It is often difficult to reconcile the Ecuador I wake up in every morning with what I read about in online media and hear about on satellite TV news.
Rather than the kooky left-wing authoritarian basket case in an all-out conflict with the United States, I experience a booming vibrant country that’s found a workable combination of solidarity and free enterprise, and a clearly effective and highly popular leadership recently re-elected with a landslide in elections that not even the hysterical right-wing opposition media seriously alleged were rigged.
Oh, it is also full of Americans (or United States-ians, as people in Latin America prefer to call them, considering themselves “Americans”, too). The city of Cuenca in particular, with its perfect weather all year round, has become a retirement hotspot for Americans who want to take advantage of the fact that not only is Ecuador on the US dollar, but its prices are a little closer to what they remember from the good old days. Ecuador was recently named the world’s top retirement destination by International Living Magazine for the fifth year running.
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Ecuador is also full of study-abroad kids and volunteers, who along with Ecuadorian teenagers populate the touristy Mariscal district of Quito. There is a joint there where you can get four longnecks for five dollars, and they also sell kebabs. Let me repeat that: four longnecks for five US dollars. And they also sell kebabs.
Twenty years ago Quito was one of the cheapest places in the world, because it was one of the poorest places in the world. The fact that prices have not spiralled wildly out of control with newfound industry, as can happen in a Third World city seeing a burst of investment and/or prosperity, is testament to the skillful economic management of President Rafael Correa, a former economics professor who came into government following a decade or so of mass social unrest and political and economic crises.
There is surprisingly strong support for this Leftist leader, even among the English-speaking upper middle class, and support is stronger among those who live in the poorer barrios. The Ecuadorian government’s support for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and now whistleblower Edward Snowden, is among the government’s most popular policies.
But politics isn’t at the front of everyone’s mind; people are just focused on enjoying life. This calm reveals an apparent security and perception that the long-hated US government (which Ecuadorians are very able to distinguish from its citizens) lacks effective pressure points by which to punish its one-time vassal state.
This was demonstrated by the recent withdrawal of Ecuador from a US-Andean trade deal under which Ecuadorian goods receive preferential customs treatment. The deal was up for renewal at around the same time that talk of Snowden receiving asylum from Ecuador was at its peak (a prospect still on the cards if he can reach Ecuadorian soil). US pundits tried — and failed — to use the deal as leverage to convince Ecuador to refuse Snowden asylum.
This growing impotence hasn’t stopped US attempts at meddling (as recently as a 2010 police-led coup attempt), but Correa’s “citizens’ revolution” seems to have some time and room to move. Given his success so far, and the fact that in the last general election his party took control of the legislature, big things are to be expected.
A new set of media ownership laws (when Correa came to power, the banks, which he had a democratic mandate to regulate, owned five out of seven TV channels) are coming, granting a third of all frequencies to community broadcasters (with another third each for private and public broadcasters, including from state and municipal governments).
Water and land reforms are also under way, with the Ministry Of Water (created under the Correa government) now dealing with thousands of disputes that would have in the past been determined by the brutal arbitration of “facts on the ground”.
Among one of the most exciting places to look for new developments is the “solidarity sector” comprised of co-ops, community credit unions and the like. It already contributes around 40% of the country’s GDP and provides as much as 70% of the full-time employment. More people in Ecuador work without a boss than with one.