QUITO, Ecuador – For more than a week, the Andean nation of Ecuador has been rocked by sometimes violent protests against soaring prices for fuel, food and other basic necessities, driven by inflation world that is causing similar levels of frustration across Latin America.
The country’s capital, Quito, was brought to a virtual standstill by protesters blocking major roads, burning tires and clashing with police, throwing rocks at officers who responded with tear gas. Clashes erupted again on Thursday.
The marches and rallies, which were led by indigenous groups, pose a significant challenge to the right-wing government of President Guillermo Lasso, which is struggling to revive a pandemic-battered economy.
Protests began last week in rural Ecuador when a powerful group, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or Conaie, announced a strike and released a list of demands, including a reduction in prices fuel, price controls on certain agricultural products and more spending. on education.
Since then, protests have spread to Quito and many other parts of the country.
The unrest left at least three people dead and nearly 100 injured, according to figures compiled by the Alliance of Human Rights Organisations, a national group, and prompted Mr Lasso to declare a state of emergency in six of Ecuador’s 24 provinces.
In the country’s Amazon region, the government says it has lost control of the small town of Puyo to protesters wielding guns, spears and explosives. Government officials also reported that 18 officers were missing as a result of the clashes and others were injured.
“We cannot guarantee public safety in Puyo at the moment, they have burned down all the 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 adding to the challenges of a country where the pandemic has deepened chronic poverty and inequality. Over 32% of the population lives in poverty, earning less than $3 a day.
Similar dynamics have also fueled discontent across Latin America, from Chile to Peru to Honduras, with people demanding that governments find ways to reduce the cost of everyday consumer goods.
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“The Ecuadorian people are facing poverty,” said Leonidas Iza, the head of Conaie. “There are inequalities and injustices, and what has woken up among Ecuadorians is outrage.”
Human rights groups have criticized Guillermo Lasso for employing what they say are brutal tactics against protesters, including excessive force and arbitrary detentions.
“President Lasso’s regrettable decision to suppress the protests is causing a human rights crisis,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas Director.
Government officials said they were open to discussing concerns raised by protest leaders, but added that the country cannot tolerate violence.
“Let’s not confuse the legitimate right to demonstrate with violent protests,” Juan Carlos Holguín, Ecuador’s foreign minister, said in an interview. “They have caused chaos, terror and death in our country.”
Some protesters say the government has failed to resolve the increasingly difficult plight of the many people in the country who are struggling to support their families.
“We are here because everything is so expensive right now, and it is affecting us poor people,” said María Ashca, a farmer who traveled to Quito from the small village of Guanto Chico, south of the capital, to take part in a demonstration. Wednesday.
She stood in a peaceful group of hundreds singing, blowing horns and waving indigenous Ecuadorian and rainbow flags.
Rising global oil prices have benefited Ecuador since fuel is one of its main exports, said Nora S. Brito, analyst at International Crisis Group, but so far this has not reached those who need it most.
“When oil prices go up, you see more money in the country in the sense that there is more investment. You see the government building hospitals, schools, roads,” Ms. Brito said. But we haven’t seen that with this government.”
Holguín said the government, which has been in power since last year, has done its best 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 solve the problems that have plagued the country for generations.
“In a year of government, it is impossible to change structural problems,” said Mr. Holguín. “But our government is on track to deliver the well-being we all need.”
The government has publicly reached out to Conaie, but the organization has refused to hold discussions, saying it does not want to talk until the state stops responding to protests with violence and agrees to its demands. .
Mr. Iza, the head of Conaie, said in an interview that the group was “ready to resist until we have a response from the government”.
Mr. Holguín would not comment on the government’s position on a key demand — the use of subsidies to lower gasoline prices.
The United Nations, the European Union and several embassies have urged the two sides to reach a compromise.
While many protests have been peaceful, some have turned into looting, with protesters slashing the wheels of public buses and shooting at soldiers and police, the government says.
Two people died when ambulances used to transfer them from one hospital to another were blocked by protesters, according to the health ministry.
The protests have caused more than $110 million in economic damage, according to the government.
Police in riot gear fired tear gas at protesters, resulting in the death of one protester who human rights groups say was hit in the head by a tear gas canister. According to the police, the man was handling an explosive device and it exploded.
The protests are the largest the country has seen since 2019, when tens of thousands of people marched on Quito, demanding the government restore a long-running oil price subsidy that the government says costs $1,000,000. $4 billion a year.
Mr. Lasso’s predecessor, Lenín Moreno, reinstated the subsidy, then moved to a pricing system that fluctuates with world markets.
After fuel prices started to rise last year, Mr Lasso ordered that they be corrected, but Indigenous groups and others said the price was still too high.
Inkarri Kowii, a sociologist and analyst in Quito, said the widespread nature of the protests suggests the country could face a long period of unrest.
“It looks like we’re going to see an even bigger escalation,” he said. “This level of violence in Ecuadorian society shows that we are completely fractured.”
María Sibe, 30, also from the village of Guanto Chico, was among a group of protesters in Quito on Wednesday who said the high price of fuel for farm machinery had made it difficult to earn a living.
“What we have to buy is too expensive,” she said.
José María León Cabrera reported from Quito, Ecuador, and Megan Janetsky reported from Bogotá.