Indigenous anger potent political weapon in Ecuador

Quito (AFP) –


Indigenous groups camped in the center of Ecuador's capital bristled with anger Wednesday at the start of a second day of violent protests set off by the government's decision to scrap fuel subsidies.

"Get the tires! Puncture them! Puncture them!" a stick-wielding man shouted as a car approached the camp in a popular park.

Hundreds of tribesmen, many armed with sticks, clubs or whips, have set up camp in the city's El Arbolito park next to government headquarters.

When it comes to overthrowing presidents, Ecuador's indigenous have weight, flexing their considerable political muscle to fell three administrations with waves of popular protests in the recent past.

President Lenin Moreno is determined not to become the latest political casualty after his decision to scrap fuel subsidies as part of a $4.2 billion IMF loan sparked riots.

Jaime Vargas, head of the indigenous umbrella organization CONAIE, told AFP his groups would wage "an unending struggle" to restore the subsidies.

When thousands of indigenous people from outlying territories in the Amazon and the Andes began arriving in Quito earlier this week to make their anger felt -- skirmishing with security forces along the way -- Moreno shipped his government to Quayaquil, hundreds of kilometers (miles) away on the coast.

"A neo-liberal government cannot sell the blood of our people to the IMF and that is why we have declared ourselves to be in an endless struggle," said Vargas.

"No to the package!" he said, referring to the IMF deal.

Vargas is one of the few indigenous people not openly hostile to the media, which most others despise for devoting "minimum" coverage to their plight.

- Shunning media -

Some groups in Quito have chased away reporters with cameras and microphones. TV channels covering the protests have had to move outside broadcast units several hundred meters away from the park.

"The Shuar and the Achuar of the Amazon, the Quechua are warriors," said Vargas, proudly wearing a feather to signify he was at war.

"The Arutam, the Iwias are the ones who defend the homeland," he continued.

Wrapped in their anti-riot gear, the security forces have largely kept their distance from the spaces occupied by the indigenous groups, preferring to protect public buildings.

Over the years, the "indigenous resistance" as Vargas calls them, have shown they are more than a match for their political masters in Quito.

Tribal protests in 2006 blocked free trade negotiations with the United States.

They also toppled three administrations from 1997 to 2005, including Presidents Abdala Bucaram and Jamil Mahuad.

And they used the same time-tested strategy, mass protests, blocking roads and facing down the military.

"We are historically warrior peoples who have liberated ourselves in all these processes," said Vargas.

However, the arrival of leftist president Rafael Correa in power in 2007, and his successor Moreno, heralded a period of relative social peace.

Moreno, who has accused Correa and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of whipping up indigenous anger to overthrow him, has offered talks to try to alleviate the worst effects of the fuel hike, after prices soared up to 123 percent.

He admitted it was difficult to speak to all the representative leaders as there are more than 60 organizations opposed to the fuel hike.

The indigenous groups include the historically war-like Shuar and Achuar peoples from the rainforests of southern Ecuador, as well as Quechuas, Awas, and others from across the country.

On Monday they marched victoriously into Quito, having walked through the center of the country and faced down efforts by the military to turn them back.

In Quito the indigenous, who make up 25 percent of the country's 17 million population, have been met with solidarity from locals, who have supplied them with food and water.