Ecuador is a small country, bordering Colombia to the north and Peru to the south. It also includes the famed Galapagos Islands, 600 miles west of the South American continent. Ecuador, like its neighbors, has remarkable geographic and ecological diversity within its borders. Most of the population is concentrated in the Andean highlands and the coast, with indigenous tribes inhabiting the sparsely populated eastern jungles.
Ecuador is typically categorized as containing three principal regions: La Costa (The Coast), La Sierra (The Andean Region), and El Oriente (The Eastern Jungles). Ecuador features numerous rivers which begin in La Sierra, and flow east, making their way towards the Amazon Basin. Recently Ecuador has emerged as an ecotourism paradise, with many foreigners falling in love with the highlands of Otavalo, or the cloud forests of Mindo.
Ecuadorean history has been indelibly shaped by two successive invasions: first by the Inca Empire, and the subsequent arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. In 1500 Inca chief Huayna Capac pushed north from his Cuzco-based Peruvian stronghold, and overcame fierce resistance to subjugate most of modern-day Ecuador. Following the conquest, an Inca Civil War ensued, which strangely coincided with the arrival of Francisco Pizarro in 1531.
Pizarro exploited the internal conflict to maximum effect, and though vastly outnumbered by Inca soldiers, conquered the nation through superior weaponry, tactics, and use of horses. Ecuador susequently pertained to the Viceroyalty of Peru until 1720 when it became part of the Viceroyalty of New Granada. Brewing discontent by the criollos (those of mixed blood) with the peninsulares (those born in Spain) led to a first unsuccessful rebellion in 1810. In 1820, however, with Simon Bolivar’s revolution sweeping the north and Jose de San Martin’s sweeping the south, Ecuador overcame the Spanish forces at the Battle of Pichincha.
Continental hero Simon Bolivar entered Quito in 1821, and led negotiations that concluded with Ecuador joining northern neighbors Colombia and Venezuela as part of Gran Colombia. However, the union would proved to be short lived, and with Venezuela’s exit from the alliance in 1830, Ecuador followed suit, giving birth to the Republic of Ecuador led by military strongman Juan Jose Flores.
Throughout the following years the political life of the country was defined by a paradigm featuring perpetual struggle between Liberals from Guayaquil and Conservatives from Quito. Ecuador also found itself in the midst of frequent territorial skirmishes with Peru, that continued until a peace accord ended the dispute in 1995.
Ecuador, particularly in post-World War II times, was marred by perpetual political instability. The late 1990s and on, in particular, witnessed a number of coup d’etats and political turmoil, with a growing inflation problem casting a dark shadow over some promises of economic development, particularly with regard to Ecuador’s nascent oil industry.
Political stability came to Ecuador in 2007 with the election of left-wing president Rafael Correa, who is closely associated with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. A guayaco (resident of Guayaquil) from a working-class background, Correa rose from humble origins to receive a PhD in economics at the University of Illinois, and briefly served as Minister of Finance in 2005.
Correa has won two presidential elections (2006 and 2009), and has advocated a socialist path for Ecuador. He famously defaulted on $3 billion in government debt, declaring it illegitimate debt of corrupt previous administrations. He has renegotiated contracts with oil companies to require them to pay more to the government, which in turn is to be used for social welfare spending. Correa has criticized the dollarization of Ecuador’s economy, and although he has commented on the difficulty of changing this policy for now, he has expressed optimism for a regional South American currency sometime in the future.
Ecuador was recently elected with overwhelming support, and remains a popular figure, although critics of his government point to increasingly authoritarian measures, particularly with regard to freedom of the press, heavy-handed government involvement in the economy, and excessive government spending. Yet, Correa has improved Ecuador’s unemployment rate and reduced extreme poverty as well.
Perhaps the most interesting economic development in recent times was the decision made by former president Jamil Mahuad to adopt the US dollar in 2000, as a response to spiraling inflation. While the move did succeed in drastically reducing Ecuador’s inflation, critics noted that it disproportionately affected the poor, who were ill-prepared to convert their sucres (the previous currency) into dollars.
In Ecuador, petroleum is king, typically accounting for nearly half of government revenues and total exports. Ecuador is walking a fine line between economic development and environmental protection, with many indigenous communities unhappy with allocation of lands to oil production.
After petroleum, bananas, fish, and shrimp make up the largest component of the Ecuadorean economy. Ecuador is, in fact, the worlds’ largest exporter of bananas, exporting 5.2 million tons, or 29% of the world total, in 2011.
Tourism and remittances from abroad also factor heavily into the economy. Despite recent improvement, Ecuador still has high levels of extreme poverty. Tourism sustains many communities, especially cities like Quito, Otavalo, Mindo, and Cuenca, while many families count on remittances from the estimated one million Ecuadoreans working abroad, mostly in the United States and Spain.
Ecuador differs from its northern neighbors Colombia and Venezuela in that it has a far higher indigenous population, both in the Andean sierra, and the eastern Amazonian jungles. The sierra is largely composed of Quechua-speaking peoples, descendants of the original Inca Empire, while the jungles include around forty indigenous tribes, some of which are hostile to outsiders.
One might also describe the general Ecuadorian divide as between coastal dwellers, or costenos, and mountain dwellers, or, serranos.
Traditional or indigenous music is quite popular throughout the country, while many, especially those in the area around Otavalo, retain traditional dress, at least some of the time. With the rise of Rafael Correa to power, Ecuador’s indigenous traditions have been respected and preserved like never before. Correa, famously, spent several months living in a Quechua speaking village and learned the language himself.