Ecuador: Pageantry, socialism, and insecurity

Ecuador: Pageantry, socialism, and insecurity

We just returned from Ecuador, where we traveled to the Galapagos to walk in Darwin’s footsteps and see the tortoises, sea lions, and blue-footed boobies.

Ecuador is an interesting country with a distinct American influence. Like the United States, Ecuador uses 110-volt electricity service and American-type plugs. Its old currency, the sucre, was replaced by the United States dollar. Locals joke that there are more one dollar coins in Ecuador than in the United States. They are freely given as change for larger denomination bills.

With the exception of the Galapagos, Ecuador is also in the same time zone as the United States. Factor that the flying time to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city and its commercial hub, is about six hours, an hour less than Paris, and Ecuador becomes a rather convenient place to visit.

Our guides in Guayaquil, where we landed, and in Quito, from where we returned, were quite chatty about conditions in Ecuador. Some of the politics and economics might sound familiar to Americans.

Ecuador is a politically divided country. It has had nine presidents over the past 20 years. The current leader, Rafael Correa, was elected in January 2007.

In Guayaquil, we learned from our guide that the city’s mayor, Jaime Nebot, and President Correa were political enemies. Not surprising, since Nebot, representing the country’s commercial center, has a more capitalist bent than Correa. Correa seems to be introducing Chavismo, the form of socialism practiced by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, into Ecuador.

The Guayaquil guide was in the Nebot camp. She was concerned that Correa was making promises that Ecuador could not afford and that the economic engine of Guayaquil was being taxed beyond its capacity to pay for Correa’s policies. The president was “cuckoo.”

The Quito guide, while sympathetic to some of Correa’s programs, felt that the president was imposing too much debt on the country and deincentivizing work. All a person has to do is identify him or herself as poor and the government will pick up the tab for all basic necessities. This had the perverse effect of encouraging immigration to Ecuador.

Oddly enough, the main sources of immigrants to Ecuador are the socialist countries of Venezuela and Cuba. This made the Quito guide very suspicious, particularly of Cuban immigrants. Knowing how much it would cost to get a visa to travel from the United States from Ecuador, he wondered how a Cuban, with the current state of the Cuban economy, could get exit visas from Cuba and afford to travel to Ecuador.

He said the Cubans immediately took advantage of the Correa social welfare programs. Additionally, he said they did not fit into the Ecuadorean culture, citing his experience in his own neighborhood where there had been a Cuban influx. Unlike the Ecuadorians, the Cubans were “loud” and liked to make noise in the streets in the wee hours, disturbing the peace of the neighborhood.

There was also a conspiratorial element in the Quito guide’s narrative. He felt the Cubans and Venezuelans came with a particular, non-Ecuadorean political philosophy, with the intent of changing the political landscape.

The guides’ descriptions of the Ecuadorean political climate and the Quito guide’s view of immigration in Ecuador sound reminiscent of discussions here in the United States.

There was something else that was suggestive of another time. Every Monday, Correa, a handsome and charismatic man, reviews the palace guard from the presidential palace’s balcony. Government officials, with Correa in the middle, are arrayed on the balcony like Soviet leaders at a May Day parade. I was simultaneously reminded of the “cult of personality” and how demagogues use pageantry to rally the masses to their causes.

We asked our guide to show us the synagogue in Quito. Apparently, our request was not unusual. He told us that Jews were prominent in the Ecuadorean economy, particularly in finance and manufacturing, and that Quito Jews do not consider the synagogue a tourist attraction; you have to register a request to see it. I speculate that this has to do with the security of Jewish communities worldwide brought about by current political conditions.

This fear is not irrational considering that a just-released report shows that hate crimes across New York jumped 14 percent in 2009, led by a 15 percent increase in attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions.

It is said that travel is a broadening experience. I agree. People like to talk about similarities across countries and cultures. What started as an ecology trip expanded into a cross-cultural experience which demonstrated that a country, with about 5 percent of the population of the United States, was struggling with many of the same political and social issues that are front page news here.

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