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Fire And Salve: An Indigenous Revolution

Inside the protest that brought a country to its knees

Joshua Collins
Oct 14, 2019 · 6 min read
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October 10th in Parque El Ejido, in Quito Ecuador. A protester faces off against State Officials (photo: Joshua Collins)

Quito, Ecuador — “Sometimes the violence gets out of hand.” says a shopkeeper who has endured 11 days of running battles between police and protesters in this city of 3 million.

“But I support the protests,” she continues. “The indigenous are fighting for us. They are taking bullets in the chest for us. Before, we were scared to talk about the corruption we have been living under. But they have brought this issue out into the light.”

“They have given us a voice.” She teared up as she said it.

On October 3, President Lenin Moreno ended gasoline subsidies put in place in the 1970's. The price of diesel immediately more than doubled and gasoline increase by 30 percent, overnight.

When fuel prices rise, so do other commodities such as food and basic goods.

The government also announced a series of controversial tax and labor changes- all to finance $4.2bn loan from the IMF.

Ecuador immediately burst into flames as an indigenous led protest movement set up roadblocks around the country and activists marched on the Ecuadorian capital of Quito.

They have since been fighting pitched battles in the streets against State forces.

A Combustible Oil Revolution

As Protests shook the Ecuadorian capital, President Lenin Moreno fled the city, and besieged police escalated their tactics. Protesters have also become increasingly aggressive.

Amidst all the noise, many indigenous people feel their story is not being told.

“The local press are liars.” said Estaban Cayaguillo, 35. “They say we are supporters of (former Ecuadorian President Rafael) Correa. Or that we are led by Venezuelans. Its bullshit.”

“Moreno is desperate. He is just trying to place the blame on anyone but himself and his own corruption.”

He wasn’t alone. I spoke with dozens of protesters and the two most common subjects of ire were the corruption of the Ecuadorian government (in which they very much also blame former President Correa who fled the country due to corruption charges) and the IMF.

“The loan money from the IMF isn’t going to benefit the poor. All that money will just go to the rich, and they will use it to find more oil. Meanwhile, the people starve paying for their greedy adventures.” said Cayaguillo.

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“Get out IMF” and “Down with Decree 883 (petrol subsidy termination) Photo: Joshua Collins

The government has offered to negotiate with the protesters multiple times, and multiple times the two sides have been unable to come to an agreement to end the ongoing strike.

In the midst of exploding bombs I asked one protester what he thought of indigenous leaders negotiating with the government.

“Negotiation!?” he responded, astounded. “Look around. This is their negotiation.”

Explosions from flash bangs and tear gas grenades detonated around us.

I didn’t have a reply for that.

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October 12 near Centro in Quito Ecuador (Photo: Joshua Collins)

Ubiquitous Eucalyptus

Throughout the protests, demonstrators have been using Eucalyptus to combat the effects of government tear-gas. Setting fires with it to alleviate the painful blinding effects of the gas and inserting crushed leaves in their noses to help the respiratory symptoms.

Branches of Eucalyptus tree are omnipresent, found on every corner, burning in every fire and being carried around by protesters.

The plant has evolved into a symbol of the revolution; people tie it to their cars or wear it in their hats to show support for those fighting on the front lines.

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A woman giving Eucalyptus leaves to front-liners during the protests (photo: Joshua Collins)

“Crush it and put in your nose.” one of the volunteer medics told me as I lay in the grass, retching after my 10th overdose on tear gas.

I did.

“Now lie still.” she told me. She blew smoke from the burning leaves into my eyes.

It helped. After that, whenever I was gassed (and that was often) I made my way to one of the many burning fires that protesters keep lit for just that purpose.

I also keep crushed leaves in the woefully inadequate respirator I wear.

During one episode as I lay on my back, blind and weeping, a passing protester shouted to me. “Get up! The Press doesn’t cry!”

But I do cry. A lot.

Indigenous Distrust

The protesters are weary of Ecuadorian media, viewing them as controlled by Moreno. When I arrived, they were happy to see a foreign journalist, but as the protest wore on, that began to change.

They resent both President Lenin Moreno’s claims that the protests are the fault of ex-president Correa, or financed by Maduro, or that they are secretly run by Cuban infiltrators or Venezuelan Colectivos.

The idea that they are puppets has begun to create a xenophobic undercurrent at the demonstrations. They routinely yell at those with cameras not to record, that the press is their enemy and for foreigners to stay away.

I have seen cameras taken and burned. As an increasingly desperate president tries to lay the blame on someone, anyone but his government, the fake news stories grow increasingly outlandish.

This news is seized upon by many in other parts of the continent to influence public opinion against Maduro, or to claim this is a leftist revolution.

I have seen no evidence for any of these claims. I haven’t even heard a Venezuelan accent. And hundreds have told me that they view Correa as corrupt, and couldn’t possibly care less about Maduro.

I grow increasingly cautious by the day photographing protesters as well as police.

Protesters report over a dozen deaths, mostly from asphyxiation due to tear-gas, but also from riot weapons. Field medics have reported hundreds wounded but perhaps most troubling, indigenous leaders report over 70 persons missing.

All of this has led to a complete breakdown between press, protesters and the government — no doubt fueling the increasingly violent situation as well.

An Accord is Reached

Despite being repeatedly pushed out of Parque El Ejido, where protests are concentrated, demonstrators seem quite willing to continue retaking their position, to continue battling with police in running skirmishes and haven’t stopped expressing their disapproval.

Commerce in the city has ground to a halt, and oil production in the country has dropped significantly as well — with demonstrators manning roadblocks on roads to oil refineries on the coast.

Negotiations have led nowhere, and as the number of dead and injured rise among indigenous protesters, their resolve to keep fighting rises as well.

“This can’t go on forever.” an Ecuadorian policeman told me. “Imagine what this is costing the government. The President will fall if this goes on long enough.”

Support among the people in Quito seems generally against Moreno, who currently holds a 30% approval rating, but there are holdouts who support him, especially in the wealthier areas.

Since Oct 12th, each night residents take to their porches, banging pots in a passive protest of their own and calling for an end to hostilities.

“Ruido pa’ la Paz.” my neighbor told me.

Noise for peace.

I truly hope someone is listening to their plea.

EDIT: Since this article was published, indigenous leaders and the Ecuadorian government came to an agreement. The city of Quito flooded to El Elijo park, site of two weeks of bloody battles, and entering indigenous were given a hero’s welcome. I might have teared up one last time. Congratulations on the newfound peace, Ecuador.

I will bring my own newfound gift back home to Colombia — an incredible respect for the dedication and bravery of Ecuador's indigenous people.

Joshua Collins is a freelance journalist based in Bogota, Colombia. For more stories you can follow him on twitter.

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A protester performing traditional music amidst the riots in Quito Ecuador Oct 11 (photo: Joshua Collins)

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