Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Ecuador: Free trade protests grow stronger

Protests by unionists, students and indigenous activists against a free trade agreement (FTA) between Ecuador and the US have strengthened, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency in several states around the capital Quito on March 21.
Thousands of indigenous activists blockading roads and marching on the capital were prevented from reaching their target by the army. Food and fuel shortages are intensifying in Quito, and the main student federation, the FEUE, brought thousands of students out onto the streets on March 23.

The protests are against the proposed signing of the FTA, the final rounds of negotiations for which began on March 23. Indigenous groups and unions opposed to the FTA believe it will further harm Ecuador's poor majority and indigenous population, and are demanding a referendum on the agreement.

Protesters are also demanding the expulsion of US-based oil company Occidental Petroleum, accusing it of environmental damage, breaking the law and hiring the military to spy on activists in oil-producing regions. They also want a popular rewriting of the constitution, to allow more representative democracy.

The desperation of President Alfredo Palacio's government, which has faced more than 20 strikes in 11 months, is becoming increasingly obvious. Protesters have been attacked with tear gas and dozens arrested. Government spokespeople tried to accuse Hugo Chavez, president of neighbouring Venezuela, of funding the protests, despite admitting to having no evidence.

Gilberto Talahua, coordinator of the indigenous party Pachakutik, called the claims "irresponsible and unfounded". After the Venezuelan government demanded an explanation, Ecuadorian communication secretary Enrique Proano issued a letter of apology, reported on March 23.

Despite calling a temporary halt to the protests on March 24, Luis Macas, president of the chief Ecuadorean indigenous federation the CONAIE, has insisted that protests will continue until FTA negotiations are stopped.

In response to the government's failure to respond to the popular demands for a referendum, the CONAIE declared on March 24 that it will no longer recognise the government, accusing Palacio of working in a "dictatorial" manner, and will itself convene a popular consultation on the FTA in communities across the nation. 

CONAIE has called for renewed protests from March 31, urging the Ecuadorian people to "decide their own future".

First published in Green Left Weekly, March 29, 2006.

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