Ecuador Roiled by Protests Set Off by Rising Fuel and Food Prices

QUITO, Ecuador — For more than a week, the Andean nation of Ecuador has been buffeted by at times violent protests over a spike in prices for fuel, food and other basic necessities, driven by a global inflation that is causing similar levels of frustration across Latin America.

The country’s capital, Quito, has been virtually paralyzed by demonstrators blocking main roads, burning tires and clashing with the police, throwing rocks at officers who have responded by shooting tear gas. Clashed erupted again on Thursday.

The marches and rallies, which have been led by Indigenous groups, pose a significant challenge for the right-wing government of President Guillermo Lasso, who is struggling to revive an economy battered by the pandemic.

The protests started last week in rural Ecuador when a powerful group, 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 goods and more spending on education.

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

Demonstrators marching from the Central University to the House of Ecuadorian Culture in Quito.Credit…Veronica Lombeida/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The unrest has left at least three dead and nearly 100 people wounded, according to numbers compiled by the Alliance of Organizations for Human Rights, a national group, and has pushed 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 city of Puyo to protesters wielding guns, spears and explosives. Government officials also reported that 18 officers were missing following the clashes, and others had been wounded.

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

The turmoil in Ecuador reflects how inflation is adding to the challenges of a country where the pandemic deepened chronic poverty and inequality. More than 32 percent of the population lives in poverty, earning less than $3 a day.

Similar dynamics have also fed discontent throughout Latin America, from Chile to Peru to Honduras, with people demanding that governments find ways to reduce the cost of everyday goods.

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“The people of Ecuador are facing poverty,” said Leonidas Iza, the leader of Conaie. “There’s inequality and injustice, and what has awoken in Ecuadoreans is indignation.”

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

“President Lasso’s regrettable decision to repress the protests is provoking a human rights crisis,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, the Americas director for Amnesty International.

A police officer throwing a tear gas canister at protesters.Credit…Dolores Ochoa/Associated Press

Government officials said they were willing to discuss the concerns raised by protest leaders, but added that the country cannot tolerate violence.

“Let’s not confuse the legitimate right to protest with violent protest,” Juan Carlos Holguín, Ecuador’s foreign minister, said in an interview. “They have caused chaos, caused terror and caused deaths in our country.”

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

“We are here because everything is so expensive right 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 take part in a demonstration on Wednesday.

She stood in a peaceful group of hundreds of people chanting, blowing horns and waving Ecuadorean and rainbow Indigenous flags.

The increase in global oil prices has benefited Ecuador since fuel is one of its chief exports, said Nora S. Brito, an analyst with International Crisis Group, but so far that has not trickled down to those most in need.

Protesters taking cover behind makeshift shields.Credit…Dolores Ochoa/Associated Press

“When oil prices are 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.”

Mr. Holguín said the government, which has been in power since last year, has done its best to provide for its citizens, including vaccinating millions against Covid-19 in a short period of time.

But he also said there was only so much the government can do to address problems that have plagued the country for generations.

“In one year of government, it’s impossible to change structural problems,” Mr. Holguín said. “But our government is well on its way to providing the well-being that all of us need.”

The government has publicly reached out to Conaie, but the organization has declined to hold discussions, saying it does not want to to talk until the state stops responding to protests with violence and agrees to its demands.

A man being treated for the effects of tear gas.Credit…Santiago Arcos/Reuters

Mr. Iza, the Conaie leader, 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 one key demand — using 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 have been peaceful, some have devolved into looting, with protesters puncturing the wheels of public buses and shooting at soldiers and police officers, according to the government.

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

The protests have caused more than $110 million in economic damage, according to the government.

Police officers in riot gear have fired tear gas at protesters, leading to the death of one protester who human rights groups say was hit in the head by a tear-gas canister. The police say the man was handling an explosive device and it went off.

The protests ignited last week in rural Ecuador and have spread to the capital.Credit…Santiago Arcos/Reuters

The demonstrations are the biggest the country has seen since 2019, when tens of thousands of people marched on Quito, demanding that the government reinstate a long-running subsidy on oil prices that the government said cost $1.4 billion a year.

Mr. Lasso’s predecessor, Lenín Moreno, reinstated the subsidy, and later shifted to a pricing system that fluctuates with global markets.

After fuel prices started rising last year, Mr. Lasso ordered that they be fixed, 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 that the country may face an extended period of unrest.

“It looks like we’re going to see even more of an escalation,” he said, “This level of violence in the Ecuadorean society is showing 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 need to buy is too expensive,’’ she said.

José María León Cabrera reported from Quito, Ecuador, and Megan Janetsky reported from Bogotá.

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