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Mayor orders city back to work after violent holiday, laments historic district vandalism

Cuenca Mayor Pedro Palacios said city government will be open for business on Thursday, a day after a nationwide strike led to violent clashes between protesters and police in the historic district. In addition to the strike, Wednesday was a national holiday honoring Guayaquil’s independence.

Cuenca Mayor Pedro Palacios

Due the size of the protest crowd, Palacios said that El Centro suffered additional damage to that already reported. “We won’t know the full extent of it until Thursday but I have seen pictures and videos of many acts of vandalism,” he said. Most of it, he said, involved removal of cobblestones and street curbs as well as the chipping away of building masonry by rock-throwers.

Palacios said Wednesday’s protest was the largest of the week, and hopes the worst is over.

Videos posted on various WhatsApp, Youtube and Facebook sites Wednesday night, showed streets littered with rubble. One widely circulated video shows traffic lights collapsing into the street after an armored police vehicle hit a cable erected by protesters. Others show young men dislodging rocks from a fountain at San Francisco Plaza.

Wednesday protesters in a cloud of tear gas.

Reacting to criticism from statements he made in two earlier interviews, Palacios said he supports the right of peaceful protest. “Yes, it is a right that I acknowledge and believe in,” he said. “I did not intend to confuse peaceful demonstrators with vandals and thugs. I am, however, very concerned about criminal acts that damage the heritage of our city and I will pursue those who commit these acts.”

He added that the city’s video surveillance cameras and facial recognition software at ECU 911 centers will help identify offenders for future prosecution.

Palacios declared a state of emergency for the city Wednesday night. Although the move has no immediate impact, it gives the mayor authority to make decisions without a vote of the municipal council if he deems them necessary.

Several injuries were reported in Wednesday’s protests, most from rocks thrown at police that hit protesters instead. One of the victims was a reporter for the El Mercurio newspaper who was hit in the face.

Other Wednesday developments

After returning to Quito from his temporary headquarters in Guayaquil, President Lenin Moreno said that negotiations with indigenous groups, transport and labor unions are off to a good start. “We are making progress and I have signaled the government’s willingness to maintain a dialog,” he said Wednesday night. For the first time he did not insist that the economic measures he announced last week were non-negotiable. “Many options are on the table and, without a doubt, I believe our problem is going to be solved very soon,” he said.

Negotiations are being coordinated by Quito’s United Nations office, administrators from three universities and the Catholic church.

A fire burns near a police barricade on Calle Sucre Wednesday afternoon. (El Mercurio)

Moreno praised indigenous and campesino marchers for maintaining a peaceful protest during Wednesday’s national strike in Quito. He also applauded their efforts of keeping “outside agitators” from infiltrating their ranks, a reference to his claim that supporters of former president Rafael Correa were attempting to orchestrate a “coup.” Some indigenous marchers in Quito carried signs proclaiming, “Ni Moreno, Ni Correa,” (neither Moreno or Correa), indicating their displeasure for current and past presidents.

● The government repeated Wednesday that it is developing plans to deliver LP gas to Cuenca by military convoy if necessary although it has offered no timetable or details. The energy ministry says it hopes the roadblocks will be dismantled soon.

● Some food trucks have negotiated passage through roadblocks while others have been blocked, according to sellers at city markets. Coral supermarkets have contracted with the military to deliver food by military aircraft.

● Farmers are appealing to the government to help get their products to Cuenca markets, saying they are suffering huge financial losses due to road blockages.

● Classes at public and private schools and universities are suspended again for Thursday.

● Taxis, which operated from Saturday through Tuesday, were again off duty on Wednesday due to the national strike. They are back on the streets Thursday morning.

● Cuenca’s city bus companies and cooperatives have announced they will resume service at a new fare, 40 cents. The municipal council is rejecting the fare, claiming the the federal government has no right to authorize it. It is asking the mayor to call an emergency meeting to protest the hike.

● For information about road closures, click here.

● For general strike information tune in to Radio La Voz del Tomebamba, 1070 AM and 102.1 FM, or check their Facebook page; or follow online news on El Comercio; El Telegrafo; El Merucurio.