By Jeremiah Reardon
Ecuador has come to a halt with “The Strike.” Road blockades stop traffic around the
country due to sharp price increases for fuel. Drivers of taxis, city buses, and other
kinds of public transport walked off the job and paralyzed transport of goods, people and services. Schools closed. Lack of critical supplies in rural areas impose hardships on families and institutions.
In Cuenca, yellow taxis blocked major thoroughfares. Drivers joined by protestors
erected street barricades made of stone and tree branches. In response, President Lenin
Moreno declared a national state of emergency and sent out the army. Military planes
fly shipments to restock stores.
Belinda and I went grocery shopping the afternoon of that order. At Supermaxi, happy
to have found the store open, we only purchased what we could carry home. Out of
service taxis parked in the grocery pickup lane and lined the street, around the corner
from the Province of Azuay Courthouse. Idle cabbies relaxed and exchanged news.
We hauled our things home, most of the items in my backpack; the rest, in Belinda’s
basket. The kilometer-walk back proved a chore for Belinda. However, peace reigned in
the neighborhood. We enjoyed the unhurried scene of people on foot joined by cyclists on bikes. With the exception of motorcycles, no traffic ran on major streets, blocked by
haphazardly parked taxis.
That evening I set out for a concert at the University of Cuenca. Curious to see if the
event would take place in the midst of the strike, I wore a jacket and cap on a clear
evening. Traffic was Sunday-light on Remigio Crespo, the divided lane in our neighborhood south of the campus.
Most restaurants and shops had closed. An exception was Pizza Hut where delivery
motorcycles parked outside its door. A young woman bearing a yellow “Glovo” insulated
box hopped on the back of one, and her driver turned down Remigio.
A block from the campus, yellow cabs occupied the street which fronts Hospital Santa
Ines. Drivers huddled quietly, glancing at iPhones for messages and news updates. When
do they get to eat? I pondered as I walked past closed restaurants.
To my disappointment, Teatro Carlos Cueva Tamariz’s gate and doors were shut. A
couple of security guards patrolled out front, its iconic hummingbird-sculpture fountain
turned off. Bummer! I thought, having looked forward to the show.
Disappointed with the cancellation, I headed to El Centro for the first of four
consecutive days of free Vivaldi concerts by Orquesta Sinfonica Cuenca, our state-
supported treasure. The opening program had been scheduled for the Old Cathedral at
the main plaza.
A few years ago, Belinda and I encountered a protest march over government policies
by business owners, students and indigenous workers. We had planned to meet our friend and attend a concert of international music at Old Cathedral when we encountered skirmishes.
Our taxi dropped us at the sealed-off intersection. We detoured several blocks on
foot. Demonstrators chanted and fed barrel-bonfires. Police on horseback kept protesters
at bay in front of the Mayor’s office.
At the plaza surrounded by metal barriers, we joined a line for the show in a narrow
cordon. Eventually, a couple hundred of us fanatics filed in, with the doors promptly
closed behind us. Checking in by cellphone, our brave friend avoided the combatants
and persuaded security to admit her.
Sounds of the demonstrations occasionally pierced stained glass windows built into
masonry walls. It served to add a sense of community in the high-domed museum as Latin American melodies played to appreciative applause.
On my solitary walk to town from the campus, no one passed me over the couple of
blocks approaching the bridge over Rio Tomebamba. Rubble and stones from the river
littered the street. Protestors had built a series of blockades. Extinguished fires blackened
the cobblestone street.
The illuminated temperature/time sign across from darkened multi-story Banco de
Pichincha flashed 8 p.m., time for the symphony to begin. Another stone barricade fronted the bridge. I climbed the steps of the landmark Barranco (cliff) to see a pile of stacked tree branches at Calle Larga.
Lights shone bright over the strip featuring night spots. I walked for a block past
restaurants whose hawkers ignored me. Then, I turned left in the direction of
Parque Calderon. Pedestrians had the street to themselves except for the occasional
motorcyclist. The closer to the Old Cathedral, the more I sensed that the concert had been cancelled. Acrid teargas smoke got my attention. My friend Steve later related to me, “We wanted to go to the Vivaldi concert. But once we came to Calle Sucre and smelled the tear gas, we turned back.”
A couple of blocks before the plaza, onlookers watched policemen and soldiers take
positions. Percussive sound like drum beats caught my attention. Seeking its source, I
warily approached the spot where Belinda and I had been dropped by the taxi
unceremoniously three years ago.
A masked soldier backed past me with his recoiled gun raised high. To the right, tear gas
smoke arose, illuminated by street lamps over shimmering silhouettes. An outsider, I felt
unsafe within this eerie zone. Shuttered businesses and doorways contributed to
diminished street-lighting which heightened my sense of alarm.
At the plaza, gates and doors to the Old Cathedral were shut and security patrolled, a
replay of the scene at the campus. Thank goodness possession of weapons is tightly
controlled in Ecuador for I walked among soldiers and policemen, many in combat gear, at this nexus of protest.
In front of City Hall, a woman dished out hot food onto paper plates for the men.
Troops surrounded a large coffee urn. They scattered across the steps in small groups,
eating and chatting on the broad steps.
Under a fleeting quarter-moon, I retreated to Rio Tomebamba and the Inca Bar for
Thursday Night Football. The glow of the cabin’s second story lights assured camaraderie
and warmth, a reward for venturing into The Strike.
Jeremiah Reardon and his wife Belinda retired in 2013 and moved to Cuenca from Monterey, California. His interests include carpentry, furniture-making, acting and photography. Together, he and Belinda enjoy the Cuenca symphony, “ferias,” the “Spoken Word,” and art gallery openings. Click here to read his blog.