Ecuador and the United States of America
By Gamal Dillard
Ecuador is not taking it anymore! As far as Ecuadorians are concerned, the United States of America has dominated them ever since they can remember, and it’s time for some get-back. David is standing up to Goliath and everyone is watching, especially Goliath. This small mega-diverse country of 14 million is sticking it to the United States, and enjoying every bit of it. You could say the get-back began several years ago when the US ambassador here was unceremoniously shown the door, followed by the granting of asylum to Julian Assange in its London Consulate, and there was the possibility of Ecuador doing the same for Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, who after spending several months in Russia was recently given asylum by President Putin. Obama, like his predecessors before him, ordered countries NOT to give Mr. Snowden asylum and those that did would be severely punished. Obama had made the mistake by thinking that the United States was still that powerful schoolyard bully. He was wrong. All the kids who had for years handed the US their hard-earned lunch money had gotten wiser and were now united against him. The bully’s bark was now much worse than his bite, a result of having overextended himself in other schoolyards across the world.
The relationship that Ecuadorians have with the United States is a very complex and contradictory one. Most here have a close family member who lives in New York, who as far as they are concerned, is hedonistically living it up, making thousands of dollars weekly and wearing upscale clothes purchased solely at Saks Fifth Ave despite the reality being quite different. Daily life in New York for those Ecuadorians who have recently arrived and lucky enough to get work, often consists of 15-hour days of non-stop physical labor while living under precarious conditions. They soon see that the image of American life they saw broadcast on TV back home was pure Hollywood fiction. Expecting I Love Lucy, they find themselves smack dab in Good Times wondering when they’ll eat their next meal and how they’ll survive the brutally cold winter nights with little or no heat. For many Ecuadorians, New York is the only city in The United States, and getting there is tantamount to arriving to the Promised Land, where the streets are paved with gold and funny-looking computerized boxes spit out money when commanded. That they would spend thousands of dollars—money often made available to them by a greedy loan shark– to be dangerously smuggled to arrive to the US, speaks to their desperation to escape what they consider a dead-end life back home. Ecuadorians refer to the United States as La Yoni, a phonetic derivation of the popular 1970’s ad campaign, “I♥NY”. It was then that the first small wave of Ecuadorians began arriving in The Big Apple, many working at white collar as well as blue collar jobs. When they saw the popular T-shirts with the “I♥NY”phrase blazoned across the front, a result of the New York state government’s attempt to revive tourism in an almost broke Manhattan, they, not initially knowing what it meant, began pronouncing it as a word. As any Ecuadorian knows, when returning home, one has to arrive with gifts in hand and nothing was more popular (and cheaper) than those shirts and before you knew it, Yoni became a legitimate Ecuadorian word, part of an informal lexicon that still endures. In the 1980’s more Ecuadorians continued to arrive in New York, setting up communities in Queens and Brooklyn while sending remittances back home. But it wasn’t until the late 1990’s, when the Ecuadorian economy virtually went into cardiac arrest, due to runaway inflation and the systematic collapse of the banking system, that hundreds of thousands of Ecuadorians fled Ecuador for a better life, many overstaying their US travel visas or dangerously making their way through Mexico to where they would ultimately end up, in New York. It was their remittances from jobs as cooks, laborers and nannies that would keep their large families back home afloat, while at the same time almost destroying them, as many found new husbands and wives and created new families. A great many of them also left their children and dependents in Ecuador with no real supervision, allowing them to get into all kinds of trouble with their new money. Nowadays, New York City is home to slightly under a million Ecuadorians, many of whom travel back and forth, navigating both worlds, savvily taking advantage of their dual citizenship that affords them benefits they can claim in New York while simultaneously buying comparatively cheap property in Ecuador’s costal or sierra region.
The current president, Rafael Correa, is perhaps the most astute and honest of all of Ecuadorian’s presidents, past and present. A man whose own father was imprisoned for several years in the US for drug smuggling, a punishment that he feels was too harsh, Correa has called out America on her Do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do rhetoric. Yes, the president has a chip on his shoulder, however it goes much deeper than that. Chip or no chip, President Correa has built an entire new system of quality roads, mandated that state sponsored college education be free, made hospital care accessible to people who initially were excluded and done a lot to create a new wave of nationalistic pride that hadn’t existed until he came into office. Granted, there are a lot of imperfections, many still live in impoverished communities and modern streets ultimately cannot be eaten, but the truth remains, that compared to how things were less than twenty years ago, things are a lot better. He has raised a level of worldly awareness among his marginally-informed constituents who for too long accepted a secondary role in their own region.
When President Teddy Roosevelt said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick” he was also undoubtedly referring to the tiny Andean nation of Ecuador which later became one of the world’s leading exporters of bananas, dominated by foreign trans-nationals, United Fruit Company and Standard Fruit. America’s first foray into Ecuador ostensibly began in the late 1800’s when the bourgeoning republic’s first established railroads were American owned and operated. It was these railroads which allowed the distribution of goods from one part of the difficult-to-navigate country to the other. The roads were often unreliable, constantly washed out from severe weather, and winding mountain routes offered no better protection as many vehicles either took too long to arrive to their destination or crashed toward the bottom of a several-thousand foot drop, taking their goods and drivers with them. The initial steamboats, operating out of Guayaquil, now the most populous—and hottest–city in Ecuador, were, too American owned and operated, and transported goods and people up and down Ecuadorians coast. One of Ecuador’s most popular soccer teams, EMELEC, dressed in their iconic blue uniforms, was founded by an American businessman who himself, didn’t even like the sport. He preferred basketball, boxing and swimming instead and had to be convinced to make soccer one of the sports his club offered.
The opening of the Panama Canal brought in more American businessmen as new, shorter trade routes would have an impact on both countries’ economies. The end result was that America became even more dominant in the region to such a degree that Panama Hats, which have always been made in Ecuador, did not reflect their true place of origin in its name. Panama was just one of the stopping points en route to Manhattan’s haute couture shops such as Bergdorf Goodman’s. In the beginning of the 20th century, Ecuador found herself immersed in border disputes with her neighbors, a by-product of ambiguously-defined delineations during the Spanish colonial years. When countries like Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, among others became independent republics after gaining their hard-fought sovereignty, just where there borders started and ended lead to fighting that would continue up until the finale of the century. The United States often intervened, not necessarily in the best interests of Ecuador, but in her own best interests. As the US depended heavily on exports from South America, especially during World War I and World II, having Ecuador engaged in a separate war with her neighbors would have compromised a victorious American outcome and interrupted production and shipment of needed materials. Consequently, Ecuador was often forced to accept the decision of foreign shuttle diplomacy which, ultimately led to the country becoming one of the smallest countries in South America although since then, many historians have refuted the popular belief that the territory in question was occupied by Ecuadorians and not by Peruvians. Many old maps show Ecuador as once almost twice her size and with a border with Brazil and many Ecuadorians still blame American meddling and acquiescent presidents for her comparatively insignificant presence on the continent today. When most people speak about South America, rarely is Ecuador mentioned. Most of them actually have to look at a map to see that Ecuador is located south of Colombia and north of Peru and nowhere close to Brazil whom it last touched in the 1940’s. So, it’s fair and accurate to say that Ecuador has had for years an identity crisis. Just who is Ecuador and why are people always telling her what to do?
In the 1940’s the Americans set up military bases in strategic places here and kept them open for many years after World War II had ended, including The Galapagos Islands, which at that time were mainly known where Charles Darwin came up with his theory of natural selection. The famed islands would later become a popular tourist destination in the 1970’s and 1980’s, ironically thanks to preservation efforts by both the Europeans and Americans as many of the natives on the islands had actually began to slaughter and eat in large numbers the large Galapagos Tortoises, almost pushing them to the brink of extinction. They also unknowingly introduced new animals such as cats, goats and others to the delicate food chain which, too, almost led to the eradication of additional native species of animals and plants.
Ecuadorians are good natured people and will jokingly and seriously ask an American they meet if he or she works for the CIA. (I’ve been asked this many times.) The CIA has been accused of overthrowing governments in Ecuador to killing one of her presidents. What is confirmed is that the CIA did help overthrow the government of President of Carlos Julio Arosemena whom they felt was getting just a bit too close to Cuba after Castro’s revolution four years prior. Arosemena, a known-alcoholic who had become a stone in the shoe of the Americans with his fiery leftist rhetoric, attempted to enter a party one evening with two prostitutes. When told that he could not enter his own party with women of such dubious character, he angrily retorted that the people of dubious character were not the prostitutes that he had on both arms, but the actual people inside the party, which included not only Ecuadorian dignitaries, but influential Americans, an ambassador among them. He was overthrown that very night by the Americans. Replacing the overthrown president was a military dictatorship which had very close ties to Washington, and under which agrarian reform was shaky at best. After years of on-again, off-again military rule, Ecuador finally elected a young, charismatic president by the name of Jaime Roldos, who just a few years into his presidency was killed in a plane crash, along with his wife, in 1981. Though there has been no proof of US involvement, rumors continue to circulate that the CIA wanted him out of the way and feared that he was making alliances with the then-Soviet Union. Ecuador had around that time become an oil-rich nation as vast reserves had been recently discovered in the Amazon region, making this small country a player in the world market. Ecuador had become much more important to Washington, DC and would have to be monitored more carefully.
Let’s fast forward to the late 1980’s, when President Leon Febres Cordero, a macho right-winged, cigar smoking politician, was invited to the White House and subsequently became close friends of Ronald Reagan who gladly embraced his neo-liberal economic policies. That the Ecuadorian president was himself accused of human rights abuses and disappearances seemed not to matter to Washington as they were aligning themselves with right-winged governments in Central America. The IMF was loaning money to Ecuador in exchange for her depressing her own markets and devaluing her own currency which only made her more dependent on foreign assistance. The debt that Ecuador was handling was not only duplicitously negotiated by elite government officials and bankers who were just trying to make a buck for themselves, it was being handed down for future generations of working class people to pay off.
Two businessmen, The Isaias Brothers, who are being protected in the United States, were owners of one of the then-largest banks in Ecuador, Filanbanco, which went belly-up in the late 1990’s setting off one of Ecuador’s worst financial crisis, costing account holders and the government hundreds of millions of dollars. The then-president of the country, Jamil Mahuad Witt, whose campaign was financed by the banking industry, is himself a refuge in The United States working as a Harvard University Professor instructing privileged students firsthand on how to send a country over a fiscal cliff. When the banks collapsed, millions of Ecuadorians were unable to access their money for several years, relegated to beating on the bank’s doors, demanding answers and desperate for food. It was then that the country decided to switch to the US dollar, sending prices of primary goods into a tailspin. Ecuadorians overnight had to learn how to handle a currency they had never seen and distinguish a penny from a nickel and a dime from a quarter. Years later when some of those account holders were lucky enough to get their money back from the banks, they discovered that all of their life’s savings had been casually converted to less than a hundred dollars, reducing them to paupers in the street. The Isaias Brothers have taken refuge in Miami and despite President Correa’s petition that they be returned to face charges, the US government has refused to hand them over.
In 2013, The US is demanding that Ecuador follow orders as they had always done in the past. But the US has apparently failed to realize that this isn’t the old Ecuador. There is a new sheriff in town, and he doesn’t give in just because Washington says so. Hugo Chavez might be dead, but his replacement had been found. And he’s busy sticking it to President Obama as much as he possibly can. After all, President Correa’s late father, who after serving time for smuggling drugs on a plane to feed his family, committed suicide, deserved better.
–Gamal Dillard resided in Ecuador from 1998-2001 and from 2008-2013. From 1998-2001 he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer as an Urban Youth Worker where he witnessed the horrid consequences of the economic collapse and the subsequent painful dollarization. He then returned in 2008 to work as a third grade and head international teacher in Cuenca. In 2010 he returned to the north Ecuadorian coast as an English teacher and assistant coordinator of the Foreign Language Department of a private Catholic school. He is currently living in Colombia and finishing a book The Day the Priest Left, a fictionalized account of working in an elite Ecuadorian high school, which will be ready for publication later this year.