Ecuador’s Interior Minister Steps Down
By JEANNETH VALDIVIESO
The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
QUITO, Ecuador — Ecuador’s interior minister resigned Wednesday as protests over a U.S. free trade plan spread from the Andean highlands to the oil-producing southeast jungle, where police clashed with demonstrators.
In the face of the growing unrest, President Alfredo Palacio went on national television and urged Ecuadorans to "close ranks" to defend the country’s democracy.
Palacio said the protests were "the culmination of deceptive politics that seeks to perversely tear apart the nation."
Interior Minister Alfredo Castillo’s decision came a day after he warned that protests by Indians, oil workers and jungle residents could lead to "another coup."
The offical didn’t offer a public explanation for his resignation, but it followed widespread criticism that his comments appeared to support the protesters and showed disloyalty to Palacio.
Television broadcast images Wednesday of soldiers firing tear gas to disperse a small group of protesters in the jungle province of Pastaza. The protesters had tried to seize facilities of Agip Oil Corp. to demand more government spending in their area.
The protesters also seized 15 soldiers in Puyo, about 100 miles southeast of Quito, Red Cross spokeswoman Maria Elena de Mantilla said. About 30 people, including civilians and military personnel, were treated for minor injuries.
In Quito, police used tear gas to force back dozens of protesters who tried to reach the government palace in the capital city.
Ecuador’s main Indian movement, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, began blockading roads and highways Monday and have threatened to overthrow Palacio’s government if he signs a free-trade pact with the U.S.
CONAIE also has demanded that Ecuador cancel oil concession granted to U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum Corp., which has been embroiled in tax and contract disputes with Ecuador’s government since August 2004.
The confederation accused Palacio of reaching a "compromise with the nation’s oligarchies" and "committing the country to a process of no return with the signing of a free trade deal with the United States."
Government spokesman Enrique Proano said the protesters’ demands to expel Occidental and immediately withdraw Ecuador’s free trade negotiators from a final round of talks do not "merit consideration."
"It would seem what they seek is a destabilization of democracy," he said.
Deputy Interior Minister Felipe Vega told reporters that Palacio was seeking meetings with Indian leaders to explain the government’s position on the trade talks. Palacio also sought meetings with jungle residents to consider their demands for more government spending, Vega said.
The U.S. on Feb. 27 wrapped up negotiations to eliminate tariffs and other trade barriers with Colombia, the second Andean nation to reach a free trade deal with the United States.
The agreement with Colombia followed a deal wrapped up in December with Peru. Negotiations are still under way with Ecuador. Bolivia has participated as an observer and could become part of the agreement at a later date.