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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 March 2006, 16:14 GMT
Q&A: Ecuador crisis
Indigenous women protests against a free trade agreement between Ecuador and the US
Nearly 80% of the indigenous population live in poverty

In recent weeks, Ecuador has been plagued by protests that are threatening to destabilise the country, forcing the resignation of the interior minister and disrupting the vital oil industry.

What are the protests about?

The demonstrations - led by indigenous groups - have been sparked by ongoing talks with the United States over a possible free trade agreement.

Thousands of protesters have blocked major roads calling for a referendum on the trade deal, but the government has described the call as premature.

They fear a deal with the US would harm their economy and their culture, and would only benefit the wealthy.

Ecuador is set to enter a final round of the free trade talks on 23 March, and its neighbours Colombia and Peru have both already signed the agreement.

How strong is the indigenous movement?

One-third of Ecuador's 13 million inhabitants are indigenous.

They make up a large proportion of those who live in poverty (nearly 80%), and have less access to education and health services than the traditionally dominant Spanish-descended elite.

Indigenous peoples have in recent years stepped up their demands for a better share in the country's wealth.

They were the backbone of a January 2000 uprising that forced former President Jamil Mahuad from power, and correspondents say that, since then, they have played an important role in Ecuador's political fate.

Are these protests linked to the oil strikes earlier this year?

The oil strike involved different groups, although its demands were similar to those of the indigenous groups currently demonstrating: protesters were seeking a better distribution of wealth.

Strikers wanted more oil revenues to be spent on public works in the south-eastern oil producing regions, as well as better salaries and work conditions.

With 550,000 barrels per day, Ecuador is Latin America's fifth oil producer, behind Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina.

The industry accounts for nearly half of the country's annual budget, but not all sections of society have benefited equally from oil revenues.

Has Ecuador experienced social unrest in the past?

The country has had three heads of state forced from power since 1997. In the wake of recent protests, interim President Alfredo Palacio has called on Ecuadoreans to defend the nation's fragile democracy.

Three interior ministers have resigned in less than a year.

Mr Palacio took office after his predecessor, Lucio Gutierrez, was ousted by Congress in April 2005 amid violent protests against his rule.

Mr Gutierrez was elected in 2002 on a left-wing, populist platform, promising to tackle social problems.

He initially had the support of the powerful indigenous movement, but the alliance fell apart after he implemented austere, free-market policies that generated widespread unrest.

Will there be any change?

President Palacio has been trying to change Ecuador's political system in order, he says, to make the country more stable.

But his plans to overhaul the constitution have faced stiff opposition in congress, where lawmakers have rejected or watered down his proposals.

Mr Palacio has increased social spending and has diverted money intended for economic stabilisation to health and education. However, protests have continued.

Correspondents say many Ecuadoreans are hoping now for a fresh start after this year's general election in October.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
See the protests in Ecuador



SEE ALSO:
Ecuador president calls for calm
16 Mar 06 |  Americas
'No end' to Ecuador trade protest
15 Mar 06 |  Americas
Ecuador emergency over oil strike
08 Mar 06 |  Americas
Deal ends Ecuadorian oil crisis
26 Aug 05 |  Americas
Protests halt Ecuador oil exports
19 Aug 05 |  Americas
Country profile: Ecuador
04 Jan 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Ecuador
08 Mar 06 |  Country profiles


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