Ecuador’s paraplegic presidential candidate stirs hope for disabled

Lenin Moreno, right, presidential candidate from the ruling PAIS Alliance party, greets a supporter during a campaign rally along the streets in Babahoyo, Ecuador. (Reuters)
Updated 19 February 2017
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Ecuador’s paraplegic presidential candidate stirs hope for disabled

QUITO: An aide wheels out Ecuador’s presidential candidate Lenin Moreno, who lost the use of his legs two decades ago, to a stage in a working-class area of the mountainous capital Quito.
Behind him, a woman rapidly translates into sign language his promises of benefits for single mothers and retirees. Rows of wheelchair-bound supporters around the podium cheer on the leftist politician.
Moreno, 63, became paraplegic after being shot in the back during a robbery in 1998. He has put disability at the center of his campaign to be elected president of the poor Andean country on Sunday.
The former vice president and UN envoy on disability has vowed to further boost jobs and social benefits for disabled Ecuadoreans.
If he wins, he would be a rare wheelchair-bound head of state and one of the highest-profile disabled leaders since former US President Franklin Roosevelt, who had to use a wheelchair because of polio and died in 1945.
During Moreno’s 2007-2013 tenure as vice president, he helped build a database of disabled people so that they could receive medical treatment tailored to their needs, provided a monthly stipend of $240 for families who take care of a disabled relative, and created a loan program for disabled entrepreneurs in the country of 16 million.
For Ecuador’s estimated 400,000 people with physical, mental, auditive, or visual disabilities, Moreno is nothing short of a hero.
“He opened the door for us and he keeps opening doors for us,” said Gina Ruiz, a 52-year-old supporter who attended Moreno’s closing rally in southern Quito on Wednesday night.
Ruiz was forced to retire from her job as a teacher because polio eventually left her unable to walk. But thanks to a loan for disabled people, she opened a taxi company that now employs 20 people.
“Now the rest of my compatriots will have these opportunities too,” said Ruiz, beaming from her wheelchair as music and fireworks filled the air and Moreno was whisked away into a car after his speech.
Born in the Ecuadorean Amazon to left-wing teachers, Moreno had a long and difficult recovery process after thieves attacked him while he was out with his wife buying bread. He then chose to “continue living,” according to an official biography, and went on to write a half-dozen motivational books, including one called “Laugh, Don’t be Illinois.”
“I extend this dark hand, tanned by the sun, a little calloused because of these wheels, but sincere and honest,” Moreno told a crowd of supporters on Thursday.
Moreno’s opponents avoid criticizing his popular pro-disability projects or voicing potential concerns about his health.
But the main opposition candidate, conservative banker Guillermo Lasso, warns Moreno’s promises are untenable in the midst of a recession, low oil prices and high debt. Opponents also criticized the government for paying Moreno’s expenses during his time at the UN in Geneva, Switzerland.
“Mr. Moreno is a man with no leadership, no personal initiative, no knowledge of the economy, who pretends to fool Ecuadoreans with his soft voice,” Lasso said in an interview in his hot and humid coastal hometown of Guayaquil this week.
Polls suggest Moreno will edge out Lasso in Sunday’s vote, but he may not pocket enough votes to avoid an April runoff.
Much of the middle class in this country that exports oil, shrimp, bananas and flowers feel their own opportunities have shrunk during a decade-long leftist rule that has put emphasis on the poor.
“Disabled people have rights, but they are not the only ones,” said physiotherapist Christopher Aulestia, 25, who attended a rally to support Lasso in Guayaquil on Thursday.
“The middle class has been affected by so many taxes, it is difficult for us to contribute the way we used to,” he said, adding that he also doubted Moreno would follow through on his promises.
In the meantime, Moreno can bank on a 2013 policy that allows nearly 900 disabled and elderly people to vote from home.
“This is wonderful. It is mutual help, I am very happy,” said 85-year-old Laura Vasquez, who cannot walk and had not voted in seven years, speaking from her bed below a painting of Jesus Christ after casting her vote on Friday.


Kashmir shuts down over India’s ‘muscular policy’

Updated 50 min 12 sec ago
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Kashmir shuts down over India’s ‘muscular policy’

  • Activists angry over detention of rebel leader, suspension of border trade with Pakistan
  • Analysts said the arrest of activists was an attempt to sanitize the valley before polling day

NEW DELHI: Indian-controlled Kashmir observed a shutdown Tuesday over the alleged ill-treatment of a separatist leader and the suspension of border trade with Pakistan.

Yasin Malik, chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), was taken into custody as part of a major crackdown following a February attack in Pulwama that killed dozens of Indian security personnel.

India and Pakistan each administer part of Kashmir, but both claim it in its entirety. Rebels have been fighting Indian rule since 1989, demanding Indian-controlled Kashmir be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country. The Pulwama attack brought both nations to the brink of war and tensions have been running high since.

Tuesday’s strike, called by the Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL), saw the shutdown of all shops, businesses and traffic in protest at his detention and ill-treatment.

There is also anger that border trade with Pakistan has been suspended after the Indian government said that many of those trading across the Line of Control, which divides Kashmir into zones under Indian and Pakistani administration, had links to militant organizations.

“News about Yasin Malik being seriously ill and being shifted to a hospital in New Delhi is very disturbing,” JRL member Mirwaiz Umar Farooq told Arab News.

“The people of Kashmir are concerned about his safety and well-being. It’s sad that even his family and his lawyer are not allowed to meet him. It’s the responsibility of the state, under whose detention he is in, to ensure his well-being. It is unfortunate that the state is dealing with the political issue of Kashmir with muscular and military policy alone. This will not yield anything apart from more anger and alienation on the ground. Look at the elections. The dismal turnout proves how disenchanted and alienated common masses feel today,” said Farooq, referring to the low turnout of Kashmir voters in India’s mammoth general election.

Analysts said the arrest of activists was an attempt to sanitize the valley before polling day.

India has had three phases in its election and participation in Kashmir has been poor, with some suggesting a turnout of 15 percent compared to 34 percent in 2014.

The JRL said the shutdown was also a condemnation of the alleged “ongoing aggression of central investigation agencies against Kashmiri leaders, activists, senior businessmen, trade union leaders, kith and kin of resistance leaders and other people belonging to different walks of life.”

Its statement called the closure of the national highway for two days a week “undemocratic ... and a gross human rights violation.”

The JRL slammed the suspension of border trade and said it was putting “the lives and economy of thousands into jeopardy.”

Srinagar-based rights activists Parvez Imroz said what was happening in Kashmir amounted to political and economic repression.

“By suspending trade at the border many lives are at stake,” he told Arab News. “People who have invested heavily in business are staring at an uncertain future. The government is not leaving any breathing space for the people of Kashmir.”

He added that, despite the Indian government’s tactics and firepower, people had not been motivated to cast their vote.

“Kashmir is not a democracy but an occupation. How can you expect people to respond when New Delhi behaves like a colonial power?”

But the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said separatists had no right to question the government about the treatment of Kashmiri leaders.

“The separatist leaders never treated their own people well. They always tortured people who defied them. How come they expect good treatment at the hands of the Indian government?” Hina Bhat, a BJP leader in Srinagar, told Arab News.

She defended the ban on border trade, saying it could not continue unless the relationship between India and Pakistan normalized. She also put a positive spin on polling day, saying it was a success because it was “casualty-free.”

“No doubt people have some grudges and they are not happy with the previous government, but there is no need for disappointment as poll rates in other parts of the state have been good,” she added.