Indigenous Ecuadorans vow more protests over economic policies
Quito (AFP) – Indigenous Ecuadorans said they will protest for a second day Wednesday over soaring fuel prices, as the country grapples with a state of emergency and an ailing economy.
The nationwide protests -- the largest in the five months of conservative President Guillermo Lasso's administration -- were fueled by a 12 percent increase in fuel prices.
"We are going to continue to a second day of mobilization and resistance at the national level," said Leonidas Iza, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie).
At least 37 arrests have been made and five police officers wounded in the unrest, authorities said. Two soldiers who were captured by protesters in an Andean village were in good health.
Officials said about 1,500 indigenous people, students and workers marched Tuesday in the capital Quito, with the demonstration ending in clashes near the presidential palace between rock-throwing protesters and police, who responded by firing tear gas.
"This is the beginning of a progressive strike. Everything depends on the government, it must freeze fuel prices, reduce the cost of living," William Bastantes, a 48-year-old professor at the Central University, told AFP.
One young protester was injured on the forehead after being hit with a tear gas canister, according to an AFP journalist, while press freedom organization Fundamedios said a reporter had been hit in the leg by a rubber bullet fired by police.
"It was possible to control the demonstrations," tweeted Lasso, an ex-banker whose center-right economic policies are viewed with suspicion by many.
"This government guarantees the right to protest, when it is peaceful and occurs within the framework of the law," the 65-year-old added.
'Crushing our populations'
The unrest comes as Ecuador battles economic collapse worsened by the coronavirus pandemic, widespread popular discontent, violent crime blamed on drug gangs, and corruption allegations against Lasso.
"I came for my three children, who have been unemployed since last year. They helped me to eat and we are all suffering, we are desperate," 58-year-old Maria Elena Ponce told AFP.
Protesters disrupted traffic in five of Ecuador's 24 provinces.
"We have collectively taken this decision (to protest) in the face of the new economic measures that are increasingly crushing our populations, our transport workers and our communities," protest organizer Julio Cesar Pilalumbo told AFP.
"We will resist and we will not give in to any repression," he said at a roadblock in Zumbahua in central Ecuador, where poncho-wearing protesters armed with spades and sticks joined others moving large stones to block traffic.
Fuel prices have nearly doubled since last year.
Last Friday, Lasso announced another price hike to $1.90 for a gallon (3.8 liters) of diesel -- up from $1 in 2020 -- and $2.55 for petrol.
He vowed it would be the last increase, but this was not enough to assuage anger with economic policy in a country that exports oil but imports much of the fuel it consumes.
Protesters under the umbrella of Conaie want the price capped at $1.50 for diesel and $2 for petrol.
Poverty affects about 47 percent of Ecuadorans; nearly a third do not have full-time work.
Teacher Fabiola Gualotuna, among the protesters in Zumbahua, said she felt let down by Lasso.
"He said he is going to raise teachers' salaries," she told AFP. "Some of us teachers... earn a pittance. It is not fair."
Lasso is facing a parliamentary investigation over Pandora Papers revelations that he allegedly hid millions in assets overseas.
State of emergency
Conaie is credited with helping topple three presidents between 1997 and 2005, and in 2019 led successful protests against the government's scrapping of fuel subsidies.
Indigenous people represent 7.4 percent of the country's 17.7 million inhabitants.
Lasso had declared a 60-day state of emergency last week to tackle rising crime and violence blamed on duelling drug traffickers in the country nestled between the world's two biggest cocaine producers: Colombia and Peru.
The state of emergency, decreed after some 240 gang-aligned inmates were killed in horrific prison clashes since January, allows for deployment of troops to help fight a crime wave that last week also claimed Ecuador's 200m sprint world bronze medalist Alex Quinonez in a shooting in Guayaquil.
© 2021 AFP