Ecuador shaken by protests over rising fuel and food prices

Quito, Ecuador. For more than a week now, the Andean nation of Ecuador has been subject to violent protests from time to time due to a surge in the prices of fuel, food and other necessities caused by global inflation, which causes the same level of frustration around the world. Latin America.

The country’s capital, Quito, is virtually paralyzed by demonstrators blocking major roads, burning tires and clashing with police, throwing stones at police officers who fired tear gas in response. The clashes flared up again on Thursday.

Marches and rallies led by indigenous groups are a major challenge for the right-wing government of President Guillermo Lasso, which is trying to revive the pandemic-hit economy.

Protests began last week in the Ecuadorian countryside when a powerful group, the Ecuadorian Indigenous Confederation, or Conaie, went on strike and issued a list of demands, including lower fuel prices, price controls on some agricultural commodities and increased spending. for education.

Since then, the protests have spread to Quito and many other parts of the country.

The riots left at least three people dead and about 100 injured, according to data compiled by the Human Rights Organizations Alliance, a national group, and forced Mr. Lasso to declare a state of emergency in six of Ecuador’s 24 provinces.

In the Amazon region, the government says it has lost control of the small town of Puyo to protesters armed with guns, spears and explosives. Government officials also said 18 officers were missing after the clashes and others were injured.

“We cannot guarantee public safety in Puyo right now, they have burned down the entire police infrastructure and the entrance to the city is under siege,” Interior Minister Patricio Carrillo told reporters on Tuesday.

The unrest in Ecuador reflects how inflation is exacerbating the problems of a country where the pandemic has exacerbated chronic poverty and inequality. More than 32 percent of the population lives in poverty, earning less than $3 a day.

The same dynamic has also sparked resentment across Latin America, from Chile to Peru to Honduras, where people are demanding that governments find ways to lower the cost of everyday goods.

“The people of Ecuador are facing poverty,” said Leonidas Iza, leader of Conaye. “There is inequality and injustice, and resentment has awakened in Ecuadorians.”

Human rights groups have criticized Mr. Guillermo Lasso for using what they say are harsh tactics against protesters, including excessive force and arbitrary detentions.

“President Lasso’s regrettable decision to crack down on the protests is fueling a human rights crisis,” said Erica Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s director for the Americas.

Government officials said they were ready to discuss the concerns expressed by the protest leaders, but added that the country could not tolerate the violence.

“Let’s not confuse the legal right to protest with violent protest,” Juan Carlos Holguin, Ecuador’s foreign minister, said in an interview. “They have caused chaos, they have caused terror and they have caused loss of life in our country.”

Some protesters say the government has failed to address the increasingly plight of many people in the country struggling to provide for their families.

“We are here because everything is so expensive now and it affects us poor people,” said Maria Ashka, a farmer who traveled to Quito from the small village of Guanto Chico, south of the capital, to take part in the demonstration. on Wednesday.

She stood in a peaceful group of hundreds singing, blowing horns and waving Ecuadorian and rainbow indigenous flags.

Rising global oil prices have benefited Ecuador as fuel is one of its main exports, said Nora S. Brito, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, but so far it hasn’t reached those who need it most.

“When oil prices rise, you see more money in the country in the sense that there is more investment. You see how the government is building hospitals, schools, roads,” Ms Brito said. “But we haven’t seen that with this government.”

Mr Holguin said the government, in power since last year, has done everything possible to provide for its citizens, including vaccinating millions of people against Covid-19 in a short period of time.

But he also said there was little the government could do to address the problems that had plagued the country for generations.

“It is impossible to solve structural problems in one year of government,” Mr. Holguin said. “But our government is on the right track to deliver the welfare we all need.”

The government publicly approached Konaye, but the organization refused to hold discussions, saying it did not want to talk until the state stopped responding to the protests with violence and agreed to his demands.

Mr. Isa, leader of Conaie, said in an interview that the group is “ready to fight back until we get a response from the government.”

Mr. Holguin declined to comment on the government’s position on one key demand – the use of subsidies to drive down gas prices.

The United Nations, the European Union and several embassies called on both sides to compromise.

While many of the demonstrations were peaceful, some turned into looting, with protesters puncturing the tires of public buses and shooting at soldiers and police, according to the government.

Two people died when the ambulances used to transport them from one hospital to another were blocked by protesters, according to the health ministry.

The protests sparked more $110 million in economic damageaccording to the government.

Police in riot gear fired tear gas at the protesters, resulting in the death of one protester who human rights activists say was hit in the head with a tear gas canister. Police say the man was holding an explosive device and it exploded.

The demonstrations are the country’s largest since 2019, when tens of thousands marched through Quito demanding the government reinstate a long-standing oil price subsidy that the government says is worth $1.4 billion a year.

Mr. Lasso’s predecessor, Lenin Moreno, reintroduced the subsidy and later switched to a pricing system that fluctuates with global markets.

After fuel prices began to rise last year, Mr. Lasso ordered a lock-in, but indigenous people and other groups said the price was still too high.

Incarri Covii, a Quito-based sociologist and analyst, said the massive nature of the protests suggests that the country could face an extended period of unrest.

“It looks like we will see more escalation,” he said. “This level of violence in Ecuadorian society shows that we are completely divided.”

Maria Sibe, 30, also from the village of Guanto Chico, was among a group of protesters in Quito on Wednesday who said high fuel prices for farm equipment were making it difficult for them to make a living.

“What we need to buy is too expensive,” she said.

José Maria Leon Cabrera reported from Quito, Ecuador and Megan Janetsky reported from Bogotá.

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