hand is outstretched.”

Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.

Leftist Moreno heading to disputed win in Ecuador election

April 03, 2017

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Ruling party candidate Lenin Moreno looked headed to victory in Ecuador’s presidential runoff Sunday but his rival refused to recognize the results, claiming he was the victim of fraud in what could set the stage for protests.

The election in the small Andean nation of 16 million was being watched closely for whether it marked a comeback for leftist candidates after a string of right-wing victories across Latin America, With almost 96 percent of voting acts counted, the National Electoral Council said Moreno had 51 percent of the vote to banker Guillermo Lasso’s 49 percent. A difference of 214,000 votes separated the two candidates with about twice the number of votes still left to count.

Lasso demanded a recount after three exit polls showed him winning. He also questioned why results that took three days to calculate following the first round of voting in February were announced so quickly in Sunday’s runoff.

“This is very sickening. We’re not going to allow it,” said Lasso, who called on supporters to protest the results peacefully but firmly. “They’ve crossed a line, which is pretending to abuse the people’s will” and install an “illegitimate” government, Lasso said.

So far the only evidence of possible fraud presented by Lasso’s campaign are the results in one tiny provincial voting center that it said were reversed when they were reported to electoral authorities in Quito

Thousands of outraged Lasso supporters shouting “fraud” broke through metal barricades and almost reached the entrance of the electoral council’s headquarters in Quito before being pushed back by police. A similar scuffle took place outside the electoral offices in Guayaquil.

Moreno supporters celebrated and accused their opponents of trying to disavow results. The head of the electoral council, a favorite punching bag of the opposition, appealed for calm. “Ecuador deserves that its political actors show ethical responsibility in recognizing the democratic will expressed by the people at the voting booths,” said National Electoral President Juan Pablo Pozo. “Not a single vote has been given or taken away from anyone.”

Three exit polls, including one that accurately predicted the first-round results, showed Lasso winning by as much as six percentage points. A quick count of voting acts by a respected local watchdog found there was a technical tie with a difference of less than 0.6 percentage points separating the two candidates. The group refrained from saying which candidate had the advantage.

“The moral fraud of the right-wing won’t go unpunished,” Correa said on Twitter, referring to what Moreno called misleading exit polls that had “lied” to his rival. Earlier, a jubilant Lasso claimed victory and told supporters in Guayaquil that he would free political prisoners and heal divisions created by 10 years of iron-fisted rule by Correa. Before the election, he said he would evict WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy in London within 30 days of taking office while Moreno has said he will allow him to stay. .

With Ecuador’s economy slated to shrink by 2.7 percent this year as oil prices remain low and with a majority of citizens stating in surveys that they are eager for change, analysts had been anticipating that Ecuadoreans would back Lasso and join the growing list of Latin American nations shifting to the right.

Yet in the final weeks of the race, Moreno had inched ahead in polls amid an aggressive campaign led by Correa to cast Lasso as a wealthy, out-of-touch politician who profited from the country’s 1999 banking crisis.

Authorities deployed thousands of officers to beef up security at vote-processing centers around the country after a contentious first-round election on Feb. 19, in which Moreno fell just short of the required threshold to avoid a runoff.

The vote count dragged on for several days before the official results were announced, provoking accusations of fraud from both sides and angry protests that have injected an unusual degree of volatility in the election results.

Fearing a contested election, church leaders have appealed to both campaigns to accept whatever the results. Lasso has put forward a pro-business agenda aimed at attracting foreign investment, reducing taxes and generating more jobs and in recent days drew comparisons between continuing a Correa-style government and going down the same path as socialist Venezuela.

Lasso has benefited from ongoing corruption allegations related to bribes Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht paid to officials in Correa’s government and a $12 million contracting scandal at state-run PetroEcuador, but analysts say he has not connected with lower-income voters.

While Lasso has said he would evict Assange from the embassy where Ecuador granted him asylum in 2012 to prevent his extradition to Sweden, Moreno has said he could stay, increasing international interest in Sunday’s vote.

AP Writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.

Death toll from Ecuador earthquake tops 650

April 24, 2016

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — The death toll from last week’s magnitude-7.8 earthquake that flattened towns along Ecuador’s coast has risen to 654 with another 58 people missing, the government said Saturday.

The website of the secretariat for risk management said that 113 people had been rescued alive following the quake and more than 25,000 people remained in shelters. The death toll from Ecuador’s quake has surpassed that of Peru’s 2007 temblor, making it the deadliest quake in South America since one in Colombia in 1999 killed more than 1,000 people.

Hundreds of aftershocks have rattled the country since last Saturday night’s quake and Ecuadoreans are still sleeping outside and struggling to find food and water. Aid is arriving from abroad but relief workers have warned of delays in water distribution and said mosquito-borne illness could spread through the camps.

President Rafael Correa has said the quake caused $3 billion in damage and warned that the reconstruction effort will take years. His administration is temporarily raising taxes to fund the recovery. Even before the quake, Ecuador was bracing for a bout of austerity, with the International Monetary Fund forecasting the economy would shrink 4.5 percent this year.

Ecuador quake survivors dig for kin with bare hands

By Florence Panoussian

Manta, Ecuador (AFP)

April 18, 2016

The desperation driving survivors of Ecuador’s powerful earthquake to find loved ones trapped under rubble could be seen in the tools many used in their amateur rescue attempts: none.

A small crowd of residents in Manta, a popular beach town in the disaster zone on Ecuador’s Pacific coast, clawed away Sunday at big blocks of broken cement and scraps of twisted metal with their bare hands.

“My husband is under there,” said Veronica Paladines, a tiny woman tearing at a mound of debris that used to be a hotel and throwing what she could aside, with fury and tears in her eyes.

Her 25-year-old spouse, Javier Sangucho, the father of their two young children, worked at the property.

“He did the painting. He had just gone down to rest a bit when it happened,” the 24-year-old woman told AFP.

“It” was the earthquake, a 7.8-magnitude monster that late Saturday toppled buildings along the coast and a ways inland, killing by last count more than 270 people and injuring at least 2,500.

The toll, authorities say, is certain to rise in the next days.

A dozen men, friends and relatives, helped Paladines pick away at the rubble.

The group had been at it for more than a day, ever since the earth shook and brought down the hotel and many other buildings along the town’s main road.

A helmeted fireman finally turned up with a jackhammer to chip apart the concrete floor that had collapsed on Paladines’ husband.

Energized by the mechanical aid, Paladines redoubled her own manual efforts. Tears flooded down her cheeks as she hurled debris aside.

– Overwhelmed fire brigade –

The captain of the fire brigade, Javier Carpo, said he had just 30 men and women under his command to help in a town ravaged from end to end. The team has more pleas for help than they could handle.

“Yesterday, we brought out the bodies of three children from a hotel,” he said.

The quake destroyed and damaged homes, shops and hotels across this coastal town of some 200,000.

Cracks on buildings left standing hint that the structures may be too fragile to withstand the dozens of aftershocks rattling the region.

Some earthmovers and trucks arrived in Manta late Sunday to help remove debris.

“Throughout the town there are a lot of people trapped,” Carpo said, with a resigned air. “We don’t know how many.”

He left to inspect a set of ruins that had attracted the attention of several hungry cats.

– Stench of death –

In the nearby district of Tarqui, the stench of decaying flesh floated over everything.

Manuel Bailon, 49, prepared to lie down for the night in his neighbor’s trash shelter, close to what remained of his shattered brick home.

On the exposed first floor of his house part of a bathroom wall still stood, with toothbrushes and toothpaste still in their holders.

“We are helping each other,” Bailon said, gesturing towards alleys filled with rubble. Crumpled family photos and toys covered in white dust were among the debris.

On the road between Manta and Portoviejo, another hard-hit town, lines of cars stretched endlessly at fuel stations.

There is still fuel, but little else.

– ‘No water’ –

“There’s no water, no electricity, and if it rains like the other night everything will be soaked,” said Karina Bone Valiviese, 39.

The quake survivor attempted to place a plastic sheet over her meager belongings, only to see the wind tear off the flimsy protection.

The mother of four and already a grandmother twice over, Valiviese took refuge with her family in the courtyard of a local church in Portoviejo.

Some 20 families were already there, some with mattresses and armchairs recovered from the wreckage. Someone had even recovered a refrigerator.

The earth had swallowed their homes, which had stood along a road on the side of a river which was now a small lake.

“The earth opened up and the water rose,” Valiviese said.

She and several others, such as Yesica Geomara, 36, complained that nobody had come to help them, or even check to see how they were doing.

Her face furrowed with frustration, Geomara steeled herself as she expected to spend the next several nights sleeping outdoors.

“We had just finished our home six months ago. We’ve lost everything,” said her husband, Nilson Moreira, a 46-year-old lathe worker.

“But my machines are still in there, my tools. We’re worried about looters.”

Source: Terra Daily.

Link: http://www.terradaily.com/reports/Ecuador_quake_survivors_dig_for_kin_with_bare_hands_999.html.

Powerful earthquake kills at least 41 in Ecuador

April 17, 2016

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — A powerful, 7.8-magnitude earthquake shook Ecuador’s central coast on Saturday, killing at least 41 people and spreading panic hundreds of kilometers (miles) away as it collapsed homes and buckled a major overpass.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the shallow quake, the strongest since 1979 to hit Ecuador, was centered 27 kilometers (16 miles) south-southeast of Muisne, a sparsely populated area of fishing ports that’s popular with tourists.

Vice President Jorge Glas said in a televised address that there were initial reports of 41 dead in the cities of Manta, Portoviejo and Guayaquil — all several hundred kilometers (miles) from where the quake struck shortly after nightfall. He said the death toll is likely to rise as reports from the worst-hit areas come in.

“We’re trying to do the most we can but there’s almost nothing we can do,” said Gabriel Alcivar, mayor of Pedernales, a town of 40,000 near the epicenter. He pleaded for rescuers as dozens of buildings in the town were flattened, people trapped and looting broke out amid the chaos. “This wasn’t just a house that collapsed, it was an entire town.”

Among those killed was the driver of a car crushed by an overpass that buckled in Guayaquil, the country’s most populous city. On social media residents shared photos of homes collapsed, the roof of a shopping center coming apart and supermarket shelves shaking violently. In Manta, the airport was closed after the control tower collapsed, injuring an air force official. Hydroelectric dams and oil pipelines in the OPEC-member nation were shut down as a precautionary measure.

President Rafael Correa, who is in Rome after attending a Vatican conference Friday, called on Ecuadoreans to stay strong while authorities monitor events. He said on Twitter he had signed a decree declaring a national emergency but that the earliest he could get back to Ecuador is Sunday afternoon. He said that there were “dozens of dead” from the earthquake.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said hazardous tsunami waves are possible for some coasts. While the government hadn’t issued a tsunami alert, Glas urged residents along the coast to move to higher ground and towns near the epicenter were also being evacuated as a precautionary measure. An emergency had been declared in six of Ecuador’s 24 provinces, while sporting events and concerts were cancelled until further notice nationwide.

“It’s very important that Ecuadoreans remain calm during this emergency,” Glas said from Ecuador’s national crisis room. The quake was felt across the border in Colombia, where it shook residents in Cali and Popayan, and Peru briefly issued a tsunami warning.

In the capital Quito hundreds of kilometers away from the epicenter, the quake was felt for about 40 seconds and people fled to the streets in fear. The quake knocked out electricity in several neighborhoods and six homes collapsed but the situation under control and power being restored, Quito’s Mayor Mauricio Rodas said.

“I’m in a state of panic,” said Zoila Villena, one of many Quito residents who congregated in the streets. “My building moved a lot and things fell to the floor. Lots of neighbors were screaming and kids crying.”

The USGS originally put the quake at a magnitude of 7.4 then raised it to 7.8. It had a depth of 19 kilometers. At least 36 aftershocks followed, one as strong as 6 on the Richter scale, and authorities urged residents to brace for even stronger ones in the coming hours and days.

Guayaquil’s international airport was also closed because of a lack of communications. The quake comes on the heels of two deadly earthquakes across the Pacific, in the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands. A magnitude-6.5 earthquake struck Thursday near Kumamoto, followed by a magnitude-7.3 earthquake just 28 hours later. The quakes have killed 41 people and injured about 1,500, flattened houses and triggered major landslides.

AP Writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report from Bogota, Colombia.

Ecuador asks UK to let Assange leave embassy briefly

October 15, 2015

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Ecuadoran officials have asked the United Kingdom to let WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leave his asylum at country’s embassy in London briefly for medical checks. Britain responded Thursday by saying he could have medical care but would be arrested if he leaves the embassy.

Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said that Assange needs an MRI for a pain in his shoulder that began three months ago. Assange has been living at the embassy since June 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faces allegations of sexual misconduct and rape of two women. He denies the accusations and said he believes that Sweden would send him to the United States to be face charges for the WikiLeaks publication of thousands of classified U.S. government documents.

“We are asking for a special safe conduct pass that lasts a few hours only so he can take a magnetic resonance and return under our protection,” Patino said, adding, “and possibly beneath the protection of British police, if they want to put 10,000 police alongside the vehicle to take him to the hospital.”

Britain’s Foreign Office said in a statement that Britain would not “in any way seek to impede Mr. Assange receiving medical advice or care. We have made this clear to the government of Ecuador.” But British officials have also made it clear that Assange faces arrest if he leaves the embassy.

On Monday British police withdrew a 24-hour guard from the building, but said they would still “deploy a number of overt and covert tactics” to arrest Assange if he left. Patino said an option would be for another country or the Red Cross to bring a portable MRI machine to the embassy.

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