Update: The situation was reported calm in Galápagos Saturday as flights to the islands resumed. Former congressman Eduardo Veliz, one of the protest leaders, was reportedly arrested Friday night. On Friday, José Serrano Delgado, Minister of Internal Security, sent out a Twitter message claiming “savage agressions” by Veliz and others against the police and promising to file charges against him. In social media, people expressed concern about the arrest. Protesters vowed to continue their actions.
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, delivering his Saturday television talk from Milan, Italy, called the demonstrators “misguided” and urged young people not to follow “demagogues.” Correa said that three policemen were injured in clashes with protestors and denounced the violence on the islands. Once again, he said that existing wages in Galápagos will not be reduced–that a cost of living formula to determine wages for new employees will be ready by November. He promised that wage scales will be “fair” under the new law.
Some commercial airline flights from Guayaquil to the Galápagos Islands were cancelled Friday, June 12 as island residents continued their protests over the legislation they say will hurt their ability to cope with a high cost of living. There were reports of police firing tear gas at demonstrators blocking roads leading to the airports serving the two main populated islands, Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal.
Hundreds of people reportedly took part in a general strike Friday on the two islands as foreign tourists were stranded on the Ecuadorian mainland by the flight cancellations.
Ecuadorian Civil Aviation authorities report that the airports in San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz continue to operate. “Some flights were delayed but the airlines have not suspended operations,” according to the official wire service Andes.
Stores and schools on Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal were closed and taxis did not run.
Jairo Gusqui, leader of one of the protest groups, said, “We are not only protesting because of the salaries. We are fighting for the right to continue living here,” saying that the law could harm Galápagos in other ways.
“We are also worried about conservation,” he said, “We are worried about big investors building on areas that belonged to the National Park. We will continue to protest until the law is repealed.”
Maria Elena Keegan, the owner of a tourist fishing business said, “We are appealing to UNESCO because we are worried about the law making it easier to build hotels in San Cristóbal.”
Another longtime Galapagueño who didn’t want to be identified put it more succinctly: “The law is toxic,” he said. Many highly experienced owners of tourist businesses would be forced to re-apply for their permits to operate in nine years without any assurances they would be able to stay in business.
On Tuesday, Ecuador’s national assembly overturned a 1998 version of the law that permitted public employees in Galápagos to earn twice the wages of those on the mainland. The old law also gave private sector employees in Galápagos a 75 percent subsidy on top of their regular wages. After Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa struck those provisions from the law, the Assembly ratified the changes. Correa wants Galápagos wages to be based on a cost-of-living index that hasn’t yet been calculated.
Traveling in Milan, Italy, President Correa posted on his Twitter account Friday: “We will not surrender,” to the demonstrators. “We are more, many more.”
The President of the Governing Council of Galapagos, Eliecer Cruz, in an interview with the Andes wire service, said that “it was an aggressive and violent protest” and that the organizers will be sanctioned.
Ecuadorian Security Minister César Navas wrote on Twitter: “We will not allow the disruption of public order in Galapagos,” Adding sarcastically, “‘Peaceful protestors’ attacking the security forces.”
But Guadalupe Cox Acuña, a second generation Galapagueña, said, “We are protesting in a peaceful manner. When we noticed that the policemen who came by plane from mainland Ecuador were thirsty, we gave them water.”
She did note that a small group of young people provoked the policemen outside the Liceo Naval school near the San Cristóbal airport and that a tear gas cannister landed inside the schoolyard.
“They should not have fired tear gas near a school,” she said.
So far, there’s no sign that either side in the dispute is ready to back down as some would-be Galápagos tourists cool their heels on the mainland of Ecuador.