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MADRID - Weeklong protests that have shaken Ecuador and driven its government from the capital threaten to aggravate wider regional tensions, with President Lenin Moreno accusing Venezuela and its allies of scheming to foment the unrest.
Moreno suggested in a speech broadcast Monday that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro had plotted with Ecuador's former leftist leader, Rafael Correa, to stir up the nationwide protests that were sparked by IMF-ordered austerity measures, including the elimination of fuel subsidies in the oil-producing nation.
Maduro "has activated a destabilization plan together with Rafael Correa," Moreno said. "They are the ones who are behind this coup attempt."
Maduro, who has also been accused of encouraging unrest in Peru and Colombia - where the FARC rebel movement threatens to renew its insurgency - laughed off the allegations Thursday. "It seems all I have to do is twitch my moustache to topple a government. Let me think of what governments I will topple next," he joked.
Correa, who is now living in self-imposed exile in Belgium, similarly ridiculed suggestions he is involved in the protests.
"They say I am so powerful that with an iPhone from Brussels I could lead the protests," he told Reuters this week. "People couldn't take it anymore, that's the reality."
But Ecuador officials have doubled down on their accusations. Appearing as a studio guest on Spain's main television news channel, Ecuador's ambassador in Madrid, Cristobal Roldan, blamed the unrest on a "conspiracy orchestrated from Venezuela."
Roldan said plans to infiltrate agitators, fund opposition groups and "manipulate" indigenous organizations were hatched at meetings between Correa and Maduro in Caracas last month.
According to reports by the Spanish news agency EFE, Correa also went to Havana for meetings with Cuban President Raul Castro, who provides Maduro with key intelligence support.
Change in policy
When Correa was president of Ecuador between 2007-2017, he joined Cuba and Venezuela in an alliance of leftist Latin American governments called ALBA.
Moreno has drastically switched policy, actively backing U.S. efforts to isolate Maduro and replace him with a shadow government led by National Assembly leader Juan Guaido.
Roldan said that 43 Venezuelan nationals were among hundreds of protesters arrested by police during days of rioting that led to the invasion of government buildings, including the congressional palace.
Military officials say 17 Venezuelans were arrested while entering Venezuela at Quito airport with maps of planned anti-government marches and information about Moreno's personal security arrangements.
Moreno has moved his government to the coastal city of Guayaquil, from which he has tried to open negotiations with the indigenous groups and labor unions organizing the protests.
Oil wells, pumping stations and distribution facilities have also been occupied by anti-government militants, who virtually shut down fuel production for two days this week.
Protest leaders have vowed to continue until Moreno scraps an IMF-designed package of economic reforms that could double fuel prices through the elimination of subsidies. They also blame police actions for the deaths of two protesters.
Ecuador's protest movement is also backed by Bolivia's leftist president, Evo Morales, whose leadership of an indigenous-based revolt against a pro-business president propelled him to power in 2005 elections.
"Economic policies imposed by the IMF only bring us broken states. That is our experience," Morales said at a public event this week.
Correa may be following his playbook.
"Ecuador is experiencing the struggle of a people against a government, which has betrayed its program to the mandates of the IMF," he said in Brussels, where he took refuge after a court in Quito indicted him for corruption last year.