QUITO, Ecuador – For more than a week, the Andean nation of Ecuador has been ravaged by sometimes violent protests over a spike in prices for fuel, food and other basic necessities, fueled by global inflation that is causing similar levels of frustration around the world. Latin America.
The country’s capital, Quito, has been virtually paralyzed by protesters who blocked major roads, set fire to tires and clashed with police, and threw rocks at officers who responded with tear gas. The clash broke out again on Thursday.
The marches and demonstrations, led by indigenous groups, pose a major challenge to the right-wing government of President Guillermo Lasso, as it struggles to revive an economy battered by the pandemic.
Protests started in rural Ecuador last week when a powerful group called the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or Conaie, announced a strike and issued a list of demands including a cut in fuel prices, price controls on some agricultural products and increased spending. . on education.
Since then, protests have spread to Quito and many other parts of the country.
The unrest has left at least three dead and nearly 100 injured, according to figures from the Alliance of Human Rights Organizations, a national group, and has 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 due to protesters wielding weapons, spears and explosives. Government officials also reported that 18 officers were missing after the clashes and others were injured.
“We cannot guarantee public safety in Puyo at the moment, they have set fire to the entire police infrastructure and the entrance to the city is under siege,” Patricio Carrillo, the interior minister, told reporters on Tuesday.
The unrest in Ecuador reflects how inflation contributes to the challenges of a country where the pandemic has increased chronic poverty and inequality. More than 32 percent of the population lives in poverty and earns less than $3 a day.
A similar dynamic has also sparked discontent across Latin America, from Chile to Peru to Honduras, with people demanding that governments find ways to lower the cost of everyday goods.
Read more about oil and gas prices
“Ecuador’s people are facing poverty,” said Leonidas Iza, the leader of Conaie. “There is inequality and injustice, and what has been aroused among Ecuadorians is outrage.”
Human rights groups have criticized Mr Guillermo Lasso for using what they believe are heavy-handed tactics against protesters, including excessive force and arbitrary detention.
“President Lasso’s regrettable decision to suppress the protests creates a human rights crisis,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.
Government officials said they were willing to discuss protest leaders’ concerns, but added the country cannot tolerate violence.
“Let’s not confuse the legitimate right to protest with violent protest,” Ecuador’s foreign minister Juan Carlos Holguín said in an interview. “They have caused chaos, terror and death in our country.”
Some protesters say the government has failed to address the increasingly dire plight of the country’s many people struggling to provide for their families.
“We are here because everything is so expensive now, and it affects us, the poor,” said María Ashca, a farmer who traveled to Quito from the small village of Guanto Chico, south of the capital, to participate in a demonstration on Wednesday.
She stood in a peaceful group of hundreds of people who sang, blew the horns and waved Ecuadorian and rainbow Indigenous flags.
Ecuador has benefited from the surge in global oil prices as fuel is one of its top exports, said International Crisis Group analyst Nora S. Brito, but so far that hasn’t trickled down to the most deprived.
“When oil prices rise, you see more money in the country in the sense that there is more investment. You see the government building hospitals, schools and roads,” Ms Brito said. “But we have not seen that with this government.”
Holguín said the government, in power since last year, has done its best to take care of its citizens, including vaccinating millions against Covid-19 in a short time.
But he also said the government can do only so much to address the problems that have plagued the country for generations.
“In a year of government it is impossible to change structural problems,” said Holguín. “But our government is well on track to provide the well-being we all need.”
The government has publicly contacted Conaie, but the organization has declined to discuss it and says it will not talk until the state stops responding to protests with violence and agrees to its demands.
Conaie’s leader, Iza, said in an interview that the group was “ready to resist until we have a response from the government”.
Mr Holguín declined to comment on the government’s position on one key requirement: the use of subsidies to lower gas prices.
The United Nations, the European Union and several embassies have urged both sides to reach a compromise.
While many of the demonstrations were peaceful, some have turned into looting, according to the government, with protesters puncturing the wheels of public buses and firing at soldiers and police officers.
According to the health ministry, two people were killed when the ambulances used to transport them from one hospital to another were blocked by protesters.
The protests have caused more than $110 million in economic damage, the government says.
Police officers in riot gear fired tear gas at protesters, leading to the death of a protester who, according to human rights groups, was hit in the head by a tear gas canister. Police say the man was wielding an explosive device and it went off.
The demonstrations are the largest the country has seen since 2019, when tens of thousands of people marched on Quito demanding that the government reinstate a long-running oil price subsidy that the government estimates cost $1.4 billion a year.
Mr. Lasso’s predecessor, Lenín Moreno, reinstated the subsidy and later switched to a pricing system that fluctuates with global markets.
After fuel prices started rising last year, Mr Lasso ordered that they be resolved, but indigenous and other groups 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 may be experiencing an extended period of unrest.
“It looks like we will see an even greater escalation,” he said, “This level of violence in Ecuadorian society shows that we are completely broken.”
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.