On Thursday, Sept. 30, in response to cuts in benefits from the government, police, and armed forces initiated violent protests in Quito, Ecuador, where four University students are currently studying abroad. A state of emergency was declared as President Rafael Correa was forced to flee from an assault on barracks in Quito.
“My host mom was really adamant that I not leave the house and she told me that she and her daughters were headed home as well,” wrote Rachel Cross ’12, who is currently participating in the Quito-based Duke in the Andes program, in an e-mail to The Argus. “That night we heard sirens, and my host mom told me they meant that the army would detain anyone they found in the streets because there were no police around.”
Police were protesting reductions in benefits like year-end bonuses and an extension of the minimum service time between promotions, according to Monica Vitti ’12, another student in the Duke program. Ecuadorian President Correa accused political opponents of attempting a coup. According to Cross, the protests were unexpected.
“I was aware that there had been a lot of different presidents within the last decade, but not that Correa’s position was so unstable,” she wrote. “Most people I have talked to or seen have been very pro-Correa and see what happened as a shame.”
According to Vitti, police burned tires in the streets, the Mariscal Sucre International Airport was temporarily shut down, and protestors blocked a bridge into the city. A few people were killed in a shoot-out between police and military forces outside of the hospital where the president was located, and looting occurred in some parts of the city.
Leaders of the Duke in the Andes program called all of their students to make sure they were safe and to tell them to stay in their host families’ homes. They hosted a group discussion the following day.
“The next day everything seemed mostly back to normal,” Cross wrote. “Public transportation was up and running again, and we had a meeting in the Duke office to discuss the current political situation. When our program director discussed what had happened he made it very clear that the police were being unreasonable and even foolish.”
Staying in her host family’s home, Cross did not feel like she was in significant danger.
“To be honest, I was not concerned for my safety or anyone in the program,” Cross wrote. “My house is not very close to what was happening, so I only heard some scattered gunshots. On the way to my friend’s house [the day after the protests started], I saw a couple of tanks rolling down the street. That was the thing that made this whole experience the most immediate and real.”
The political situation has since calmed down, and Vitti and Cross do not believe that the events will dramatically change the rest of their time abroad.
“Though mildly traumatized, I am glad, in a way, that I am here for this,” Vitti wrote on her blog. “It is a unique experience to be forced to rapidly educate myself on the governmental affairs of a foreign country. And as Ecuador is my home for the next few months, I’m glad to have a chance to develop my own analysis and opinions on its politics.”
In past years, the SARS epidemic in Asia in 2002-2003 and political unrest in Bolivia in 2003 have caused major disruptions to study abroad programs, resulting in participating students being forced to leave the countries in which they were studying.
“Things like that happen; there are different ways of dealing with them,” said Director of the Office of International Studies Carolyn Sorkin. “You never know where trouble is going to strike. It’s important to keep your eyes open, to be aware, to stay plugged in to local news, as well as U.S. news.”
According to Sorkin, the University does not prevent students from studying in countries where there are State Department travel warnings. Students are encouraged to check travel alerts, but the Office of International Studies leaves final decisions up to students’ families, as long as there does not appear to be serious immediate danger.