Rights advocates urge Ecuador to address root causes of migration as thousands set out on perilous journeys towards US.
Quito, Ecuador – As dawn broke in the early hours of October 26, Ecuador’s Indigenous communities had already started the most recent “paro nacional”, or national shutdown in English, by bringing main transit arteries to a halt in the countryside to mark the beginning of a day of protest against a hike in fuel prices.
The demonstrators wanted to peacefully enter the heavily-fortified presidential palace, but metal fences and riot police blocked the streets leading to the building.
Indigenous and other social collectives have been demanding conservative President Guillermo Lasso reverse the spike in fuel costs announced last week.
“A few days ago, the president labelled me a destabiliser,” Leonidas Iza, the president of the Confederation Indigenous Nationalities, or CONAIE, told reporters.
“Ecuadorians do not have time for this: We’re all concerned about the economic issues.”
In a press briefing after demonstrations in Quito had ended, Interior Minister Alexandra Vela said the majority of demonstrations nationwide were peaceful on Tuesday, but identified a group believed to have been aggressive against riot police resulting in agents firing tear gas in Santo Domingo Plaza to disperse the crowds.
Vela said 37 people were detained by police throughout the day.
CONAIE also announced seven resolutions following the day of protests, among them preparations for a second day of demonstrations and reiterated its demand that fuel prices be reduced to the levels they were in June.
Under pressure from CONAIE and Indigenous legislators, Lasso announced last week he was freezing the monthly increases of fuel prices, but fixed new prices slightly higher than those that had been expected to go into effect in October with petrol a fixed $2.55 a gallon ($0.67 a litre) and diesel $1.90 a gallon ($0.50 a litre).
“We have listened to you, the people, and also to political and social sectors to reach an agreement which brings us stability, in which the economy and grow and create jobs,” Lasso said in a message to the country Friday.
CONAIE rejected the president’s announcement and said protests would go forward as planned.
Now more than five months on the job, Lasso faces a migration crisis of Ecuadorians leaving for the US-Mexico border and a bloody gang war in the prison system.
With just days before the COP26 climate summit begins in Glasgow, environmentalists have also lambasted the president for committing to double Ecuador’s oil production during his term, setting up the prospect of a confrontation between remote Indigenous communities in the Amazon and state security forces.
Lasso did not appear in front of the legislative committee’s investigation on the Pandora Papers last week and has denied wrongdoing after being named in last month’s report. The national prosecutor’s office also launched a probe in Lasso’s offshore holdings.
With the intention to combat crime and drug-related violence, Lasso declared a 60-day state of emergency last Monday. The decree allows for the rapid deployment of the police and armed forces to conduct routine checkpoints in hotspots.
But organisations have condemned the move as an attempt to quell Tuesday’s planned demonstrations and shutdown.
Speaking to reporters in Quito on October 19, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken supported Lasso’s security declaration but said “these measures need to be taken pursuant to the Constitution.”
“[The measures] need to be very focused in what they’re seeking to achieve and finite in duration and … follow and proceed in a way that upholds democratic principles,” said Blinken during a three-day visit to Ecuador and its neighbour to the north, Colombia.
Tensions between Lasso and CONAIE have escalated for months and on October 4, a meeting at the presidential palace between the two sides resulted in a deadlock with no viable solution for bringing down fuel prices and oil exploration in Ecuador’s rainforest.
In October 2019, there was a 10-day nationwide shutdown after then-President Lenin Moreno implemented an austerity package that would have cut decades-old fuel subsidies.
Forced to backtrack by overwhelming social discontent, Moreno signed an executive decree allowing for gradual monthly increases in the price of fuel beginning in May 2020.
Lasso inherited the problem of fuel price rises, which has continued to shape Ecuador’s political, economic and social landscape.