QUITO – Ecuador’s government declared a state of emergency on Thursday after bus and truck drivers blocked roads to protest a sharp rise in gasoline and diesel prices triggered by an end to decades-old fuel subsidies.
The unrest came two days after market-friendly President Lenin Moreno announced an end to the subsidies – part of series of budget-cutting measures linked to a $4.2 billion loan deal with the International Monetary Fund – and also unveiled a proposed labor and tax-code overhaul that has since been sent to Congress.
In announcing the end to the fuel subsidies, Moreno said the country could no longer afford a program that cost more than $1.3 billion a year.
The withdrawal of the subsidies is expected to cause the price of diesel to climb from $1.03 per gallon to $2.27 per gallon, while the country’s most widely used gasoline (known as “extra”) is to rise from $1.85 per gallon to $2.30 per gallon.
Moreno made the state of emergency announcement as demonstrations against the end to the fuel subsidies were roiling the Ecuadorian capital.
“With the goal of safeguarding citizens’ safety and avoiding chaos, I’ve declared a state of emergency at the national level,” Moreno said at the Carondelet presidential palace.
“Rights can be demanded without jeopardizing those that are truly essential to the country’s progress: job creation, education, free mobility, people’s safety,” the president said.
But Jaime Vargas, head of Ecuador’s Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie), rejected the state of emergency decree and said the protests will continue.
“(We express) our wholesale rejection of this declaration because it runs counter to the rights of the Ecuadorian people,” he told EFE, adding that his organization will issue a call for an “indefinite mobilization.”
Interior Minister Maria Paula Romo said for her part in a press conference that public transportation was partially shut down and noted that the protests had forced the government to cancel classes at private and public elementary schools and high schools to guarantee students’ safety.
“It’s the desire of the president and of all Ecuadorians that calm be restored as soon as possible so (the country can) get back to working and producing,” she said, adding that 19 people were arrested in the demonstrations and stating that actions that suspend public services are crimes punishable by up to three years in prison.
She added that Moreno’s decision authorizes “the coordinated use of the National Police and armed forces in cases where it is necessary to clear the roads.”
Without going into details about what actions the state of emergency entails, Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrin said it encompassed the entire national territory.
During Thursday’s protests, hundreds of university students broke past the security barriers that surrounded the Carondelet palace and faced off with anti-riot police, who responded with tear gas.
Demonstrators on Quito’s north and south sides continually put up barricades using burning tires and sticks, defying the police’s repeated attempts to clear the roads.
That situation was repeated in several other cities, with members of indigenous communities joining the protests by bus and truck drivers angered over the elimination of the fuel subsidies, which had been in effect for 40 years.