QUITO (Reuters) - On the eve of Pope Francis’ arrival, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa lamented on Saturday “cowardly” anti-government protests which he said were intended to spoil the first leg of the pontiff’s tour of his home region.
Thousands of protesters have for several weeks taken to the streets over tax rises and alleged autocracy in government. They turned rowdy on Thursday outside the presidential palace, with several policemen injured.
“Enough of so much violence, so much cowardice!” Correa, a charismatic 52-year-old leftist leader in charge of the Andean nation since 2007, said in his four-hour address.
Correa says the tax changes are targeted only at the super-wealthy, and alleges political foes are trying to overthrow his socialist government in the nation of 15 million people. On his show, he played footage of protesters beating police shields.
“How sad we have to talk about this before the Pope’s arrival,” added the president, whose weekly TV program included a special jingle to celebrate Francis’ arrival.
The Argentine-born pontiff’s July 5-13 trip to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay is his first trip as Pope to Spanish-speaking South America and also his first time abroad since a landmark encyclical exhorting defense of the environment.
Protest leaders have called a moratorium during the Pope’s four days in Ecuador out of respect for him.
One of them, Andres Paez, was cited by Correa on Saturday as inciting violence, a claim the opposition legislator fiercely denied.
“The accusations are a barbarity,” Paez said in an interview as Correa spoke, accusing the president of exploiting the Pope’s visit by mixing welcoming messages with criticism of his domestic opponents.
“This is a government that has done exactly the opposite of what it offered to do eight and a half years ago,” Paez added, calling Correa an autocrat who ignored his people.
Celebrated by supporters as a champion of the poor but cast by critics as an old-style Latin America “caudillo”, Correa was elected in 2006 vowing to spread the country’s wealth more fairly and protect the country’s natural riches.
Posters and billboards, some featuring Papal quotes, have appeared all over Quito - a highland capital mixing colonial cobbled streets with modern high rises - to celebrate Francis’ arrival. Some Ecuadoreans plan to camp at the main plaza to welcome him.
A million extra people are expected to flood into Quito and the coastal city of Guayaquil to see the Pope at large open-air masses there.
Additional reporting by Alexandra Valencia; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Christian Plumb