QUITO, Ecuador (AP) – A general strike by a broad coalition upset with President Rafael Correa virtually paralyzed Ecuador’s capital, provincial cities and stretches of the Pan-American Highway on Thursday.
Thousands of indigenous activists, unionists, environmentalists and members of the political opposition blocked roads with tree trunks, rocks and burning tires.
Public transport was scarce in Quito and major thoroughfares were blocked in Guayaquil, Cuenca and other provincial capitals.
There were no reports of serious violence. Police fired tear gas at one point in a vain attempt to dislodge indigenous protesters on the Pan-American Highway near the Cotopaxi volcano.
Facing the first national strike against him in eight years in office, Ecuador’s leftist president blamed the far right, his usual nemesis.
In remarks to a youth group, Correa called on supporters to clear the streets. “These things must be rejected, not by the security forces but by the citizenry,” he said of the barricades. “A small group is trying to impose its policies on us.”
Ecuador’s growing anti-Correa movement has become more diverse, however. It is united chiefly by a rejection of pending legislation that would permit Correa’s indefinite re-election when his third term ends in 2017.
The president’s popularity derives from generous government spending on social welfare and infrastructure including highways, but his support level in opinion polls is now at its lowest ever – 45 percent.
Indigenous groups are upset by Correa’s refusal to consult them on mining and oil exploration on traditional lands. Union activists are angry at a new labor code that they see as stripping them of freedom of association and protest. Business people are upset by new taxes, including import tariffs and a 75 percent tax on real estate sales and inheritances that Correa announced but then suspended after a public outcry.
Ecuador is heavily dependent on oil revenues and Correa has faced mounting protests since this year’s plunge in crude prices forced him to impose cost-cutting measures.
Correa’s abrasive, sometimes impetuous style and scant tolerance for dissent have drawn steady complaints from international human rights groups, who accuse him of stifling of free speech and an independent judiciary.
Indigenous protest leader Carlos Perez said the strike would not end until Correa takes heed to citizens’ complaints.
“If we don’t get answers we’re prepared to continue the protest for two days, or 15 days – whatever it takes to open the deaf ears of President Correa.”
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.