Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Ecuador: Protests threaten - 'FTA signed, Palacio out'

Several weeks of turmoil have escalated as thousands of workers, students and indigenous groups have taken to Ecuador's streets and highways, bringing the country to a standstill, forcing the resignation of the interior minister and demanding an end to negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA) with the US.

The latest round of protests were sparked on March 6 when 4000 contract oil workers in Orellana province took industrial action demanding back-pay and secure employment, and opposing environmental damage from the US-based oil company Occidental Petroleum.

Since then, the protests have broadened rapidly to reject the proposed FTA with the US and demand a new constitution and the removal of US troops from the Eloy Alfaro air base at Manta. Protesters have also demanded the expulsion of Occidental from Ecuador and the nationalisation of the country's oil.

In the capital Quito, protesters occupied the metropolitan cathedral and broke through a police cordon to blockade the presidential palace. In rural areas, highways were blockaded across the central highlands and throughout the Amazonian regions.


President Alfredo Palacio, whose approval rating has dropped to 14%, has declared a state of emergency in the provinces of Napo, Orellana and Sucumbios, where hundreds of protesters seized the country's largest oilfields to force their demands, and brought oil production — which accounts for 43% of Ecuador's revenue — to its knees.

Ecuadorian trade unions have called for a rolling strike in opposition to government negotiation of the FTA, the final rounds of which start on March 23, and have demanded that a referendum be held on the issue. A chief concern is that the FTA threatens Ecuadorian jobs and culture, particularly in the agricultural sector and among the country's 30% indigenous population.

Luis Macas, the leader of the peak indigenous federation CONAIE, has called for a mass mobilisation to force Palacio not to sign the FTA, to convene a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, and to hold a referendum on the presence of US troops at the Eloy Alfaro air base.

Palacio is also under increasing pressure to respond to repeated incursions by the Colombian air force into Ecuadorian airspace. While supposedly in pursuit of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), they have also fired on Ecuadorian civilians.

If Palacio doesn't respond to these popular demands, he faces the risk of becoming the fourth Ecuadorian president to be overthrown in 10 years, following his predecessor Lucio Gutierrez, who fled the country amid protests last April.

As Mesias Tatamues, president of the trade union federation Cedoc-Cut, told Granma International on March 15: "We are going to show him that if he doesn't listen to us he will have to go home, because the general slogan, from the countryside to the city, is: FTA signed, Palacio out."

First published in Green Left Weekly, March 22, 2006.

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