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Expat Life

Gringo newcomers witness their first political protest in Cuenca

By Walter Panko

August 13th was scheduled to be National Strike Day in Ecuador and my wife and I didn’t know what to expect. We had arrived in Cuenca only 10 days earlier, moving into temporary housing in the historic district while we searched for something permanent.chl guest

Everything near our hotel was normal that afternoon, and we had a great vantage point of the street below from our third-floor window. As you probably know, in Cuenca the North American first floor doesn’t count — it’s called planta baja — so our “second-floor apartment” is actually on the third floor, giving us a great view of the interplay between foot traffic and cars passing below us.

Walter Panko
Walter Panko

The older lady we saw everyday on the sidewalk selling lottery tickets, was chanting her call to customers. The sidewalks were crowded with the usual hustle, a mix of casual pedestrians, delivery men, and folks with something to sell. The street vendors had set up their stands so passersbys could see their wares and, hopefully, buy enough to make for a profitable day.

As usual, there seems to be no concept of “jay-walking” in Cuenca. “Walk” and “Don’t Walk” signals are just suggestions here. What seems to be chaos to the North American eye is actually a carefully choreographed dance in which the drivers and the pedestrians seem to know exactly who has to give the right-of-way and who doesn’t. While it can be dangerous for a newly arrived Gringo to attempt to cross a street, the locals do it safely and with impunity. It’s an amazing dance to watch — from the safe perch by the window above.

Protest march proceeds through El Centro.
Protest march proceeds through El Centro.

The normalcy of the morning was challenged when a group of police suddenly arrived and set a cordon across Luis Cordero at the intersection with Gran Colombia. The police, wearing bright green vests and outfitted with transparent shields, took up positions stretching from the building on one side of the street to the building on the other side, blocking access to Parque Calderon a block away. As they waited for action, the police were relaxed, resting their forearms on the shields, talking to their fellow officers.

The next deviation from normalcy was the arrival of mounted police. The officers on horseback were wearing body armor, face shields and armored gloves. Moreover, the horses were covered with armor from shoulder to tail, had face shields covering their eyes and snouts, and wore protective boots over their hoofs. The mounted officers took their place directly behind the phalanx of foot officers.

It was interesting to see that the majority of the police had no firearms. They were armed only with night-sticks and mace. The only side arms I saw were on an army officer who appeared to be an observer, and two dismounted motorcycle cops.

A helicopter circled overhead and it soon became apparent that it was monitoring the movement of a group of protesters heading our direction.

Suddenly, everything became exciting. The protesters, led by two motorcycle police officers clearing the traffic, approached from the east on Gran Colombia toward the police line. Another group of police, with green vests and riot shields like those on the cordon, walked on the outside of the protesters to make sure they stayed in the street and didn’t crowd onto the sidewalk.

A protester with a megaphone called out a slogan and the marchers repeated it, enthusiastically shouting their response. The protesters carried flags and banners that fluttered in the morning breeze as they moved toward the barricade. There were men, women and children among the ranks of the protesters. Everyone seemed to be involved in the shouting and flag waving. No one seemed to be out of control.

The noise increased as the protesters marched closer to the police line. One man in the march carried two old car tires. Apparently, it was his job to set them afire if the time seemed right.

The excitement built as the marchers neared the police line that blocked entry to the park. The police raised their shields and held their position until the first of the marchers were face to face with them. The rest of the marchers crowded into the intersection.

At that point, as amazing as it is to those used to North American protests that often explode into violence, the activities appeared to follow a logical but peaceful script. Everyone seemed to know what to do.

The marchers shouted their slogans. They milled around the intersection without challenging the police. The police stood patiently in place doing their job without adding tension to the situation. Everyone, it seemed, realized that the protesters had accomplished their mission of letting the government know they were angry, but not violent. Then, they turned and marched north on Luis Cordero, away from the park and the police cordon.

Even during the “standoff,” uninvolved pedestrians walked through the intersection, through the protesters and the police barricade, and continued on their way along the blocked-off street. The police and the protesters knew their jobs and didn’t drag the un-involved into their drama.

After 10 minutes of noise and excitement, everything became as it was before. The man carrying the car tires didn’t ignite them. The protesters didn’t attack the police. The police didn’t attack the protesters. Street life returned to normal. Mothers carrying babies walked through the intersection, ignoring the traffic lights. Vendors resumed hawking their wares. The old lady selling lottery tickets took up her chant again.

The only evidence of what had taken place was the droppings from the mounted police horses that remained nearby. And that was soon cleaned up by a sanitation worker.

The next morning we learned that not all protests that afternoon followed the same rules. It was reported that at least one confrontation between police and the protesters resulted in pushing and shoving by protesters in an effort to breach a barricade. The report said that police used tear gas to break up the crowd and restore order.

Obviously, there was more than one scenario taking place during the protests. We just happened to be lucky enough to have a front-row seat to a peaceful one.

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Walt Panko and his wife, Karen, have recently moved to Cuenca from the U.S. He is a retired educator and business owner looking forward to adapting to and adopting the local culture. He is experiencing life in Cuenca through “Gringo Eyes” and sharing some of his observations.