Ecuador declares state of emergency as fuel protesters battle police

Riot police move towards demonstrators during a protest after Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno's government ended four-decade-old fuel subsidies, in Quito, Ecuador October 3, 2019. REUTERS/Daniel Tapia

Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno declared a state of emergency on Thursday as protesters hurled stones and erected burning barricades after the end of decades-old fuel subsidies as part of a $2 billion government fiscal reform package. 

Police responded with tear gas in the worst unrest for years in the oil-producing Andean nation.

“Down with the package!” demonstrators shouted, referring to measures enacted this week as Moreno puts Ecuador on a centrist, market-friendly path after years of leftist rule.

With the fuel subsidy cut taking effect on Thursday, taxi, bus and truck drivers blocked streets from early morning in the highland capital Quito and in Guayaquil on the Pacific coast. 

Indigenous groups, students and unions joined the action, barricading roads with rocks and burning tires.

In Quito, masked youths faced off with riot police who drove them back with tear gas and deployed armoured vehicles.

“It’s an indefinite action until the government overturns the decree on subsidies. We’re paralysing the nation,” said bus transport leader Abel Gomez. 

Officials say the elimination of fuel subsidies was necessary to lift a struggling economy and stop smuggling.

Moreno, who won election in 2017 to replace Rafael Correa, told reporters the “perverse” and highly costly subsidy, in place for 40 years, had distorted the economy and protests would not be allowed to paralyse Ecuador.

“To ensure citizens’ security and avoid chaos, I have ordered a national state of emergency,” the president said of the measure that suspends some rights and empowers the military to keep order. 

“I have the courage to make the right decisions for the nation.”

Diesel prices rose from $1.03 to $2.30 per gallon while gasoline rose from $1.85 to $2.39.

As darkness fell, several thousand marchers headed for the presidential palace in downtown Quito, which was ringed by police and soldiers. The protesters were eventually dispersed.