Police in Ecuador’s capital, Quito, have fired tear gas to disperse Indigenous protesters who tried to storm congress on the 11th day of crippling demonstrations over fuel prices and living costs.
The confrontations on Thursday came after protesters won a concession from the Ecuadoran government when President Guillermo Lasso, isolating because of a COVID-19 infection, granted them access to a cultural center emblematic of the Indigenous struggle but commandeered by police over the weekend.
However, later in the day, a group of Indigenous protesters, led by women, headed towards congress only to be pushed back by police as violent clashes broke out.
Police fired tear gas while protesters threw rocks and fireworks.
Leonidas Iza, a protest leader who heads the Indigenous group CONAIE and who had earlier hailed the government concession over the cultural center as a “triumph for the struggle”, expressed concern over the clashes.
“This is a very bad sign, given we asked our base to march peacefully,” he said.
The protests, which started on June 13 amid anger over prices for fuel, food and other basics, have claimed the lives of three people and have seen the government impose a state of emergency on six of the country’s 24 provinces.
An estimated 14,000 protesters are taking part in the mass show of discontent, and some 10,000 of them are in Quito, which is under a night-time curfew.
The protesters’ demands include a cut in already subsidised fuel prices which have risen sharply in recent months, as well as jobs, food price controls, and more public spending on healthcare and education.
‘For the sake of dialogue’
Francisco Jimenez, Ecuador’s minister of government, announced the concession on the cultural center earlier on Thursday, saying it was made “for the sake of dialogue and peace”.
In exchange, he asked for people and goods like food and medicines to be allowed to circulate freely, and called for a “stop to roadblocks, violent demonstrations, and attacks”.
But Jimenez said it was not possible to lift the state of exception as demanded by protesters.
Lasso’s government says it is also complying with other requests of the protesters, including subsidized fertilizers, forgiving bank debts, and increasing budgets for health and education. But it has ruled out cutting fuel prices, saying this would cost the state an unaffordable $1bn per year.
Ecuador, a small South American country riddled with drug trafficking and related violence, has been hard hit by rising inflation, unemployment and poverty – all exacerbated by the pandemic.
The protests, which have involved the burning of tires and tree branches by vocal marchers brandishing sticks, spears and makeshift shields, have paralysed the capital and severely harmed the economy with barricades of key roads.
The Alliance of Human Rights Organizations said a 38-year-old man died on Wednesday in the southern town of Tarqui in clashes between protesters and police, which it accused of violent tactics.
Dozens of people have also been injured in the countrywide demonstrations that Indigenous groups have vowed to continue until their demands are met.
The police, for its part, said the man had died of a medical condition that occurred “in the context of the demonstrations”.
Two other people died on Monday and Tuesday, according to the Alliance, which also reported 92 wounded and 94 civilians arrested in 11 days of protests.
Officials say 117 in the ranks of police and soldiers have been injured.
On Wednesday night, some 300 protesters occupied a power plant in southern Ecuador and briefly took its operators hostage, authorities said.
Official data showed the economy was losing about $50m per day due to the protests, not counting oil production – the country’s main export product – which has also been affected.
Producers of flowers, another of Ecuador’s main exports, have complained their wares are rotting as trucks cannot reach their destinations.
CONAIE led two weeks of protests in 2019 in which 11 people died and more than 1,000 were injured, causing economic losses of some $800m before the then-president abandoned plans to reduce fuel price subsidies.