by Kintto Lucas
(IPS) QUITO --
and roadblocks by Ecuador's Native movement against austerity measures that have driven up bus fares and the cost of cooking oil have brought business to a standstill in many parts of the country.
Classes have been suspended in five provinces, and gasoline and food are becoming scarce.
Despite police and military cordons around Quito to keep out protesters marching in from the provinces, some 8,000 Indians took refuge in the Salesian Polytechnic University in the capitol. Tear-gas throwing security forces thwarted several attempts by the protesters to leave the university and stage demonstrations in downtown El Arbolito park.
On January 30, the protesters were angered to hear of the detention of Antonio Vargas, the president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), the country's largest Native movement, and Luis Villacis, leader of the Popular Front, which groups trade unions, leftist student groups, and neighborhood associations.
Interior Minister Juan Manrique told the press that he had ordered that Vargas be taken into custody for "inciting subversion."
The detentions formed part of the government of Gustavo Noboa's attempts to contain the protests raging since last week, which have paralyzed Ecuador's central mountainous region, and are blocking the transport of merchandise to and from the country's coastal and Amazon regions, to the west and east.
Vargas was one of the leaders of an earlier wave of nationwide protests by Native groups backed by dissident armed forces officers that triggered President Jamil Mahuad's downfall on Jan. 21, 2000.
CONAIE leader Blanca Chancoso demanded Vargas's immediate release and explanations from the government. "We do not even know where he is being held," said the activist. "This only heats up tempers further, and compels us to continue. We will not back off, and people will continue blocking roads and marching on Quito."
Alexis Ponce, with the Permanent Association of Human Rights (APDH), criticized the detentions and announced that he would file habeas corpus petitions for the release of Vargas and Villacis. He also said he would turn to the office of the People's Defender (human rights ombudsman) and the Constitutional Court.
are blocking the Pan-American highway and roads north and south of the capital. They have also seized TV and radio antennas in the central province of Chimborazo, as well as the cathedral in the southern city of Cuenca and city government offices in the Amazon city of Puyo and the highland town of Guaranda.
The government has refused to negotiate with the Native leaders, and called on the media to give "balanced news coverage, and to fully identify themselves with the democratic system."
The official communique asked the media "not to become an echo of rumors designed to cause alarm."
A military source who preferred to remain anonymous told IPS that the scale of the protests would mean that only severe repression, which would provoke a massacre of hundreds of people, could put an end to the demonstrations, in which thousands of Native people are taking part nationwide.
So far more than 300 people have been arrested since the protests began last week, while 15 demonstrators have been shot and injured, and at least 30 have been burnt and bruised by police tear gas canisters, with dozens treated for gas inhalation.
Thousands of protesters have made it past the cordons thrown up by security forces around Quito since Jan. 27, entering the city in groups of five or less, to take refuge in the Salesian Polytechnic University, where they are sleeping on the floor of the gymnasium.
University officials say they have given shelter to the protesters for humanitarian reasons due to a police order prohibiting them from camping out in the El Arbolito park in the center of Quito.
Other protesters are sleeping at the House of Culture, as they have during previous demonstrations.
The university is surrounded by hundreds of armed police who have deterred several attempts by the protesters to march to El Arbolito. The police have also confiscated provisions donated by hundreds of local residents to demonstrate their solidarity with the Indian movement.
The university's water, electricity and phone lines have been cut off, and police helicopters have flown over the courtyards, tossing in tear gas canisters.
Bloody dead dogs have also appeared, bearing messages that warn "you are playing with death, manueles" (a derogatory local term used to refer to Native people, who comprise 3.5 million of the 12.4 million people of this impoverished Andean nation).
For the first time, the Ecuadorean Federation of Evangelical Indigenous people (FEINE) is actively participating in the nationwide "uprisings" that have become fairly regular occurrences in Ecuador. Also involved in the protests are CONAIE, the National Peasant Coordinator and other social sectors.
FEINE's Marco Murillo told IPS that the group's participation in the demonstrations indicated the unity of all of Ecuador's Native peoples, who he said would continue to fight until their demands were met.
The demonstrations are aimed at the government's economic policies, like the adoption of the dollar as Ecuador's currency a year ago, that critics say hurt the poor. Since price hikes of fuel were announced by the government a month ago, bus fares have risen by 75 percent and gasoline prices by 25 percent, while the cost of cooking gas has doubled.
"We indigenous people are not responsible for the crisis, nor have we brought chaos to our country," argued Murillo, in a reference to the severe economic crisis plaguing Ecuador and the subsequent social unrest.
He added that the protesters would not be intimidated by threats and dead dogs.
The president's secretary of communications said, meanwhile, the government's economic policy was non-negotiable, "because it constitutes the main pillar of the plan for stabilization and dollarization, and the growth targets" agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Farmers and stockbreeders are suffering from the roadblocks, "which make it impossible to take milk to the pasteurization plants," said the head of the stockbreeding association, Juan Pablo Grijalva.
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