The National Strike (PARO)

You may have read that Ecuador is experiencing a National Strike (PARO in Spanish, meaning stop), which has been called by an Indigenous Organisation called CONAIE. While it is not for me to comment on the reasons behind this protest, or indeed the response of the authorities or the government, I can give witness to the peaceful way in which some of the roadblocks established by the protesters have been policed.

We decided to take a trip south of Cuenca to the Giron Waterfalls, expecting that our journey might be blocked. At the first blockade just outside the village of Tarqui, while the main road was blocked, the police were happy to direct us around the blockade and through the village. When we got to the outskirts of Giron however, our journey came to an end. The road was blocked, and a long line of cars had accumulated. When we spoke to the police, they said that they had been negotiating with the protesters and there was going to be a short opportunity to cross soon, but they could not guarantee we would be able to return until the evening. So we turned around and headed back to Cuenca.

I prayed that this dispute may come to an end soon, and that the protests remained peaceful; the authorities resistant and resilient when faced with provocation; and that noone gets hurt in violence.

Taxi Drivers Block Av. Los Americas in Cuenca

As the month of June went on, we felt quite insulated from the National Strike in Cuenca. Although it was not possible to travel out of Cuenca, we did not experience much disruption moving around the city, either by car or on the Tranvia. Then one day our favourite place for lunch said they were closed as they had no gas for cooking. The next day we noticed queues had started at the petrol stations, and we heard stories that they were running out. Then the taxi drivers decided to join the National Strike and blockaded the main roads inside Cuenca. The situation was starting to get worse, and national news of negotiations with the Government looked like they had collapsed.

We were left with a dilemma. Do we try to run the blockades? So, at 2am on Tuesday 28th June we set off to see it we could make it to Puyo, Pastaza. Initially, the roads were empty, and while we came across many blockades they were not being enforced and so it was possible to pass. On the advice of the attendant at a Petrol Station we decided to drive north on the main Pan-Americana and then travel across country to Guarumales. It was a long four hour drive through winding mountain roads until we met our first enforced blockade about 10km from Guarumales. It was 6:30am and they were so gentle and apologetic. They said they were opening at 7am, and in the meantime would we like some bread and hot chocolate.

So we made it to Santiago de Mendez, but that is where things got interesting. Outside Mendez we came across a blockade that would not let us through, but at the same time told us that if we went back to Mendez and got a “Medical Certificate” to say I was unwell (I had had a stomach infection for the previous 5 days) then we could pass. So we went back and after a consultation with a doctor ($15 well spent) we had our “medical certificate” and could make further progress. While the medical certificate did the trick at many of the blockades the indigenous were less and less friendly, and we experienced searches of our car (on the pretext of looking for weapons or other contraband) and tense conversations. After Sucua, we were told we would not be able to continue to Macas, but if we returned to Sucua and used a new road on the other side of the river where the locals were not protesting we could bypass Macas. So that day, with a lot of stress we made it all the way to the bridge which marks the border between the province of Morona Santiago and Pastaza. At the bridge a group of young people who were dressed like fighters from Afghanistan were not open to letting us through, and they were quite aggressive and intimidating. So that night we slept in a truck stop just before the bridge. We could not go forward, we could not go backwards, we were stuck!

At 5am in the morning, as I was not able to sleep, I woke Ines up and we decided to try to cross. We met just one protester, fully hooded and carrying a shotgun. After about 30 minutes of discussion he started to melt, and with donations of food, drink and the entire contents of Ines’ purse (about $80) towards their cause, he decided to let us through. I could not drive as I needed to look ill, and he wrote on our “medical certificate” giving an authorisation to the other blockades we would encounter that we were legit. So Ines drove the last 40 miles to Puyo, and we had no problems passing. When we got there we were met on the outskirts by our daughter who works for the Health department as a nurse, and we were led around the blockades in the city to our final destination. We had breakfast in Puyo!

The strangest part of the whole experience which was incredibly stressful and traumatic was that that afternoon at about 4pm, suddenly out of the blue, and with no warning, and when it looked like negotiations had broken down and this was going to last another week, the National Strike was over. The Government and the Indigenous Organisations, brokered by representatives of the Catholic Church, had a deal (progress on which will be reviewed in 90 days). Suddenly everything started to return to normal. I know it is not possible to predict or know the future, but it felt like our heroic adventure had been a waste. If I am ever here during a National Strike again, I will not be trying to travel during a PARO.

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