QUITO, Ecuador (AP) – President LenÃn Moreno and leaders of Ecuador’s indigenous peoples sat down Sunday evening to a nationally broadcast negotiating session aimed at defusing nearly two weeks of protests that have paralyzed the economy and left seven dead and hundreds injured in clashes with police.
Sitting around a U-shaped table, Moreno and indigenous leaders took turns laying out their positions in talks mediated by the United Nations’ chief representative in Ecuador and broadcast live online and on national TV.
Wearing the feathered headdress and face paint of the Achuar people of the Amazon rain forest, the president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations, Jaime Vargas, demanded the immediate cancellation of Moreno’s Oct. 1 decree ending fuel subsidies as part of an International Monetary Fund austerity package.
“This isn’t a demand of the indigenous people, it’s the demand of the country,” Vargas said. “We haven’t come to form negotiating commissions.”
Protests over the austerity package have blocked roads, shuttered businesses from dairies to flower farms and halved the country’s oil production, forcing Ecuador to temporarily stop shipping its most important export. In a shift from the heated language of the last 10 days of protests, each side praised the other’s willingness to talk as they outlined their negotiating positions in the first hour before a short break.
“Mr. President, you’re showing that you’re a person of dialogue,” Vargas told Moreno. “We are millions asking you to wager on peace, for the stability of the country.”
Other indigenous demands included higher taxes on the wealthy and the firing of the interior and defense ministers over their handling of the protests.
Moreno insisted on the need to eliminate fuel subsidies, cut government spending and reduce a huge public debt, but said he would adjust his plans based on agreements reached with the indigenous leaders.
“The decisions taken by the president of the republic must be positive for you, must be agreed upon with you,” Moreno said. “These conclusions will, of course, be included in the new decree that will replace the previous one, that improves, that perfects it.
“Everything must be aimed at stabilizing the country, at stabilizing our severely degraded budget situation.”
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.
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.”
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, following on the heels of demonstrations by transport workers. Moreno 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 JosÃ© 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.
Associated Press writer Gonzalo Solano contributed to this report.