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Useful Strangers or Faithful Friends?

Ronn Pineo’s book misinterprets the history of Ecuadorian-American relations.



Ronn Pineo’s book comes at an important time in Ecuadorian-American relations and could have made a major contribution to better understanding of an Andean nation that is not well known.  However, it contains inconsistencies, misstatements and analytical gaps that limit its value.  His book may only reinforce Ecuador’s anti-globalization sentiments, further misleading the country about the sources of its political instability and underdevelopment.  In this respect, the author exhibits the estrangement among some academics, diplomats and international agencies in analyzing Latin America that has produced unfortunate misunderstandings of hemispheric cooperation.


This book presents an intriguing thesis that Ecuador has most often prevailed over the United States in major disputes and traces its success in neutralizing or thwarting U.S. power, although many were pyrrhic victories.   It shows the country’s unique relationship with the United States and offers it up as an example of how “the less powerful are not powerless”.  Yet, Pineo does not adequately explain how these victories were achieved or his suggestions that the country’s dependency on the United States produced instability and adversely impacted its development. Indeed, his book undermines the dependency theory he uses to describe relations between the two countries.  In reviewing Ecuador’s tortured history of instability--producing some of the most erratic political leaders in the hemisphere--one is hard pressed to understand how they prevailed over American power. These contradictions leave the reader feeling that the author’s objections to U.S. policy distorted his analysis.




A second concern is Pineo’s statement that the United States was “ignorant” of Ecuador and rarely focused attention on it.  He chastises American officials for not understanding its regionalism or history and culture.  This ignores the U.S. Government maintaining a Consulate in its largest port city of Guayaquil for over 180 years, reflecting an unprecedented recognition of the country’s dominate regionalism.  The USG Area Handbook Series, “Ecuador: A Country Study” contains one of the most comprehensive overviews of its history and culture.  It has been used for over 40 years to train diplomats serving there and is a basic source for many researchers including Pineo. He disregards, U.S. Minister Friedrich Hassaurek’s book Four Years Among the Ecuadorians published in 1867 which remains one of the best to this day,  as well as numerous U.S. Government reports that clearly define regionalism as a key issue and provide other insightful analyses of this country.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries hundreds of messages from the U.S. Embassy in Quito and the Consulate in Guayaquil (available through the National Archives) present some of the only in-depth analyses in English of Ecuador’s major political and economic events that are regularly cited by scholars. More recently, a significant book on bilateral relations, published last year by the U.S. Embassy in Quito further demonstrates its interest in the history and culture of the country.  As a result, there is little basis for the author’s charge that the United States has “disregarded Ecuador’s internal race, class and geographic divisions.”


Likewise, Pineo does not fully explain his subtitle “Useful Strangers.” He disregards cases of how both countries helped each other which could have provided greater balance, as he did with his example of the U.S. Peace Corps.  His subtitle seems to suggest a second meaning, highlighting the ambiguities in his book.  While Ecuador may not be well known, it has attracted far more American attention than is fully appreciated.  Early cases include visits in 1800 by U.S. Captain Amasa Delano (an ancestor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) who completed the first studies of the Galapagos Islands.  General Joseph Villamil from Louisiana fought for Ecuador’s independence in the 1820s, integrated the Galapagos into the country, and served as the third U.S. Consul in Guayaquil. Two of the greatest American writers and painters — Herman Melville and Frederic Edwin Church — were so inspired by their visits there to produce revolutionary works in the 1840s and 1850s that have had long lasting influence.  Americans and Ecuadorians have had significant interactions during the past two centuries with important impacts on both and on international relations. While the two countries have not always understood each other, they are not strangers.




Third, there are a number of omissions or incorrect statements.  For example, Pineo does not appreciate the role played by William Wheelwright, the most important nineteenth century U.S. entrepreneur in South America, in establishing the Pacific Steamship Navigation Company in 1840 to provide the Andean countries with greater access to international markets.  Wheelwright developed his vision of using steam power to integrate the continent as the first American Consul in Guayaquil from 1825 to1829  and through discussions with Ecuadorian President Vicente Rocafuerte.  In addressing the construction of the Guayaquil-Quito Railroad in the 1900s, Pineo claims that it failed because railroads only work on “flat plains.”  This claim is contradicted by railroad history, especially in Chile, Peru, the United States (the transcontinental line) which served as models for Ecuador. He understates the significance of the Railroad as an initiative to unify this fragmented nation, providing capital and entrepreneurship to establish the Ecuadorian Corporation that supported its early industrialization. 


Pineo is similarly dismissive of banking-financial reforms in the 1920s.  He describes the architect of these reforms -- Princeton University’s Edwin Kemmerer who was one of the great American progressive economists, largely responsible for the U.S. Federal Reserve -- as "orthodox" and "narrow-minded." These judgments, and Pineo’s views that the Kemmerer reforms did not last, would have little support among economic historians and Central Bankers many of whom revere Kemmerer for his achievements.


His book misinterprets the significance of Eloy Alfaro’s Liberal Revolution from 1895-1911 and the support provided to it by American entrepreneurs, engineers, doctors, teachers and protestant missionaries.  It produced revolutionary political and social changes throughout the 20th century that reverberate today at the Constituent Assembly being held in Alfaro’s hometown of Montecristi. It planted the seeds for growth of evangelical Christian and other protestant groups that have been changing the country’s dominant Catholic culture. Pineo overlooks how U.S. missionaries began the first community leadership training and radio education programs that nurtured national integration and the emergence of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and the Pachacutik Party that are unprecedented in Latin American history. 




Little attention is given to U.S. technical assistance in the 1940s and 1950s which established some of the country’s most important development institutions. The successful Triffin Financial Mission is overlooked and Pineo fails to note the many achievements of the Point Four aid program.   He doesn’t discuss projects of the Alliance for Progress in the 1960s that supported historic reforms such as elimination of the huasipungo peonage system (equivalent to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation), the strengthening of cooperatives and civil society groups, the development of indigenous training, land and housing reforms, the initiation of family planning, and many others. He is critical of the conditionality attached to loans from the U.S. Export-Import Bank in the 1950s, from USAID in the 1960s and from the IMF/World Bank in more recent decades.  At the same time, he makes only passing reference to private bank loans of the 1970s that had no conditionality, were often misused and greatly increased the national debt with little impact on the country’s development. 


The most egregious part of Pineo’s book is his section on the “CIA in Ecuador” which is largely based on one questionable source — Philip Agee’s Inside the Company: A CIA Diary.  Pineo fails to advise his readers of Agee’s long history of supporting every leftist/Marxist movement in Latin America and allegations that Agee was working for the Soviets and Cubans when he published his CIA exposé in1975 which greatly damaged Ecuadorian-American relations.  Agee died recently in Cuba after a long residence there, and the Castro government’s eulogy of him appears to confirm the allegations. On page 171, Pineo irresponsibly charges that the United States supported the murder of "independent-minded intellectuals, professors and newspaper reporters" with no evidence or supporting documentation.  One would have expected a professional historian to be more rigorous in his research given its importance in U.S.-Ecuador relations.  




When not blaming the United States, the CIA or the IMF for Ecuador’s poverty and chaotic history, Pineo falls back on simplistic explanations, such as the actions of the oligarchy.  He refers to Ecuador’s elite in the most pejorative manner but does not always make clear who they are.  He employs the same vague tactics that populist politicians have used to demonize those who have succeeded and who have promoted the country’s progress. 


Is Luis Noboa one of the elite — someone who rose from a destitute urban ambulante in Guayaquil in the 1930s to a multimillionaire banana and shipping magnate?  Is it Segundo Wong, the Chinese-Ecuadorian entrepreneur who pulled himself out of extreme poverty to become a leading exporter and opened Asian markets to Ecuadorian bananas? Is it the Lebanese immigrants who played such a critical role in the country’s industrial-financial development? Or is it Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler like Olga Fisch in the late 1930s who settled in Quito and other highland cities and made major contributions to their development and to artisan exports? 


Does the elite include the Otavalo Indians who have used globalization to export their handicrafts and music all over the world, enhancing their cultural heritage, dramatically increasing their incomes and gaining ownership of most property and banks just an hour north of Quito?  Should it include President Rafael Correa himself who taught at an elite university while obtaining a Ph.D. in the United States which few Ecuadorians have done?  While Pineo sees this country as having a closed and repressive society, the above examples show that it has far more upward mobility than many appreciate and that traditional leftist paradigms do a disservice to understanding what one writer has correctly termed an "Andean Enigma."




Fourth, Pineo’s presentation of Ecuador’s trade and market reforms adopted over the past decades ignore a large body of academic literature that demonstrate why such actions are needed to break down deeply rooted mercantilist-corporatist-protectionist policies, to promote sustainable growth, and to democratize economic and social opportunities. His repeated statements about the IMF, the World Bank, the U.S. Government controlling the country’s fiscal and banking policies are distortions and would have little support among most economists.  They reflect simplistic views and conspiracy theories that promote misunderstandings of the role of international agencies and the United States in Ecuador.  


At the same time, Pineo overlooks alternative views by academics such as Morris Whitaker of Utah State University and Douglas Southgate of Ohio State University, and numerous UN and other international reports that demonstrate how key sectors of the economy (e.g. bananas, flowers, shrimp) have progressed because of “neoliberal” market reforms and integration into the world economy. Indeed, this book might have benefited from greater peer review by economists and economic historians who could have flagged some of the misstatements, misinterpretations of data and incomplete research.


Fifth, his book is particularly weak in analyzing the sources of Ecuador’s instability and its strong populist tradition.  The country historically has been one of the most unstable in Latin America experiencing repeated crises of governance since its founding in 1830. Yet Pineo provides little explanation of its populism and how it defined itself as anti-American to unify this highly fragmented society and to generate political legitimacy. To suggest that Ecuador’s instability is due in large measure to U.S. policies—and to believe the populist rhetoric as Pineo seems to do—presents an incorrect view of longstanding American cooperation that has advanced the country’s progress.




Sixth, Pineo’s range of sources is not as broad or balanced as it might have been. He draws many of his conclusions from self-proclaimed Marxist and leftist writers such as Philip Agee, Kim Clark, Steven Striffler and others who appear to use Ecuador as a foil for projecting their ideological views.  Clark’s book on the Railroad and Striffler’s on bananas are given prominence while others that raise questions about their research are disregarded.  He cites Ph.D. dissertations such as those of George Lauderbaugh, Robert Terry, and Eva Maria Loewenfeld, but ignores their positive conclusions.  More objective writers are downplayed like Lois Roberts, David Schodt, Clarence Zuvekas, Mitchell Seligson, and earlier historians like E. Taylor Parks, as well as numerous international agency reports that come to different conclusions. He overlooks hundreds of studies of U.S. assistance projects in Ecuador that are available through USAID’s Center for Development Information and Evaluation.  His selective use of sources focuses largely on failures while diverting attention away from successes.


Similarly, Pineo does not appreciate the classic American writings on Ecuador that are consummate love letters to a nation expressing great affection as well as criticism.  These include:  Adrain Terry’s Travels in the Equatorial Regions of South America (1832), Frederick Hassaurek’s Four Years Among the Ecuadorians (1867), James Orton’s The Andes and the Amazon (1870), William Elroy Curtis’ The Capitals of Spanish America (1886), Ludwig Bemelmans’ The Donkey Inside (1941), and Mortiz Thomsen’s Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle (1969). While they are critical of the country’s poverty, religious and political intolerance, and cultural characteristics, they demonstrate the longstanding American interest in helping this country.  They reflect one good neighbor’s concern for another while encouraging friends to be more introspective. The fact that Pineo overlooked these writings, or missed their affection, says a great deal about the limitations of his book.




One of Pineo’s gravest deficiencies is his "presentism" — evaluating the past through the prism of the present, judging events out of context and condemning historic figures for not acting as we might today. Too often he falls back on superficial explanations for Ecuador’s instability and crisis of governance which date from the very beginnings of the country and are rooted in internal factors such as its geographic, social and political fragmentation and weak civic culture.  Instead the author seems guided by ideological debates that provide little help to a country that must grapple with a rapidly globalizing world. The challenges facing Ecuador are almost entirely products of its history and culture, as demonstrated so effectively by former President Osvaldo Hurtado in Las Costumbres de los Ecuatorianos published in 2007.


Pineo’s narrative is particularly disappointing because the history of Ecuadorian-American relations is one of the most fascinating but least known in the region.  For over two centuries there have been numerous examples of mutual cooperation as well as conflict and misunderstandings. They highlight a relationship that is far more complex and nuanced than is commonly believed.  While Pineo correctly points out some of the negative aspects in Ecuadorian-American relations, such as discrimination against the country in U.S. aid allocations and ineffective U.S. actions to cutoff aid because of political disputes, he generally downplays or misinterprets the positive and accentuates the negative.




For example, most of Ecuador’s reform movements from its wars of independence to its nation-building and development programs were supported by the United States.  The American General Joseph Villamil played a key role in Ecuadorian independence and his Guayaquil home was the famous meeting place for Simón Bolivar and José de San Martin in 1822.  The United States was the first to recognize the independence of Gran Colombia including Ecuador which was celebrated in one of José Joaquin Olmedo’s most famous poems. Villamil together with the first U.S. Consul in Guayaquil, William Wheelwright, implemented the country’s earliest improvement projects.  Wheelwright’s younger brother Isaac was an education advisor to President Vicente Rocafuerte and established the first public school for girls.  From the1820s to the 1860s, the Monroe Doctrine and British support provided Ecuador a protective shield that discouraged those promoting European re-colonization by autocratic powers in continental Europe.


During the 19th century Ecuadorian leaders urged their fellow citizens to emulate Benjamin Franklin and George Washington and adopt American democracy and a market economy. Perhaps no other example better symbolizes American concern than how a U.S. diplomat and New England sea captains assisted the country’s national heroine, Manuela Saénz, when she was forced into a painful exile in Paita, Peru in the 1830s, an early victim of political intolerance.  Throughout its history Ecuador’s most important reformers--Vicente Rocafuerte, Garcia Moreno, Eloy Alfaro, Isidro Ayora, Galo Plaza, among others--used American technical advisors. 


Significant assistance was provided by the Institute of Inter-American Affairs in the 1940s, by Point Four and Export-Import Bank in the 1950s, by the Alliance for Progress of the 1960s, USAID, the Peace Corps, the Inter-American Foundation and Food Aid programs. The U.S. supported development of the country’s petroleum resources in the 1970s, market-trade reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, the Ecuador-Peru Peace Accords of 1998, and more recent actions to strengthen its economy, democracy and national security.


The two nations were allies in World War II and in the Cold War, and continue to work together in the War against Drugs and Terrorism.  For over half a century Ecuador’s international banana markets were developed with important American cooperation.  In the1970s and1980s bananas exported to Eastern Europe by the Noboa Group played a role in undermining communism, coming to symbolize Western life-styles, freedom and democracy that German leaders used to explain in part the fall of the Berlin Wall.  In recent decades American cooperation helped Ecuador gain greater access to European markets for its exports.  Together the two countries along with others won what came to be called "the Banana War" in a historic 2001 World Trade Organization decision (ratified again in 2007-2008) that favored thousands of local producers and workers.




The United States has maintained an open and favorable trade regime for Ecuadorian exports, including the Andean Trade Preferences legislation, despite numerous disputes such as termination of the contract with Occidental Petroleum Company in 2006.  Despite the long protracted conflict over fishing rights known as the "Tuna War," populist hostility to U.S. policies, and a negative investment climate, the two countries have cooperated in many areas such as combating drug trafficking, protecting Ecuador’s environmental heritage and developing its isolated border regions.  During the past years of political instability, the United States proactively supported Ecuadorian democracy and provided aid to counter security threats along its northern and southern borders. 


For over sixty-five years, United States aid has helped hundreds of thousands of Ecuadorians escape poverty, obtain employment and credit, and improve their access to health, education, housing and social services. USAID provided numerous grants to develop local civil society and community groups, thereby promoting greater participation of indigenous, Afro-Ecuadorians and other marginalized people, and helping them improve their incomes and living conditions.  Such efforts extended basic human rights, such as family planning and education, to millions of disadvantaged people.  Since the devastating earthquakes of 1868 that destroyed the cities of Ibarra and Otavalo, the United States has regularly provided aid to victims of natural disasters, as it is currently doing with coastal floods.




Ecuador’s most important social safety net is funded largely by immigrants in the United States and other countries who are sending home each year over $2.0 billion in remittances.  Continued free access to U.S. markets for its growing exports remain of great importance for supporting growth and employment. Historically there have been hundreds of people-to-people and education exchanges, with Ecuador hosting one of the largest Peace Corps programs in the world for the past 45 years. Many NGOs like CARE, the Pan American Development Foundation and others have supported development projects and environmental protection, and provide humanitarian and disaster assistance.   


Such examples symbolize the positive aspects of Ecuadorian-American relations. They show that Ecuador and the United States have been faithful friends far more often than hostile or indifferent strangers. They confirm the conclusions of George Lauderbaugh in his Ph.D. dissertation that there has most often been a convergence of interests producing mutual benefits for both countries. For these reasons, Pineo’s book misinterprets the history of Ecuadorian-American relations.  

John Sanbrailo is Executive Director of the Pan American Development Foundation.  He served as Director of U.S. aid programs (USAID) in Ecuador from 1979-82 and 1993-96, and began his foreign service career there in the late 1960s. He worked with the Peace Corps in Venezuela.  He was senior advisor to the Ecuadorian Government for modernization of the state. For the past forty years he has helped governments, NGOs, community groups, municipalities and corporations implement sustainable development programs that aid disadvantaged people in Latin America and the Caribbean. He is preparing a history of Ecuadorian-American Cooperation.  Comments can be sent to: [email protected]

The views expressed herein are those of the reviewer and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pan American Development Foundation. 

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