Government calls Thursday’s protests ‘peaceful’ just hours before they turn violent; Public is tired of strike; Concern grows for Cuenca food supply
Commenting early Thursday afternoon, Government Minister Francisco Jiménez, said that day 11 of the nationwide indigenous strike was “the most peaceful” since protests began on June 13. “The marches in Quito have been orderly and without major incidents today,” he said. “This is how disputes between the government and social sectors should be expressed.”
An hour later, things turned violent when a crowd estimated at 2,000 to 3,000 attempted to force its way in the National Assembly building. Following warnings to disperse, police threw tear gas into the crowd and protesters responded with rocks, bottles and sticks of dynamite. According to first responders, there were dozens of injuries, most of them to police.
The violence followed a government deicsion to withdraw police and army personnel from Quito’s Casa del Cultura, turning the facility over to the leaders of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie). By late morning Thursday, hundreds of protesters had moved into the facility, where they heard speeches from strike leaders and planned an afternoon march to the historic district.
The withdrawal of government forces from the facility was one of the demands made by Conaie President Leonidas Iza Tuesday night.
National Police Commander Fausto Salinas repeated Jiménez’s appraisal of Thursday’s protests. “Most of the strike activity is now centered in Quito and we have received few reports of violence from the rest of the country,” he said. “The decision to remove police and army forces from the Casa del Cultura was made in the spirit of reconciliation in hopes we will soon begin a dialog to bring the strike to a conclusion.”
He said an estimated 20,000 protesters have arrived in Quito.
Beyond keeping peace in Quito, Salinas said that roadblockages around the country are the main concern of law enforcement. “We are seeing situations of hardship in many communities as food, fuel and other supplies have been blocked. We are able to provide safe passage for supply truck convoys but this is only satisfying a fraction of the the public need.”
He said convoys arrived Thursday morning in Riobamba, Ambato, Cuenca and Loja. “Unfortunately, after we clear the roadways for the trucks, protesters rebuild the blockages in many cases and we do not have the personnel to ensure the roads stay open. We are appealing to the leadership of Conaie to open the roads for the benefit of everyone.”
Jiménez suggested that there has been contact between the government and Conaie leadership about beginning negotiations but didn’t provide details. “There are various channels of communication open to us and we are taking advantage of them,” he said.
Cuenca is calm but concern grows about food supply
Cuenca saw fewer protest marches Thursday and traffic on city streets was light as schools and some businesses were closed. Municipal buses operated until about 3 p.m. when the Chamber of Transporation suspended service due to a fear of new protests. It said buses will resume their routes Friday morning. Two buses were detained briefly in the in the Playa del Guabo neighborhood early Thursday.
The provincial and municipal governments said a growing concern was the inability for fresh produce and meats to reach the city. The Supermaxi supermarkets were out of most fruits, vegetables and meat by mid-morning and managers said shipments from the distribution center were stalled between Guayaquil and Cuenca. Coral markets were better stocked since the chain’s southern distribution center is located in Cuenca.
Cristian Patiño, Director of Muncipal Markets said Cuenca’s eight large markets continue to operate but on a reduced scale. “Many of the vegetable and fruit stalls are closed since vendors cannot receive supplies because of roadblocks and the situation with poultry, meat and seafood is even worse,” he said. “We are within a matter of days of running out of most fresh food.”
Polls show Ecuadorians want a quick resolution of the strike
A composite of four public opinion polls, compiled by the University of San Francisco-Quito, shows 77 percent of Ecuadorians favor “immediate” negotiations to end the strike. 65 percent of the public opposes road closures and protests that disrupt basic services. On the other hand, 52 percent believe that Conaie’s demands are justified.