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Explaining an Andean Enigma  

"The Ecuador Reader" provides a useful but limited collection of essays that showcase the diversity and anomalies of one of the most fascinating nations in the hemisphere.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Today President Rafael Correa will be inaugurated for a second consecutive elected term, the first time this has happened in Ecuadorian history.  Yet Ecuador remains a mystery to many.  This country has traditionally attracted writers with strong anti-American and anti-business orientations.  They include Philip Agee’s Inside the Company: A CIA Diary; as well as Confessions of an Economic Hitman and The Secret History of American Empire by John Perkins, among others. A number of academics have followed similar approaches as described in our review last year of Ecuador and the United States: Useful Strangers or Faithful Friends?.  As with The Ecuador Reader, these works misinterpret relations between Ecuador and foreign investors, the international agencies and the United States that have confused and misled many.  As a result, the Latin Business Chronicle is pleased to offer the following alternative views by the former United States Aid Director to Ecuador who challenges the conventional critique of this little-known country.  Through his review of The Ecuador Reader, he places this nation in a broader context to help better explain what has been called an “Andean Enigma”.  

Ecuador remains one of the least known countries in Latin America.  It most often attracts attention when there is some dramatic political change, natural disaster, or some other extraordinary event that cannot be ignored.  The country then pops into, and just as quickly out of the media spotlight, often leaving negative images that discourage further study.  Ecuador’s isolated location, its fragmented society and politics, and its colorful populist history have defied quick analyses and led to misunderstandings by foreign observers and the international community.

In recent years with the emergence of President Rafael Correa and his “citizen’s revolution” Ecuador has become a central player in what Michael Reid of The Economist has termed “the battle for Latin America’s soul”.  As a result, The Ecuador Reader comes at an important time of growing interest in better understanding this land and the similarities and differences with its Andean neighbors. The Reader provides a useful but limited collection of essays by various authors who showcase the diversity and anomalies of one of the most fascinating nations in the hemisphere.  It highlights not only this republic’s unique history but also how it does not fit the stereotypes and fantasies many have of it.


The strongest sections of the book are those that demonstrate the legacy of Ecuador’s pre-Colombian and Spanish colonial past—a legacy that continues to shape the country’s evolution to this very day. These essays clearly demonstrate that the fragmented territory called Ecuador has been influenced by its peripheral geographic location between great ancient civilizations and its marginal status during and after the colonial period. It has always resisted outside domination even by the Inca and Spanish empires, while nurturing a spirit of indigenous innovation that has not been fully appreciated. 

In this regard, the chapter by Karen Vieira Power on the rise of the Duchisela family in Riobamba is particularly instructive since its members are direct descendants of Atahualpa, the last Inca Emperor and Shyri Lord of the Kingdom of Quitus. It is unfortunate that the author did not trace the genealogy of this family to modern times because readers would have found one of the most compelling stories of indigenous advancement in all of Latin America.  In the mid-20th century, the young Luis Felipe Duchisela Huaraca Ramírez was employed by the United Fruit Company.  This allowed his family and others the opportunity to rise in local society and to educate their children at leading U.S. universities. The history of the Duchicelas is an example of how multinationals and exports have facilitated significant social change that is still not well understood even today.  It indicates why the editors’ comments on “…the less than exemplary behavior by U.S. corporations in Ecuador…” reflect an incomplete appreciation of the important role these enterprises have played in the country’s development.

At the same time, Susan Webster’s chapter on José Jaime Ortiz, the Spanish architect and entrepreneur who built some of Quito’s greatest churches and introduced major urban improvements during 1694-1707, shows how deeply resistant Ecuador  traditionally has been to development and modernization.  Those who have worked in the country will be intrigued to learn why Quito’s colonial elite rejected, imprisoned, tortured and ultimately killed one of its most significant foreign innovators, denying his contributions for almost three centuries.  This experience has obvious parallels in Ecuador’s current disputes with multinational enterprises and international agencies. 

Resistance to progress has appeared regularly in Ecuadorian history.  For example, French scientists who traveled extensively in this territory in the 1730s to measure the circumference of the earth were threatened and a few were killed. Likewise, the development of what became Ecuador was set back by the expulsion of the modernizing Jesuits and expropriation of their property in 1767, and by the persecution in the 1790s of Eugenio Espejo, one of the greatest scientists in the Andean region. The undermining of nation-building efforts of President Gabriel García Moreno in the 1860s and 1870s, and his assassination in 1875, echo what happened to José Jaime Ortiz.  So do the actions of those who opposed President Eloy Alfaro for building the Guayaquil-Quito railroad, calling it an “obra del Diablo” and brutally assassinating him in 1912 for political reasons similar to those faced by Ortiz two centuries earlier.  

Another telling example occurred at the Punta del Este hemispheric conference in 1967 when President Otto Arosemena Gómez, a prominent Ecuadorian populist, invoked the memory of philosopher José Enrique Rodó, and his famous anti-modernization novel Ariel to denounce the U.S.-supported Alliance for Progress.  In his keynote address, he indicated that Latin Americans identified with Ariel and did not share the materialistic values of the Alliance, which he warned undermined the true heritage of the continent.  When the United States Ambassador to Ecuador later publically defended the goals of the Alliance for Progress, President Arosemena declared him persona non grata and ordered that he immediately leave the country. 

In more recent years similar attitudes have created one of the worst investment climates in Latin America.  Indeed, Ecuador may be the only country in the region that also declared persona non grata a local representative of the World Bank (in 2007) and has driven away other international advisors who came to promote its development. This approach is seen in statements by President Correa that the IMF and the World Bank should be abolished and in his dislike for multinational companies, which most leaders view as instruments of modernization. Such behavior is deeply rooted in Ecuador’s longstanding suspicion of international agencies and foreign investors, as exemplified by the sad story of José Jaime Ortiz. 

On a more hopeful note, the chapter by Sarah Chambers introduces readers to Manuela Sáenz, Simón Bolivar’s lover and confidant who has become the Joan of Arc of Ecuador. She symbolizes not only its national identity but indicates how this little-known corner of the Andes has produced some of the most significant women in Latin American history. They include Manuela Espejo, one of the region’s first female journalists; Manuela Cañizares who promoted its early independence movement; and Rosa Campuzano from Guayaquil, who together with Manuela Sáenz from Quito, played important roles in advising Generals José de San Martin and Simón Bolivar during the independence wars in the 1810s and 1820s.  Even with this tradition, it is still a surprise to many to learn that Ecuador was the first in Latin America to grant women the right to vote--during the 1920s thanks to the courageous leadership of Matilde Hidalgo de Procel. This history offers opportunities for improving the country in the 21st century and demonstrates that the stereotype of a closed, exclusionary society with rigid hierarchies is not totally correct.


As the essays move through the 19th and into the 20th century they present a narrower range of perspectives, although providing useful insights.  A number of chapters lack sufficient context for those not familiar with Ecuador to understand the themes being developed.  While the editors indicate that they are committed to showing diversity, “….offering readers the chance to hear what Ecuadorians have to say about their country and its place in the world…”, their selections reflect a distinct lack of balance among authors, with some chapters providing partial, incomplete and even disjointed views of this nation.

The most egregious omission is that of editor Steve Striffler, who includes his own article on the United Fruit Company in Ecuador while ignoring the contributions of one of the country’s most prominent Presidents, Galo Plaza Lasso, who in 1958 published a pioneering--and more positive--evaluation of the United Fruit Company in Latin America based on solid archival and field research.  Academic objectivity and just plain fairness would argue for presenting alternative arguments, especially when one of the most important figures in 20th century Ecuador has written so extensively on this subject.

Such an oversight reflects a longstanding animosity that some academics and populist politicians have had toward Galo Plaza because of his favorable views of the United States and the United Fruit Company. While The Reader does include a piece by Plaza on “Two Experiments in Education for Democracy” the editors disparage it by saying that it is “drenched in paternalism”.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I direct the Pan American Development Foundation which Galo Plaza helped create when he was Secretary General of the Organization of American States.  I also have supported the Pan American Agricultural School at Zamorano and the American School in Quito, and I admire the Inter-American Dialogue.  All of these institutions were greatly influenced by Plaza’s ideas.  It is a distortion to ignore his most important achievements and not place them in proper context, as editor Carlos de la Torre attempted to do in a new book Galo Plaza y su época, which unfortunately is not reflected in The Reader.  

Plaza’s administration put in place the public policy framework that allowed Ecuador in the 1950s to become the world’s leading exporter of bananas. These efforts expanded the country’s agricultural frontier, provided new opportunities for many of its most destitute people, accelerated its social development, and generated the longest period of high economic growth with democracy in its history.  The banana boom was made possible by the technology, investments and marketing expertise transferred to Ecuador beginning in the 1930s by the United Fruit and Standard Fruit Companies.  Indeed, were it not for the vision and courage of United Fruit’s CEO, Samuel Zemurray, who heavily invested in Hacienda Tenguel at the depth of the Great Depression, the banana revolution might never have occurred.  It is indeed ironic that Striffler, who occupies the Doris Zemurray Stone Chair at the University of New Orleans, writes so negatively about United Fruit’s contribution to Ecuador’s development.

Other essays raise similar concerns. They lack context that can allow readers to make independent judgments on the pros and cons of different issues. For example, Suzana Sawyer’s “Suing ChevronTexaco” assumes the company bears all the guilt for polluting the Amazonian rainforest in northeastern Ecuador and damaging the health of its population, even though more recent reports show greater ambiguity about these impacts.  Given the controversy surrounding this case, one might have expected presentations of other viewpoints that would permit the reader to understand its complexity. No discussion is provided of the responsibility of the national petroleum company, Petroecuador, which was a majority partner in the Texaco venture, controlled production and is alleged to have had similar environmental impacts in these Amazon areas.  

A more complete discussion of petroleum issues would have included the historical context of oil development in the Amazon region, the reasons for building the trans-Andean pipeline, a recognition that Ecuador became a major oil exporter because of Texaco and other multinationals, and an accounting of the benefits provided to the country for almost forty years as a result of oil revenues. A very different perspective than Sawyer’s is presented by Douglas Southgate and Robert Wasserstrom in an excellent paper, “Oil Development, Deforestation, and Indigenous Populations in the Ecuadorian Amazon”, which was presented at the June 2009 International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association. As they point out, responsibility for deforestation, inadequate community services and the loss of indigenous lands rests with the national government, not foreign oil companies.

Other themes in The Reader might have been addressed more effectively by national authors.  For example, a chapter is included by Kim Clark on the building of the Guayaquil-Quito Railroad, while an Ecuadorian historian, Byron Castro, has published a more complete study with a different analysis (Ferrocarril Ecuatoriano: Historia de la Unidad de un Pueblo).  Likewise, it might have been more revealing to include writings on Guayaquil by Julio Estrada Ycaza and other coastal historians in addition to Ronn Pineo’s chapter, which provides a particularly narrow interpretation. The essay on “Women’s Movements in Twentieth-Century Ecuador” by Sarah Radcliffe is disappointing in not recognizing the great success women have achieved since the time of Manuela Sáenz.  They have become leaders of civil society organizations, business-banking executives, National Assembly members, Foreign Minister like Nina Pacari or María Fernández Espinosa, and community-labor activists for more than half a century as with indigenous leaders like Dolores Cacuango, Rosa Lema, or Rosa Elena Tránsito Amaguaña, affectionately known as Mama Tránsito.


While no single book can address all issues for a nation as diverse and complex as Ecuador, The Reader contains a number of gaps that limit its usefulness in highlighting national successes as well as shortcomings. The following examples suggest other ways of viewing this country that may be helpful for future publications:  

Empirical Presentation: Almost no data are included in The Reader on the dramatic changes that have taken place in Ecuador over the past century, including its rapid population growth and improved social and economic conditions.  If we could look at snapshots of Ecuador in 1900, 1950, and 2000, we would be impressed at least as much by the progress that has been made as by the poverty and social injustice that still exist.  More than 90 percent of its children are in school and life expectancy is not very far behind that of the United States.  Today one of the government’s major challenges is a growing number of retirees, which reflects historic improvements in health, nutrition and living standards. A discussion of the evolution of leading development indicators would have provided the reader a greater understanding of these changes, rather than leaving the impression of a static country with the overwhelming majority of its people still living in poverty.

An Indigenous Country?: At the same time, The Reader gives the impression that Ecuador is an indigenous society, when the empirical evidence shows something quite different.  The most recent census indicates that fewer than ten percent of Ecuadorians identify themselves as “indigenous”, which is one of the reasons President Correa has not given high priority to their demands.  While a number of books display photos of native people, they in fact provide a misleading image of this country. Indeed, the young Indian woman forcefully smiling on the cover of The Reader symbolizes the cultural changes that have occurred among this population.

What has not been appreciated is that the more typical Ecuadorian today is an urban ambulante (street vendor) in the informal sector--not a native person living in the rural Andean highlands or the Amazon who represent a small minority.  One of the country’s success stories over the past century has been the relatively peaceful integration of its indigenous population into a predominately mestizo society symbolized by the largest federation in Latin America (CONAIE), the unprecedented Pachacutik political party, and the widespread participation of native people in the social and political life of the nation--as exemplified by Nina Pacari, the Duchisela family, Luis Macas, Monica Chuji, not to mention other figures such as Mama Tránsito, who recently died at over 100 years of age. It might even be argued that Ecuador has been the most successful Andean republic in integrating its indigenous people into a multicultural society, which the editors seem to recognize but not fully accept.   

Exceptionalism in the Andes: In addition to noting the active participation of its native population and ethnic minorities, The Reader might usefully have explored other aspects that set this land apart, as it began to do with the chapter on the “First Black Miss Ecuador”.  For example, the editors appear surprised that the country does not have a history of systematic human rights violations or brutal repression of indigenous protests.  Ecuador has experienced no political insurgencies such as those led by the FARC and the ELN in Colombia or Sendero Luminoso and Túpac Amaru in Peru. Compared to its neighbors, this territory has been an “island of peace” with regular dialogue in the last few decades between senior government and business leaders and a multiplicity of social movements.  In a region dominated by coca-growing, it does not cultivate a significant amount of coca.  National enterprises have had a long tradition of controlling its major resources, dating to the earliest days of the Republic.  The Reader could have brought out more sharply why Ecuador is such an exception in the Andes and what lessons this may have for guiding it and others into the future.

Ecuador’s Populist Tradition: Perhaps most surprising is the lack of an updated presentation on the origins of the country’s strong populist tradition, which is a dominant characteristic of its political culture. The importance of populism has been underscored by editor Carlos de la Torre in a previous book, Populist Seduction in Latin America: The Ecuadorian Experience.  Many who review The Reader will be seeking to learn more about the Correa phenomenon and what produced it. The current administration cannot be fully understood without greater appreciation of the country’s deep populist tendencies and how President Correa has been so effective at using them to consolidate his power. Unfortunately, the brief essays by de la Torre or by Ecuador’s most famous populist leader José María Velasco Ibarra, do not completely address this issue nor do any of the other authors.  As a result the book misses an opportunity for better explaining to an international audience why the President is governing in what some could interpret as strange and erratic ways.      

Neoliberal Reforms: Most disappointing, however, is the manner in which the editors and some of the volume’s authors assume the economy was destabilized by market reforms and trade liberalization policies implemented from the mid-1980s until the onset of the Correa regime.  Little evidence is presented to support this proposition, and the issues are not discussed in any detail.  Nevertheless, the assertion that Ecuador has been a victim of pro-market policies is suggested throughout the book.  The Reader ignores a large body of academic work, plus experience in countries such as Chile and Peru, which demonstrate the potential of such reforms for promoting economic growth and reducing poverty. The real problem in Ecuador has not been the “neoliberal model” but the lack of its full application and the politicization of economic policies.   While the effectiveness of “neoliberal” policies can be legitimately debated, the absence of alternative views does a disservice to those who would like to see a balanced discussion of key issues affecting Ecuador.  The editors could have brought together a useful collection of essays by leading national economists and local research centers, as well as those by foreign academics such as Morris Whitaker, Douglas Southgate and Steve Hanke who offer different insights into its irregular economic growth. 

Forces Changing Ecuador: The Reader could have facilitated greater understanding of the country had it presented additional analyses of those forces that have promoted its national development and integration during the past two centuries.  These include export booms, internal migration, external emigration, plus the expansion of protestant groups that has been ongoing for a century since the Liberal Revolution but does not receive much attention.

Historically exports have produced some of Ecuador’s most significant progress and stimulated its major reform movements. During the colonial period this land exported textiles and chinchona bark for quinine, and together with shipbuilding they contributed to the development of its largest port and commercial city of Guayaquil while nurturing its entrepreneurial culture.  The first export boom of “Panama Hats” beginning in 1849-50 fueled the rise of the Eloy Alfaro family and funded the Liberal Revolution of 1895. Cacao exports from the 1880s to 1920s financed major liberal reforms and infrastructure improvements, including the Guayaquil-Quito Railroad that geographically unified its territory, as well as some of the first indigenous education programs.

Large-scale banana exports starting in the 1950s converted Ecuador into a predominately coastal country, greatly developed its infrastructure and transportation network, provided opportunities to its poverty-stricken rural population, and facilitated agrarian reform by expanding the agricultural frontier for small and medium-size producers. The petroleum boom of the 1970s incorporated the Amazonian lowlands into the country, generated new public revenues that strengthened the central government and supported major social improvements that in some ways made it a middle class-like society.  President Correa’s “citizen’s revolution” would have been impossible without petroleum exports.

The “Tuna War” of the 1960s and 1970s produced a new International Treaty for the Law of the Seas that helped Ecuador become an important exporter of marine products. In the 1970s and 1980s its bananas exported to Eastern Europe 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.  With U.S. assistance, Ecuadorians prevailed in what came to be called “the Banana War” in a historic World Trade Organization decision in 2001 that gained it greater access to European markets that favored thousands of local producers and workers.

Since the 1980s newer exports have been developed such as cultivated shrimp, flowers, non-traditional agricultural products, ecotourism services, and minerals like gold that further illustrate how global markets have supported its development. They highlight the country’s latent dynamism that can produce higher economic growth and employment if improved policies are adopted.  Many of these national successes were achieved with investments and technology transfers made by foreign companies or international agencies, as well as measures like the U.S. Andean Trade Preferences legislation, despite efforts to ignore or deprecate their support.

In recent decades, the emigration of large numbers of Ecuadorians (labor exports) to the United States, Canada, Spain, Italy, and Chile has created an important cultural transformation while generating almost $2.0 billion per year in remittances for the country.  One would gain a very different view of this nation’s great potential if The Reader had profiled immigrant success stories like Eduardo Castro Wright, CEO of Wal-Mart; Napoleón Barragán, who revolutionized telemarketing in New York City; or Colonel Judith Lombeida, who advanced to the highest rank in the United States Air Force of any Ecuadorian before her tragic death in 2006.

Likewise, the country has produced world-class entrepreneurs like Luis Noboa and Segundo Wong, who rose from destitute backgrounds to establish some of the region’s first multinational banana companies which opened new markets in Europe and Asia. Globalization has also given prominence to the country’s athletes such as the speed-walker Jefferson Perez, mountain climber Iván Vallejo, and superstar Afro-Ecuadorian soccer players, as well as teams like Liga that have inspired and unified the country.  Less well-known are the important contributions made to Ecuador by immigrants from Lebanon, Jamaica, Colombia and Asia, and by the Jewish community that fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

The growth of Evangelical, Mormon, Pentecostal and other protestant groups are rapidly changing Ecuador’s dominant Roman Catholic culture with implications for the 21st century that have not been fully understood.  Perhaps one of the most revolutionary forces has been indigenous people such as the Otavaleños who are exporting and traveling to all parts of the world, as described in Lynn Meisch’s book, Andean Entrepreneurs: Otavalo Merchants & Musicians in the Global Arena.  The Reader, however, presents a more negative interpretation of the Otavalo success story by Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld, which again illustrates the book’s slant.

Slow Progress: While Ecuador has clearly experienced significant change and national successes which are all too often overlooked, at the same time it has a history of being one of the least developed and most politically unstable in Latin America. Since the 19th century perhaps no question has so intrigued foreign visitors than why a country with such spectacular beauty and diversity and with so many natural resources, could remain so poor and chaotic.  It is unfortunate that The Reader did not address this fundamental question. In selecting excerpts from some authors, the editors seem to have missed their most significant insights on this very issue. For example, the section from U. S. Minister Friedrich Hassaurek’s Four Years Among the Ecuadorians does not include his important observations on the cultural constraints to progress that he observed in the 1860s, such as the deep distrust among the population, its difficulties in cooperating and compromising, and an authoritarian leadership style that many continue to observe today.

The editors could have done a great service by summarizing major explanations for Ecuador’s persistent poverty and underdevelopment—including by drawing on their own previous writings.  Explanations range from the country’s inadequate education system to its fragmented geography, which has made transportation and infrastructure improvements extremely costly.  Other observers cite its numerous natural disasters, irregular climatic conditions, and harsh tropical diseases that have prevented full integration of its coastal and Amazonian territories for much of its history. International analysts often focus on the country’s weak institutions and civic culture, and its fragmented politics, which have created challenges for coherent policy implementation. 

Many Ecuadorians highlight imperialism and dependency, neoliberal policies forced upon them by the Washington Consensus, multinational corporations, widespread corruption, an exploitative oligarchy, and a dominant populist culture that has poisoned the political system.  Others attribute its slow progress to a fatalism that is illustrated by citizens describing themselves as living in a “cork country” that automatically bounces back from natural disasters or other crises without anyone taking action.  A few discuss the society’s pronounced sense of victimization, pessimistic worldview and resentment of the outside world, as well as its strong mercantilist-corporatist attitudes and widespread hostility to foreign investment, market reforms and globalization.  

In recent years, greater attention has been directed to Ecuador’s progress-resistant cultural values as the fundamental explanation of its political instability and arrested development.  These have been well summarized by former President Osvaldo Hurtado in his widely acclaimed 2007 best seller, Las Costumbres de los Ecuatorianos, which is one of the most important books published in the last forty years.  It demonstrates how traditional values, attitudes and customs have undermined the country’s modernization, and traces how they are so engrained in its history.  On a hopeful note, it also shows how positive cultural values explain notable achievements of key groups like the Otavaleño indigenous people, inhabitants of the city of Cuenca, and Lebanese and Jewish immigrants.  Available as Portrait of a Nation: Culture and Progress in Ecuador, Hurtado provides an important complement to The Reader for those seeking to understand why culture matters in promoting development and democracy.    

Other Views: The selection of many authors for The Reader seems to reflect a pronounced left-wing orientation that opposes market reforms, multinational corporations and globalization, and that sees the international agencies and the United States as major sources of Ecuador’s problems.  While such an approach may reflect political correctness on many university campuses, it does a disservice to those seeking a balanced and nuanced understanding of this republic.  Even though any such book must be highly selective, a wider array of views would have made it more objective and demonstrated the important pluralism that does in fact exist. 

As noted, The Reader does not mention some prominent national writers who offer important perspectives on their country.  These include Alicia Yánez Cossío’s wonderful book, The Potbellied Virgin (La Virgin Pipona), which provides a brilliant portrait of Ecuadorian life in the 20th century that is not well known even though translated into English.  It is surprising that the editors did not include excerpts from Jorge Enrique Adoum, considered the country’s most significant 20th century writer and one of Latin America’s best poets. No other has so touched the soul of Ecuadorians and better described their national character, as shown by the outpouring of grief and commentary on his recent passing.

In eulogizing Adoum, a commentator used one of his quotes to draw attention to the country’s difficulties in dealing with the international community:

We Ecuadorians shake hands with one we think superior, almost trembling, almost fearful, we bow down to foreigners, how we go around in circles before saying “yes” or “no”, how we look down when someone threatens or challenges us, and then when we try to overcome this complex, we become aggressive, arrogant and violent…

As such works vividly portray, past and present are merged in the Ecuadorian experience, illustrating how the country’s current conditions are deeply rooted in its past, as reflected in so much of its literature.

Another illuminating way to understand this nation is through its beloved comedians such as Ernesto Alban — “Evaristo Corral y Chancletas” — who has been described as the country’s Charlie Chaplin.  “Evaristo” became an important 20th century populist voice of its people, especially those in urban areas, by translating their daily frustrations and hopes into political satire.  While national humorists are not well known internationally, they have a much larger audience, and tell far more about the population, than the less representative and vulgar Pancho Jaime, who is included in The Reader.

In addition, writings by key historic figures like Eugenio Espejo, the great 18th century intellectual of indigenous origin (surnamed Chushig), and Isidro Ayora, the first President in the region with a similar background, would have further demonstrated this country’s unique history as well as its identity crisis.  It also would have been helpful to include excerpts from Juan León Mera’s 19th century classic Cumandá, now available in English for the first time, and contrast it with Jorge Icaza’s famous 1934 novel Huasipungo in order to show the changes in Ecuadorian views of its native people.  For a U.S. audience, Icaza’s importance would have been further demonstrated by indicating that Huasipungo played a role similar to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the United States for black emancipation.

Other significant works that could enhance future publications are James Orton’s 19th century study, The Andes and the Amazon sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, and archeological reports by Dr. Marshall Saville of Columbia University on The Antiquities of Manabí.  More modern writers such as Ludwig Bemelmans The Donkey Inside, Victor Von Hagan and Moritz Thomsen (two of the best American writers on Ecuador in the 20th century), and Lois Roberts (The Lebanese in Ecuador) and Robert Whitaker (The Mapmaker’s Wife) can provide further insights. Recent books by Pamela Murray (on Manuela Sáenz), Peter Henderson (on Gabriel García Moreno) and Mitchell Seligson (on contemporary Ecuadorian democracy) offer important new perspectives.  In addition, the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank have published numerous studies on the economic, social and political challenges facing Ecuador, including reports on indigenous people and Afro-Ecuadorians.  These institutions are too often ignored on university campuses for ideological reasons that do not advance understanding of this land and its people. 


The Ecuador Reader provides an idiosyncratic anthology with some excellent essays that have not been easily accessible in the past.  While the editors present a limited spectrum of views, their book illustrates key themes that will intrigue and surprise those who wish to better understand this Andean enigma.  Still what clearly comes across is the lack of any consensus about the country’s national identity and its place in the world. Indeed, this is the overriding challenge that has frustrated and gridlocked Ecuador since its very beginnings in 1830.  A fundamental question remains: is this territory something more than a mere collection of fragmented pieces of geography populated by disconnected and isolated communities with very different cultural, social, and political allegiances, as in pre-Colombian and colonial times?  Or does some overriding national identity unify Ecuador and make it different from other Andean countries?

The process of nation-building is still ongoing and largely incomplete, as shown by Ecuador’s numerous efforts to reach agreement on a durable national constitution (it has had more than twenty in 179 years of independence).  A constitution most often has been promoted by a small political-intellectual elite with limited public debate, lacking a clear national consensus and rarely lasting more than a decade. As a result, this country has been known as one of the most politically unstable and difficult to govern in Latin America. It regularly produces strident populist leaders who superficially unify it for short periods by promoting conspiracy theories about the oligarchy, multinational enterprises, international agencies, the United States and border conflicts with its neighbors.  What is often ignored is that the root causes of this phenomenon are Ecuador’s highly fragmented, deeply divided and progress-resistant society that are all too well reflected in The Reader.

John A. Sanbrailo is Executive Director of the Pan American Development Foundation and served as Director of United States Aid Missions (USAID) in Ecuador and other Latin America countries. He is preparing a history of Ecuadorian-American cooperation and has written a number of articles including: “Why Ecuador Never Became a Banana Republic?”; “We Cannot Escape Our History” on the Guayaquil-Quito Railroad; “Manuela Sáenz: A Little-Known Story of U.S.-Ecuador Cooperation”; “Superando el Pensimismo Nacional: El Poder del Pensamiento Positivo”, and “Ecuador and the United States: Useful Strangers or Faithful Friends?”.   

The reviewer’s comments are meant to provide greater balance and perspective to those who are interested in Ecuador.  They are based on his forty years of listening to its people talk about their hopes and frustrations.  They are a plea for greater objectivity in dealing with Ecuador and for greater focus on its national successes, including those achieved with international cooperation, so they can be replicated.  Comments can be sent to: [email protected]  

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

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