President Lenín Moreno and leaders of Ecuador's indigenous peoples sat down Sunday evening to a nationally broadcast negotiating session aimed at defusing nearly two weeks of protests that have paralysed the economy and left seven dead and hundreds injured in clashes with police.
Sitting around a U-shaped table, Moreno and indigenous leaders took turns laying out their positions in talks mediated by the United Nations' chief representative in Ecuador and broadcast live online and on national TV.
Wearing the feathered headdress and face paint of the Achuar people of the Amazon rain forest, the president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations, Jaime Vargas, demanded the immediate cancellation of Moreno's Oct. 1 decree ending fuel subsidies as part of an International Monetary Fund austerity package.
"This isn't a demand of the indigenous people, it's the demand of the country," Vargas said. "We haven't come to form negotiating commissions."
Protests over the austerity package have blocked roads, shuttered businesses from dairies to flower farms and halved the country's oil production, forcing Ecuador to temporarily stop shipping its most important export.
In a shift from the heated language of the last 10 days of protests, each side praised the other's willingness to talk as they outlined their negotiating positions in the first hour before a short break.
Moreno insisted on the need to eliminate fuel subsidies, cut government spending and reduce a huge public debt, but said he would adjust his plans based on agreements reached with the indigenous leaders.
"These conclusions will, of course, be included in the new decree that will replace the previous one, that improves, that perfects it," he said. "Everything must be aimed at stabilising the country, at stabilising our severely degraded budget situation. Fundamentally, our agreements must be aimed at solving problems."
Meanwhile, hundreds of black-clad riot police drove protesters out of north-central Quito's Arbolito Park, the epicenter of the protests, and into surrounding streets.
The park had filled Friday with mostly peaceful protesters chanting against the government. But by Sunday afternoon the air was white with smoke from burning tires and tear gas after more than 24 hours of clashes between police and hard-core protesters armed with sharpened sticks and shields improvised out of satellite dishes or plywood. Adjoining streets were piled high with burned tires, tree branches and paving stones.
Volunteer medics from the fire department and medical schools waved white sheets on poles as they led downcast protesters out of the area to safety. Young men from Ecuador's indigenous minority and mixed race, or mestizo, majority, milled about on streets under the watch of police and a few dozen soldiers.
"I'm here to support the people," said Juan Taipe, an indigenous construction worker armed with a waist-high stick. "The government measures are really bad for poor people like me. The government wants something that we are rejecting."
The public ombudsman's office said Sunday that seven people had died in the protests, 1,340 had been hurt and 1,152 arrested. The government loosened a 24-hour curfew imposed Saturday, allowing people to move freely around the capital between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.
The protests have drawn thousands of Ecuadorians from outside the indigenous minority and many said they would continue demonstrating despite the negotiations.
Michael Limaico, an unemployed sign-maker, stood on a corner in the Carcelen neighborhood Saturday near a line of burned tires that blocked one of the Quito's main thoroughfares. Limaico said that he and his wife had struggled for years to feed and house their three children, ages 9 to 15, with their earnings of about $600 a month from odd jobs around northern Quito.
Then, prices of food and other basic goods rose sharply after Moreno removed fuel subsidies Oct. 2. Limaico said it had become impossible to make ends meet, and he had been protesting for days with neighbors who have blocked Diego de Vazquez Avenue as it passes through Carcelen.
"This isn't a protest of thieves, of gangsters," he said. "This is the people, and we're fed up."
Moreno said the masked protesters had nothing to do with the thousands of indigenous Ecuadorians who have protested for more than a week over the sudden rise in fuel prices, following on the heels of demonstrations by transport workers. Moreno blamed the violence on drug traffickers, organised crime and followers of former President Rafael Correa, who has denied allegations that he is trying tRead More – Source