Quito, Ecuador - Police used tear gas Tuesday to disperse hundreds of Ecuadorans taking part in a ninth day of Indigenous-led fuel price protests the military described as a 'grave threat.'
Some 500 protesters among thousands who arrived in Quito from around the country in recent days were teargassed as they blockaded a street in the capital with burning tree branches.
They quickly regrouped to march with watery eyes on the CCE culture center - traditionally used by Indigenous people to launch protests but requisitioned by police over the weekend to use as a base.
'The objective of today is to retake the Casa de la Cultura,' protester Wilson Mazabanda told AFP before police used mace for a second time to break up the group amid rising tensions and little hope of a negotiated peace.
Earlier Tuesday, Defense Minister Luis Lara said Ecuador's democracy 'faces a grave threat from... people who are preventing the free movement of the majority of Ecuadorans' with widespread road blockades.
Flanked by the heads of the army, navy and air force, Lara warned the armed forces 'will not allow attempts to break the constitutional order or any action against democracy and the laws of the republic.'
For nine days, Ecuadorans have burnt tires and blockaded roads to denounce the rising cost of living in a dollarized economy struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic in a context of global inflation.
The crisis in a nutshell:
Who are the instigators?
The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie) called the protest to demand fuel price cuts.
Indigenous Ecuadorans, its base, comprise more than a million of Ecuador's 17.7 million people, disproportionately affected by rising poverty.
Conaie erupted onto the national stage in 1990 with an uprising that forced the then-government to surrender more than two million hectares of land to Amazonian and Andean tribal groups.
Conaie has a political arm called Pachakutik - the second-largest grouping in a fragmented parliament where it holds 18 of the 137 seats.
Between 1997 and 2005, Conaie spearheaded several mass mobilizations credited with leading to the downfall of three presidents.
In 2019, a new wave of demonstrations left 11 people dead and thousands injured in clashes with the police, but forced then-president Lenin Moreno to abandon plans to reduce fuel price subsidies - a measure sought by the IMF.
Since 1990, Conaie has been considered 'the country's main social organization,' Franklin Ramirez, a political scientist at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (Flacso) in Quito, told AFP.
'It has a voice ... the ability to make its discontent, its grievances heard,' he said.
The most recent round of protests, which started on June 13, has mobilized thousands of Indigenous people, joined by students, farmers and other groups feeling the economic pinch.
What was the spark?
Ecuador is a crude oil exporter, but with insufficient refining capacity has to import fuel which the government subsidized to the tune of some $2.8 billion per year from 2014 to 2022.
Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar as its legal tender in 2000.
With the pandemic and subsequent war on Ukraine, fuel prices have risen sharply - almost doubling from just over a year ago from $1 to $1.90 per gallon of diesel and rising from $1.75 to $2.55 for gasoline.
The price has been frozen by the government at this level since last October, but Conaie wants more: a cut to $1.50 a gallon for diesel and $2.10 for gasoline.
Conaie is also demanding a moratorium on the repayment of private bank loans held by rural people, food price controls, more spending on healthcare, education, security and job creation, and an end to mining concessions in Indigenous territories.
To try and diffuse the crisis, President Guillermo Lasso on Friday ordered a $5 rise to $55 in the monthly grant for Ecuador's poorest, a subsidy of up to 50% on fertilizers for small- and medium-sized farmers, and forgiving certain small bank loans.
He has also declared an emergency in the public health system to allocate additional resources, and doubled the budget for bilingual education to allow Indigenous children to go to school in their mother tongue and in their own communities.
What is the damage?
None of the concessions have appeased protesters who have intermittently blockaded key roads in more than half of Ecuador's 24 provinces since June 13, and many leading to the capital Quito.
The economy was losing about $50 million per day due to the protests, official figures showed, without counting oil production - the country's main export product.
State-owned Petroecuador has reported almost 64,300 barrels in lost production with more than 230 wells shuttered by demonstrations in the Amazon.
Producers of flowers, another of Ecuador's main exports, have also complained about their wares rotting as trucks cannot reach their destinations.
Last week, Chinese company PetroOriental said protesters had occupied and paralyzed some of its wells in the Amazonian Orellana province.
Ramirez said he was not sure how long-lasting the protests would be this time round.
'The country is going through an economic crisis, people were starting to stabilize after the pandemic. I don't know to what extent the middle and lower classes will support the uprising if it starts to affect business,' he told AFP.