In April 2005 I was living in Cuenca, Ecuador, teaching English. I had just graduated college in the United States and was still very new to the place—but there was already a simmering fire about to explode. The President, who was hailed as a courageous defender of the nation’s heritage and champion of the poor when elected, had quickly moved to the right as soon as the votes were counted. A few months previous to my own arrival, he had fired an unsympathetic court and replaced it with his friends. Latin America is not known for truthful or selfless leaders so, taking a cue from their own recent history, people began to agitate for his removal.
My new employer owned two schools and every afternoon I walked half an hour through the city from one classroom to another. Every day I passed the large public University. One day, just two weeks or so into my daily walk, I noticed a small group of students with bandanas over their faces blocking traffic in front of the University. The next day there were a few more of them and some police milling two hundred meters away. Walking by this small but growing blockade became part of my daily routine, and some days after class I would return and sit down on a curb to watch the scene unfold. Things began to heat up and as the students with their bandanas grew in numbers so did the group of police a couple of hundred meters away.
As the tension outside the University was growing, it was also increasing throughout the nation. Word soon spread that a general strike would begin on April 13th in the capital city of Quito, a few hundred miles north, as well as in Cuenca. These were the two largest and most important mountain cities in the Andean nation. My school, which was full of North Americans, posted alarmist advisories from the US embassy and warned us to keep a low profile. The Peace Corps readied their evacuation plans. Tanks began to appear in the streets. Everyone thought the country would explode.
April 13th arrived and the streets were deserted. I walked around searching for the mass protests everyone was expecting. The park in the city's center had become a major rallying point for the families and the less militant opposition in the previous days. A tank sat in the corner of the park and dozens of riot police stood around, but no one else was there—nothing happened.
The buses, which had joined the strike, began to run again around sundown and it seemed the day would end in failure. I walked down to the University and found it much the same as it was the day before, perhaps there were a few more people but there was also a sense of desperation. A small group broke off and ran a few streets down to where the buses were beginning to run again. They stopped one, made everyone get off and drove it to the barricade. The police had begun using a tank equipped with a water cannon a few days earlier, putting out the fires and chasing down anyone they could. The bus added another layer to the barrier and would stop the tank. Within minutes other groups were commandeering more buses and disabling them across intersections while screaming “Viva el paro!” (long live the strike!).
The next day things began to build quickly all over the city. Back at the University, I was struggling to speak to some of the students with my mostly non-existent Spanish when someone came over and began to translate for us. In the meantime, police had snuck up along some side streets and charged from the front with their tear gas rifles.
The type of tear gas the police were using had been developed as a military weapon and was banned in my home country. Once the gas hit you, it felt as if a sharp knife was being scraped against your eyeball and you reflexively crunched your eyelids closed. After a few seconds your body started to violently dry-heave, as if your lungs were trying to jump right out of your chest. You got gassed once there and understand why everyone wore bandanas over their faces. I ran with my eyes closed and my lungs burning through clouds of gas and into the University.
In Ecuador, police are banned from entering University grounds, which made it a safe zone and the most logical place to put a blockade in front of. Happy to see some familiar faces in this place where mine didn’t fit in, I found the group I had been conversing with when the gas chased us apart. I fell back onto some grass behind a small wall that we were standing in front of. A boy of no more than 13 or 14 years lit a cigarette, walked around the circle and blew smoke into everyone’s eyes to help take away the sting.
As a water bottle was passed around to wash out our eyes and mouths, my new friend, Luis, explained to me what was happening. Earlier in the day, when a small group had started the blockade, some plain clothed police drove up in unmarked cars and chased them into the university, invading the sanctuary. Luis pointed a few feet away, past his cousin examining the welt on his stomach where one of the tear gas bullets stuck, to some fresh blood stains. We were standing in the same spot where the police had caught some of the students that morning. Word of the beating spread quickly and brought out hundreds of people within a few hours.
Meanwhile, the police had taken back the parked buses and retreated. Luis re-tied a white shirt over his face and we walked back into the street. Others had already split off to get more buses. Luis picked up two fist sized rocks as we joined the students who were already blocking the street with their bodies where the bus had stood. With the road cleared the tank began rumbling down toward us. Luis’ eyes stared at me through the hole in his mask. He put one of the rocks in my hand and said “Fight with us,” as his eyes shifted back to the quickly approaching tank.
By April 19th the city was in open rebellion, tear gas filled the air but everyone knew who was winning. On the 20th the protesters occupied every major government building and had effectively taken control of the city. The President fled and we danced in the streets all night. We won.