An anti-government protester carries a container of water, with an active tear gas canister inside, after the canister was fired by police during a military curfew near the National Assembly in Quito, Ecuador, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019. Deadly protests against a plan to remove fuel subsidies as part of an International Monetary Fund austerity package have gone on for more than a week. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

Indigenous leaders, officials head to Ecuador protest talks

October 13, 2019 - 7:06 pm

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Residents of Ecuador's capital picked their way through piles of burned tires and chunks of pavement Sunday as the government and indigenous protesters headed to negotiations aimed at defusing more than a week of demonstrations that have paralyzed the nation's economy.

Protests against a plan to remove fuel subsidies as part of an International Monetary Fund austerity package have left seven dead and halved oil production, forcing Ecuador to temporarily stop shipping its most important export.

Negotiations were set to begin Sunday between President Lenín Moreno's government and groups including the Confederation of Indigenous Nations, which has brought thousands of indigenous protesters to the capital and organized anti-austerity protests across the country, from the Andes high sierra to the Amazon rainforest. The United Nations and Ecuadorian Bishops' Conference announced a 3 p.m. start, but later said the talks had been delayed due to logistical problems.

Moreno said his government would address some concerns of protesters, studying ways to ensure resources reach rural areas and offering compensation for those who lost earnings because of the recent upheaval.

Meanwhile, hundreds of black-clad riot police drove protesters out of north-central Quito's Arbolito Park, the epicenter of the protests, and into surrounding streets. The park had filled Friday with mostly peaceful protesters chanting against the government. But by Sunday afternoon the air was white with smoke from burning tires and tear gas after more than 24 hours of clashes between police and hard-core protesters armed with sharpened sticks and shields improvised out of satellite dishes or plywood. Adjoining streets were piled high with burned tires, tree branches and paving stones hauled from nearby construction sites.

Volunteer medics from the fire department and medical schools waved white sheets on poles as they led downcast protesters out of the area to safety. Young men from Ecuador's indigenous minority and mixed race, or mestizo, majority, milled about on streets under the watch of police and a few dozen soldiers.

"I'm here to support the people," said Juan Taipe, an indigenous construction worker armed with a waist-high stick. "The government measures are really bad for poor people like me. The government wants something that we are rejecting."

The public ombudsman's office said Sunday that seven people had died in the protests, 1,340 had been hurt and 1,152 arrested. The government loosened a 24-hour curfew imposed Saturday, allowing people to move freely around the capital between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.

The protests have drawn thousands of Ecuadorians from outside the indigenous minority and many said they would continue demonstrating despite the negotiations.

Michael Limaico, an unemployed sign-maker, stood on a corner in the Carcelen neighborhood Saturday near a line of burned tires that blocked one of the Quito's main thoroughfares. Limaico said that he and his wife had struggled for years to feed and house their three children, ages 9 to 15, with their earnings of about $600 a month from odd jobs around northern Quito.

Then, prices of food and other basic goods rose sharply after Moreno removed fuel subsidies Oct. 2. Limaico said it had become impossible to make ends meet, and he had been protesting for days with neighbors who have blocked Diego de Vazquez Avenue as it passes through Carcelen.

"This isn't a protest of thieves, of gangsters," he said. "This is the people, and we're fed up."

Demonstrations in Quito took three distinct forms Saturday, the most tumultuous so far. Thousands of indigenous people protested outside the National Assembly in the city center. Young people, both white and mestizo from inside Quito and indigenous from the countryside, fought police with stones, gasoline bombs and improvised mortars. Several dozen broke into the national comptroller's office, smashing windows and setting the building afire.

Elsewhere in the city, groups of masked men attacked media offices, setting fires before they were driven off by police.

Lastly, across Quito, groups of neighbors — indigenous, white and mixed race — blocked streets, burned tires and banged pots and pans to protest Moreno's austerity package. Others, tired of the chaos, banged pots and pans to protest the demonstrations and call for a return to normality.

"Every citizen that disagrees with government decisions can protest in the right way but let's not mix that up with vandalism and robbery," said James Baez, a retired employee of an American tire company. He said he supported Moreno and the decision to impose a curfew, the first since a series of coups in the 1960s and '70s.

Moreno said the masked protesters had nothing to do with the thousands of indigenous Ecuadorians who have protested for more than a week over the sudden rise in fuel prices. He blamed the violence on drug traffickers, organized crime and followers of former President Rafael Correa, who has denied allegations that he is trying to topple Moreno's government.

Moreno served Correa as vice president before he become president and the two men went through a bitter split as Moreno pushed to curb public debt amassed on Correa's watch.

Foreign Minister José Valencia told The Associated Press on Sunday that the Moreno administration believed Correa, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and Colombia's far-left FARC and ELN guerrillas are working to destabilize Ecuador. He offered no proof beyond the fact that a handful of Correa loyalists and some Venezuelan nationals had been detained during the protests.

"They have a political agenda and the violence and chaos that they sowed yesterday in the city, a coordinated chaos, lets us see this political agenda," Valencia said.

Correa and Maduro have denied involvement in the protests.

Ecuador, a former OPEC member, was left deeply in debt by a decade of high spending by Correa's government and the international decline in oil prices. Moreno is raising taxes, liberalizing labor laws and cutting public spending in order to get more than $4 billion in emergency financing from the IMF.

As part of that plan, Moreno's elimination of subsidies is driving the most popular variety of gasoline from $1.85 to $2.39 a gallon and diesel from $1.03 to $2.30. Panic and speculation sent prices soaring, with costs of some products doubling or more.

In the country's Amazon oil fields, protests at installations, described by some government officials as attacks, have halted or slowed production.

Ecuador had been producing 430,000 barrels a day, but that had dropped to 176,029 barrels by Sunday, said an official at state oil producer Petroamazonas, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information. The drop in output has led to a loss of about $14 million a day, the official said.

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Associated Press writer Gonzalo Solano contributed to this report.

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