QUITO, Ecuador -- (AP) -- Protesters blocked rural highways and police
tear gas at demonstrators in Ecuador's capital Wednesday, injuring 19 people on
the first day of a nationwide strike over economic reforms.
Tear-gas canisters struck and injured three protesters and 16 others suffered
smoke inhalation in Quito as police repelled 100 protesters who marched to
Congress, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.
In rural Ecuador, thousands of people blocked highways with rocks, trees
bonfires in an attempt to force President Jamil Mahuad to back down from
economic reforms that have caused prices to soar.
It was the second national strike called by the leftist-led Unified Workers
Federation, Ecuador's largest labor federation, since Mahuad took office seven
Most stores, factories and banks were closed, and Quito's streets were
deserted as bus drivers heeded the strike call.
Backed by a 60-day state of emergency decreed by Mahuad on Tuesday,
machine gun-toting troops guarded power plants and gasoline stations after
strikers threatened to disrupt this poor Andean nation's oil and electricity supply.
Popular discontent was fed by the government's declaration of emergency
holidays for Monday through today after a run on deposits last week threatened
Ecuador's tottering financial system.
``We're protesting because we can't live like this anymore, with prices
rising. It's reached the point where we don't have anything to eat,'' said Quito
resident Marina Bustos.
Prices have soared in Ecuador since Mahuad ended fuel subsidies in September.
Electricity prices have risen by 400 percent, and Ecuador's currency, the sucre,
lost 25 percent of its value last week.
Unions have threatened to paralyze Ecuador if Mahuad does not back down
his reform program and a bill in Congress that calls for deep public-spending cuts.
Mahuad inherited a nation in economic tatters, battered by El Niño-driven
that did $2.6 billion in damage in 1998 and falling prices of its main export, oil.
Ecuador had Latin America's highest inflation in 1998, at 45 percent, a
deficit of $1.2 billion and economic growth near zero. Its state coffers are almost
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