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.