Becoming Cuenca

Life is a Bed of Roses (And So Is Ecuador)

Jun 24, 2022

In the 1979 American comedy film directed by Carl Reiner and written by Steve Martin, there is a hilarious, but poignant scene that describes my intent with this blog. Navin (Steve Martin) is walking with his father just before he is set to leave home.

The father says to Navin, “See that? That’s s**t. And this? Is Shinola.”

Navin nods and replies, “S**t… Shinola!”

With a big smile on his face, the father exclaims, “Son, you’re gonna be all right!”

And as they walk away, Navin steps right into the not-Shinola.

The point I am trying to make is to state that my blog is ‘not’ going to be a cheerleader, a public relations mouthpiece for Ecuador. Instead, it is going to tell you why Cuenca is a great place to live… warts and all.

That includes what is happening right now in Ecuador. As usual, the American media is very slow to pick up on it. As a journalist of four decades, I understand. Americans have little, if any, interest on what is happening outside of their country. Meanwhile, France 24 and BBC News have done several reports on the “Paro.”

The literal translation of Paro means strike or stoppage. Today is Day-12 of the blockade of roads, scarce public transport service between provinces, protests that end in confrontations with the police, among other events.

This past weekend, the military was used to get propane gas to Cuenca from Guayas province. The highway had been blocked by the indigenous, but they did not resist the military and its propane trucks. Because of that, our departamento complex got its first propane gas in two weeks.

All of this protesting and obstructing is being done by one indigenous political group: CONAIE. The other indigenous political group has said this is not the way to go to address their needs.

CONAIE is led by Leonidas Iza Salazar, an indigenous Kichwa human rights defender and the current president of the political group. The 40-year-old has more than 15 years of experience in the indigenous movement as well as defender of the environment.

Prior to the Paro, CONAIE had a list of ten demands. None of them were met by the current government prior to the Paro:

  1. “Reduction and no more rise in fuel prices. Freeze diesel at $1.50 and extra gasoline and ecopaís at $2.10, repeal decrees 1158, 1183, 1054, and enter the process of targeting the sectors that need subsidy: farmers, peasants, transporters, fishermen.
  2. Economic relief for more than 4 million families with a moratorium of at least one year and debt renegotiation with a reduction in interest rates in the financial system (public and private banks and cooperatives). No to the seizure of assets such as houses, land, and vehicles for non-payment.
  3. Fair prices for farm products: milk, rice, bananas, onions, fertilizers, potatoes, corn, tomatoes and more; no to the collection of royalties on flowers. So that millions of peasants, small and medium producers can have a guarantee of support and continue producing.
  4. Employment and labor rights. Policies and public investment to curb job insecurity and ensure the sustainability of the popular economy. Demand payment of debts to the IESS.
  5. Moratorium on the expansion of the extractive mining / oil frontier, audit, and comprehensive reparation for socio-environmental impacts. For the protection of territories, water sources and fragile ecosystems. Repeal of Decrees 95 and 151.
  6. Respect for the 21 collective rights: Intercultural Bilingual Education, indigenous justice, prior, free and informed consultation, organization and self-determination of indigenous peoples.
  7. Stop the privatization of strategic sectors, heritage of Ecuadorians. (Banco del Pacífico, hydroelectric plants, IESS, CNT, highways, health, among others.
  8. Price control policies and speculation in the market for basic necessities, carried out by intermediaries and price abuse in industrialized products in supermarket chains.
  9. Health and education. Urgent budget in the face of shortages in hospitals due to lack of medicines and personnel. Guarantee youth access to higher education and improvement of infrastructure in schools, colleges, and universities.
  10. Security, protection, and generation of effective public policies to stop the wave of violence, contract killings, delinquency, drug trafficking, kidnapping and organized crime that keeps Ecuador in distress.”

The indigenous protests and roadblocks are not only hurting others, but the indigenous themselves. It is being reported that 75 percent of the poultry production in Ecuador is at risk, due to the continuing protests. The Egg Producers Guild estimates that some 15 million birds may die due to lack of balanced feed. Without birds, the drop in egg production is imminent. Nationwide, 14 million eggs are produced daily. Eggs are a big part of the Ecuadorian’s diet.

Joanna and I visited Mercado 27 de Febrero on Tuesday morning. While fresh fruits and vegetables still seem to be available at the market, eggs are scarce. The lady we get our eggs from usually has stacks of eggs. At any time, she must have a couple of thousand eggs for sale. Seriously! Though I asked for two, she sold us only one flat of 30 eggs as she had only 90 eggs left.

And those eggs were about 60 percent more than what we paid prior to the Paro. It was more like prices in the United States.

The Guayaquil newspaper, El Universo, is reporting fresh food prices have risen dramatically due to the Paro. The newspaper says carrots have gone from 50 cents to $1.50 per pound. That is only one example of many they posted in their article.

Dez Disney, who runs the Cuenca Soup Kitchen told me yesterday that they used to get a hundred pounds of onions for $20. Because of the Paro, that same 100 pounds of onions is fetching $75. Of course, everything else the Cuenca Soup Kitchen is delivering to the needy is costing more. And some fresh food items are not available due to the roads into Cuenca being blocked.

Despite the Paro, life goes on in Cuenca. On my 4 miles / 6 km. walk yesterday to do another interview for another article for the online English-speaking newspaper here, it was difficult to notice the Paro was in its second week. Just outside our front door, a man was working on the overhead lines. For those in the United States and Canada, this is a typical scene. Bucket trucks are a rarity.

Down at the corner, a taxi was waiting for his fare. The city buses were running on Av. Fray Vicente Solano and over Tres Puentes (the three bridges at the edge of our neighborhood). People have to get to work, and children need to get to their schools. Unlike most places in the United States, children ride city buses to school instead of having buses pick them up at their homes or designated bus stops.

Does a man walking five dogs show normalcy? I have seen this man several times on Ave. 27 de Febrero walking the pooches. He had an extra dog on his walk this morning. This is a pet-friendly city so your dog will be welcomed almost anywhere in the city. Though I have no statistical proof, I would say that 90 percent of the restaurants will allow your dog onto their premises. As Sofia Palacios, the owner of Sofy Glocal Cuisine, told me the other day, “People are more respectful of animals here than in Quito. The expats have help make Cuenca very pet friendly.”

If dogs are not enough, how about sheep? This is just another typical scene in our hometown. A farmer was letting his sheep graze at the city park along El Río Yanuncay. Though people always go by them, they would not allow me to get close to them. If you are not interested in sheep, come to my neighborhood! We always have cows grazing. Joanna and I always get a kick out of our bovine friends keeping the grass low along the banks of our neighborhood rivers.

As I approached my interview location, I caught two men painting a fence along Calle Guayas. The one nearest the camera said to me, “Buenos días.” Despite the Paro, people need to work. And many Ecuadorians do not support what is going on. They may agree with the demands, but not the way they are going about it.

A countrywide poll released yesterday confirms this. A survey of 1,872 people from 19 cities on the Coast, in the Sierra, and Amazon asked if they considered the demands of the protesters to be justified. As of June 23rd, 61.3 percent stated they are not justified.

As a foreigner (a well-informed one at that), I do not know how much this means as the indigenous are approximately six percent of the country’s population. They are definitely a minority.

Another question in the poll released yesterday asked whether or not they support the way in which the demonstrations are taking place, to which 75.8 percent said they do not support the way in which the protests are taking place.

Maybe the most important statistic from yesterday’s poll is that 80.6 percent of those surveyed believe that the Paro should stop after the invitation to dialogue by the national government.

The taxis on the edge of our neighborhood were lined up in support of the Paro. I know they were for the Paro as there were three well-used tires in front of their vehicles. By now, you have probably seen the photos from Quito and Pichincha province of what the tires are used for.

Protestors from the Azuay province town of Santa Isabel were marching through Cuenca, supporting CONAIE’s demands. Their march went right by our neighborhood and the taxis. They proceeded north up Av. Fray Vicente Solano. My wife got a text around that time, telling her that Solano was completely empty due to the protestors. These were the few signs of a Paro.

After my interview, I decided to take a slightly different route home as I wanted to walk along the south side of El Río Yanuncay. People were taking advantage of the beautiful day and the abundance of green in the city. At Puente Felipe II, I noticed some public artwork had been done to a concrete fixture. The new artwork went for quite a while along the trail that follows the river. No doubt I will have to make a return trip to take it all in.

That leads me to my photo from the rooftop of our departamento (condo). To me, it represents hope this morning in Cuenca and more specifically, Ecuador. The color of the sky and the glow of our hometown are like a beacon of a desire and expectation for the Paro to end in a peaceful and positive manner.

A hopeful sign emerged overnight. Some blocked roads are open again after the government allowed indigenous protesters to occupy the Casa de la Cultura in Quito. This is a big deal. On Tuesday, the Minister of the Interior announced the government did not plan to give in to one of CONAIE’s requests to hold an assembly in this building to discuss the solutions to the ten proposals submitted to President Guillermo Lasso.

Reports from the Pichincha parishes of Checa, Puembo, Pifo, Tababela, and Yaruquí say roads to Quito were open again. In other sectors, residents cleared the roads (including General Rumiñahui highway, which connects the Chillos valley with Quito) of debris. The road to the airport in Quito is now clear for air travelers. It had been closed for days and had caused airlines to cancel numerous flights.

The Episcopal Conference (the bishops of the Catholic Church in Ecuador) and the prefectures proposed a truce. According to Latinobarometro’s 2018 public opinion survey, 74.8 percent of Ecuadorians identify as Catholic.

Hopefully today, peace will be at hand with a sincere dialog between the two parties. I think everyone wants it.

With that, Ecuador will remain one of the longest-lived democracies in South America.

And tranquility returns to this beautiful country.

Flowers, thorns, and all.

Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.