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Ecuadorans block roads on Day 2 of fuel price protests

(Ecuadorans are protesting amid a 60-day state of emergency declared to deal with rising violent crime. Photo: AFP)

QUITO, (AFP):- Indigenous and rural Ecuadorans blocked roads in several provinces Wednesday on the second day of protest against soaring fuel prices amid a countrywide state of emergency.

On Tuesday, 37 people were arrested, and five police officers, a journalist and at least one demonstrator were injured in the largest protests since conservative President Guillermo Lasso took office in May.

“Out with Lasso, out!” the protesters demanded Wednesday as they blocked key roads.

“The government has messed up, pushing fuel prices up all the time,” protester Dennis Viteri, a 28-year-old textile worker, told AFP at Calderon, northeast of the capital Quito.

Viteri and others used soil, tree trunks and burning tires to block portions of the Pan-American highway, which connects Quito with Colombia.

As AFP looked on, more trees were being felled on a nearby hilltop with which to strengthen the barricade.

Ecuador’s public safety department said there were also roadblocks in the provinces of Imbabura, Cotopaxi, Tungurahua and Chimborazo.

On Tuesday, protesters had disrupted traffic in five of Ecuador’s 24 provinces, and vowed to continue their show of discontent with the new center-right government’s economic policies.

– Violence, hardship –

“We ask the government to keep the fuel price fair,” said Juan Chusig, an unemployed man dragging branches to reinforce a barricade north of Quito.

“It is hurting the people.”

Reducing fuel subsidies, which began under former president Lenin Moreno, is one way for Ecuador to shrink spending in exchange for loans from the International Monetary Fund.

But the price increases bite as Ecuador battles economic hardship worsened by the coronavirus pandemic.

Poverty now affects about 47 percent of Ecuadorans, and nearly a third do not have full-time work.

Last Friday, Lasso announced another 12 percent increase in fuel prices, which have nearly doubled since last year — bringing the price of diesel to $1.90 for a gallon (3.8 liters), and that of petrol to $2.55.

Lasso vowed this would be the last increase, but could not assuage simmering anger in a country that exports oil but imports much of the fuel it consumes.

The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie), which called the protests, wants the price capped at $1.50 for diesel and $2.10 for petrol.

– State of emergency –

“We have nothing to survive on, the pandemic has hit us too hard. We are trying to… have a dignified life as promised by President Lasso,” said Hermelinda Pilaguano, 51, in the San Francisco de Oyacoto neighborhood of Quito where protesters were stoking fires.

Officials said about 1,500 indigenous people, students and workers marched on the capital Tuesday, where rock-throwing protesters clashed with police, who responded with tear gas.

On Wednesday, the Fundamedios press freedom body said eight journalists had been assaulted over the two days of protest.

An Ecuadoran journalist died while covering a demonstration Wednesday, it added, after falling off the back of a van while filming.

Lasso declared a 60-day state of emergency last week to tackle rising crime and violence blamed on dueling drug traffickers in the country nestled between the world’s two biggest cocaine producers: Colombia and Peru.

The state of emergency, decreed after some 240 gang-aligned inmates were killed in horrific prison clashes since January, allows for deployment of troops to help fight a crime wave that last week also claimed Ecuador’s 200-meter sprint world bronze medalist Alex Quinonez in a shooting in Guayaquil.

No limitations were imposed on gatherings or protests.

On top of Ecuador’s many challenges, Lasso faces a parliamentary investigation over Pandora Papers revelations that he allegedly hid millions in assets overseas.

Indigenous people represent 7.4 percent of Ecuador’s 17.7 million inhabitants, and Conaie is credited with helping topple three presidents between 1997 and 2005.

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