Nestled between imposing Andean peaks is what appears to be a simple yellow line. This yellow marker, delineating the equator, is a prime attraction for tourists coming to see if the popular myths are true: Are there really no shadows there? Do whirlpools switch from clockwise to counter-clockwise? The famous Mitad del Mundo is a fitting symbol for Ecuador itself, a small country whose name reflects its distinctive place in the middle of the world.
Ecuador is in the middle in more ways than the mere geographical. Politically, it has been neither an eternally stable democracy nor a victim of repressive dictatorship. As in other parts of the region, wealth and poverty abide together, but Ecuador’s poverty is not abject, the sort of thing one sees in the slums of Brazil or Venezuela. It is softer, more rural, more hidden. It has oil and belongs to OPEC, but not so much oil as to cause the rampant, widespread corruption seen in other oil-rich developing countries. It is split between indigenous peoples and those of European and mixed ancestry—the last, mestizos, are over 60 percent of the population—but it evinces neither the stark European dominance of Argentina nor the indigenous majority of Bolivia or Peru. About 10 percent of the population speaks Spanish as a second language, and only 2 percent doesn’t speak Spanish at all—lower figures than in Bolivia and Peru. In a similar vein, the small Afro-Ecuadorian presence is visible but, at just 3 percent of the population, it is neither scant like Chile’s nor so prevalent as in Brazil.
In a sense, I am in a kind of middle myself. In the summer of 2007, I left a decade of work at the U.S. State Department—mostly in democracy promotion and human rights—to transplant my family to this country in the middle of the world, more specifically, to Quito. For many Americans, Ecuador is, at most, a familiar name known primarily for its possession of the Galápagos Islands. For my family, it is not just home, but also one of the most beautiful countries on the planet; certainly it is one of the most stunning of the seventy or so I’ve visited. It boasts an almost indescribable natural diversity and a rich history filled with indigenous cultures, Inca rule, Spanish conquest and tumultuous political transitions since independence in 1830. Its art is eclectic and stirring.?
Equally stirring is the current political climate. Ecuador’s politics have been mainly an elite affair, a pendulum swinging from left to right and back again. But unlike some other countries in the hemisphere, the swings have not drawn blood. Leaders have rarely served out their full terms in recent years. (Before the current incumbent there were eight presidents in 13 years.) But they are not violently overthrown or killed. As with other societies in the region, too, Ecuador has transitioned recently toward a politics built on a platform of including those who have been politically marginalized. Like some in the region, it has a leftist leader practiced in anti-American rhetoric: Just last September Ecuador officially closed a U.S. military base, citing “insubordination.” President Rafael Correa has taken swift steps, particularly since his April 2009 re-election, to implement an aggressive “citizen revolution” agenda, align Ecuador more closely with partners in Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, and confront media outlets, which has drawn significant international attention. He is not Chávez or either of the Castro brothers, but he is certainly worrying many though the tactics he uses to advance his domestic agenda and through his ever closer relationships with Iran, Russia and China.
Ecuador’s citizenry is squarely in the middle of the participation spectrum, somewhere between engagement and disengagement. Citizen involvement in elections is relatively high, but the level of active informed debate is low. Popular peaceful protests are periodic; but knowledgeable public debate is uncommon outside an elite handful. Fatigue from an excessive number of transitions and low civic education translates into a citizenry that has not yet claimed its rights to full participation, and neither fully expects nor knows how to demand accountability from government.
Ecuador’s social and political realities have become clearer to me over time; now they are almost second nature. When I made my first trip to Ecuador in April 2007, I was struck by the capital, Quito: beautiful, comfortable and “tranquila”, as the Quiteños say. Flanked by the impressive Pichincha mountain on one side and an expansive forest on the other, Quito is a big village nestled in the heart of the Avenue of Volcanoes. The city is homey, with a trolley bustling down the main avenues, a mini-“Central Park” between them, and pedestrians hurriedly making their way to and from work. Surrounding my hotel in El Norte were several glistening shopping malls, full of popular international clothing and shoe-store chains. American food chains, Ecuadorian ceviche stands and European pastry shops packed the food courts. For those with money, the supermarkets lack nothing. My American hometown Safeway pales in comparison with the local Megamaxi.
During my first visit I ventured to the Centro Histórico, the remarkable city center whose Spanish architecture and beautiful plazas were refurbished beginning in 1978 thanks to UNESCO’s declaration of Quito as a World Heritage Site. I was struck not only by the impressive architecture and charming narrow streets, but also by the “browning” of the population. Radically different than El Norte, the Centro Histórico, like the vast majority of Ecuador, is filled with darker and invariably less-well-off Ecuadorians. As I headed back to the hotel in my rented SUV, reflecting on how this division penetrates so many societies and affects their economic and political development, my concentration was broken by a rapping at my driver’s side window. A small indigenous woman, with a felt derby and a brilliant magenta wool shawl covering her crisp white embroidered shirt, looked me straight in the eyes saying, “Por favor, señorita, compre chicles, caramelos, chifles.” I averted my eyes, as my guide had advised me, only to see in front of me a muscular, young Afro-Ecuadorian teen juggling balls in the narrow space between my car and the well-polished Ford Explorer in front of me. It’s hard to think clearly about political sociology when data is smacking you in the face. ?
Later that year we moved to Ecuador amid an aggressive political campaign season, one that ultimately ushered in a new Constituent Assembly for the ominous task of rewriting the constitution. President Correa had made constitutional revision a major cornerstone of his reformist, socialist presidential platform, and after a hard-fought campaign it became a reality. Coming from the United States, where the Constitution is sacred, never to be rewritten and relatively hard to amend, I was struck by the general sense of legal transience and malleability. Using a new constitution to try to unify a diverse country and population seemed an enormous challenge, particularly as many had told us that Ecuador is in essence four distinct countries. This initially hit me as grave hyperbole for a country the size of Colorado with only 13 million people. Two years later, I now wonder if that four-country estimate is perhaps on the low side. The sierra, coast, jungle and islands are distinct worlds unto themselves and multifaceted within each one. The politics of unifying and governing those who live there is vastly more complex than I grasped two years ago.
The sierra is a chain of 22 imposing mountains (including six active volcanoes) running down the middle of the country. It stretches from Colombia to Peru and is punctuated by urban centers such as Quito, Riobamba and Cuenca. Although few of these urban centers have more than 1
50,000 inhabitants, there is little affinity or connection between one city and any other that sits more than two hours away.?
Quito’s northern suburbs and elite areas are filled with gated communities boasting spacious houses with manicured lawns. The shopping malls bustle during the day, while locals browse the latest Apple products, stop at McDonalds or do their grocery shopping. On weekends, SUVs filled with well-off Ecuadorians head to golf courses and tennis clubs. At night, the quiet Andean air sweeps through the valley as families enjoy their private time together, a sacred tradition for Ecuadorians.?
Political lines parallel perfectly the stark economic divisions that live side by side in Quito. Just outside the capital the diversity of economic classes, indigenous cultures, languages, customs and garb multiplies. Minutes by car outside the city limits income levels drop precipitously. Modest concrete houses with chickens and laundry in the yard replace grander gated structures. Green and blue flags adorn virtually every building, showing strong support for President Correa’s Alianza PAIS Party and even more for the engaging, strong-willed politician himself. Farther down the highway are more indigenous-populated areas where brilliant magenta, turquoise and emerald-colored shawls cover the tightly wound gold beads around the necks of indigenous women, and occasionally hide their faces when onlookers become too interested. Men in crisp white shirts, espadrilles, red ponchos and white derbies line up awaiting the next bus to take them hither and yon. Rainbow flags representing the strongly indigenous Pachakutik Party adorn most houses in these indigenous strongholds. On Thursdays in Guamote, known for the largest indigenous market in Ecuador, the streets are packed with roasting guinea pigs, squealing chickens, massive gourds and huge ears of corn. Very little Spanish is heard amid the patter of Quechua conversation.
Drive down from the sierra toward the coast and one feels as though one has entered the Dominican Republic. The pace of life slows, the color of the skin darkens, the air thickens. The dense, dark green palm trees provide shade for shoeless children darting between one-room houses and the hot steamy shacks where their mothers turn pigs on rotisseries. Dark-skinned men, a mix of indigenous and African descent, sit on old crates eating maduros—what we call plantains—with sides of fried rice and black beans. Tight tank-tops, shorts and flip-flops are the uniform of choice for most women, regardless of age or form. Eventually one comes to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, sitting prominently on the country’s southern coast. Unlike government-oriented Quito, business-savvy Guayaquil is a commercial port city bustling with energy. It has a long-standing tradition of independence from Quito, and now from the President and his party.
If one heads four hours east of Quito, one enters an Amazonic zone where time itself seems to flatten into a mist. Thick, dense jungle—known here simply as El Oriente, the east—is home to a significant population of mestizos who followed the oil boom and a handful of tribes whose lives and customs have changed very little in centuries. Those areas easily reachable by car enjoy a slow pace in the humid tropical air. Deeper into the Oriente—reached only by boat or foot—people pass their days gathering food, cooking over open fires and sleeping under simple shelters to keep out the intense rains that fall for six months of the years. Monkeys, snakes and more birds than most guidebooks have room to describe abound.
Lastly, Ecuador boasts the Galápagos Islands. The most popular tourist attraction for this natural resource-rich country, the islands are, in many ways, a million miles away from the reality of the other three regions. The famous blue-footed booby, massive tortoises and playful seals enjoy a peaceful existence on these distant islands. Scantily populated by non-indigenous inhabitants, the islands are a beautiful, isolated refuge from the buzz of mainland Ecuador.
So Ecuador is thus not a country easily unified, ruled or guided in any particular direction. The diversity—in geography, economic status, ethnicity, history, language—has contributed to a lack of common political vision. A certain air of political malaise is accepted and expected amid this diversity and a long history of broken political promises. A certain frustrating looseness thus characterizes politics here. And a wide gap between campaign rhetoric and governance remains.
Just as with my first months in country, the last year has been spent watching campaigns and thinking about Ecuador’s political scene. The Pan-American Highway is still punctuated by colorful political advertisements painted or glued on rock faces, and the names and party list numbers crudely painted in the parties’ respective colors on the sides of barns are beginning to fade. Each name, each party has a strong personal identity for citizens. Few have detailed platforms that their supporters could easily recount or that are clearly defined and recognizable for the average voter.
Here strong political divisions are superimposed on entrenched economic, social and racial divisions, so that the political class has become as polarized as the people it deigns to rule. While of course there are ideas, even ideologies, in the mix, debate here most often turns to personal rivalries, with issues, policies and governing systems all too often left on the cutting room floor. Ecuador’s personality-driven politics creates a constant reshuffling of movements, parties and personality-dominated groups motivated as much by support networks as by platforms and policies to improve the country. All sides equally avoid cooperation across political lines as a tactic that spites the very principles for which they say they stand. If this same tendency has become more pervasive in the United States in recent years, it is still not deemed acceptable. That, at least, is a distinction with a difference.
Class- and personality-based politics is nothing new, whether to Ecuador, Latin America or most other parts of the world. What will be interesting to watch is how Ecuadorians react to the implementation of the citizen revolution started from above. Expectations are high, information is scarce, and patience is thin in an increasingly difficult economic environment. Whether this will lead to a greater level of effective political mobilization remains to be seen. However, less passivity—if that is what Ecuador gets—does not translate automatically into better or more democratic government. Elections are nice and protests are sometimes useful, but the real hard work lies within the realm of governance and civic development. Ecuador has all the core institutions of democracy—constitution, elections, free press, unions, judiciary and non-governmental organizations. What it does not have yet is a deeply entrenched political culture in which civic engagement and good governance—of developing and implementing policies, of responding to citizens’ needs, of public servants putting country first—is second-nature.
Only time will tell what will come of each of the candidates whose name adorns the rock faces along the Pan-American Highway, and what the political future holds for this gorgeous country in and of the middle. Will it continue down the middle of the road, or will it veer more dramatically to the right or (more plausibly) to the left? As the warm Andean rain beats down on those rocks, washing away the memory of political campaigns past, history will take their measure. I’ll eventually make my way back to the State Department, once again to democracy and human rights work. As for my second home of Ecuador, I’ll still be watching.