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As calm returns to Cuenca and other cities, police and soldiers move to clear highways

Ecuador’s interior ministry says it is mobilizing tens-of-thousands of national police and army troops to clear roadblocks that have paralyzed travel in much of the country. Manned by campesino and indigenous groups protesting economic measures announced last week by President Lenin Moreno, roadblocks have been set up in 14 of the country’s 24 provinces.

Cuenca residents clean up streets from last week’s protests.

Although protests in major cities, including Cuenca, have ended — at least for now — and most urban transportation has been restored, it was unclear as of early Monday when inter-provincial bus service would resume.

Also affected by the road closures were shipments of food, fuel and other goods around the country. The interior ministry said it was planning a military escort service, if necessary, to guarantee that delivery vehicles carrying critical supplies could pass through the roadblocks.

Ecuador’s ECU 911 service is maintaining a list of road closures it says is updated on a continuing basis.

On Sunday, Moreno proposed meetings with protesters blocking highways but his overture was rejected. “We refuse to engage in any discussions until all of the government’s labor and fuel changes have been rescinded,” said Leonidas Iza, president of the Indigenous and Peasant Movement of Cotopaxi who is leading a march on Quito. Some protesting groups are demanding an end to mining operations as well.

Residents of Saraguro occupy a roadblock that prevents access between Cuenca and Loja. (El Comercio)

Although the national strike by taxi and bus unions was called off on Friday, there was confusion over the weekend about how much fares would be allowed to increase. In Guayaquil, some urban buses had hiked prices by 10 cents but city officials said the increase was illegal. In Cuenca, where fares are paid by magnetic card, not cash, the mayor’s office said that any fare increase is restricted by an agreement the previous city government made in 2018 with bus companies.

The federal government said urban bus fares would be allowed to rise five to 10 cents but the decision was up to municipalities.

On Saturday and Sunday, commercial and social life in Cuenca returned to normal as there was no recurrence of the Thursday and Friday student protests. Groups from the University of Cuenca and the University of Azuay carried out clean-up projects in several locations in the historic district. Although some vandalism resulted from last week’s protests, city officials said it was relatively minor, unlike the theft and destruction of property that occurred in Guayaquil, Riobamba and Quito.

After announcing Saturday that elementary and high school classes would resume Monday, the Ministry of Education did an about-face Sunday night, saying schools would remain closed.

Ecuador’s Defense Minister said that police and military troops will be restrained but firm as they to remove roadblocks. “We will do everything possible to avoid violence but warn protesters not to provoke the troops,” Oswaldo Jarrín said Sunday. “They have a job to do, which is to enforce the law.”

Jarrín cited the violence that erupted at a roadblock in Saraguro in 2015 as military troops moved against anti-government protesters. “I hope there is not a repeat of that incident,” he said. The clash left several troops and protesters injured and resulted in a number of arrests.

Most Cuenca mercados were adequately stocked with produce and meat over the weekend but some shelves at the city’s supermarkets, including Supermaxi, were empty. Supermaxi issued an apology, saying that the lack of vegetables, fruit and meat was the result of exceptionally heavy shopping traffic as well as difficulties encountered by delivery trucks.