I’ve written recently that I think Ecuadorian president Lucio Gutierrez will soon be ousted from office. His approval ratings are south of 10%, and most crucially, he’s alienated the country’s sizeable indigenous population. And as we saw in Bolivia last year, well-organized Indian groups in the Andes have the power to force unpopular presidents to step down. So after an Ecuadorian indigenous coalition launched a series of protests throughout the country a couple weeks ago, I predicted that Lucio’s days must now surely be numbered.
I asked my good friend Mike F., an American I taught with in Ecuador, for his thoughts on the situation. He lives in Cuenca and has a deep understanding of Ecuadorian political and social dynamics; he related these interesting (and humorous) observations. It seems I might’ve too quick to herald Lucio’s demise.
First, I’d like to inform you that Cuenca now has a new mall, “Mall del Rio, Shopping Center”. Yes that’s right, shopping center, as if centro comercial didn’t describe it. We went for the customary visit on Sunday, and how enlightening it was. Picture the scene, a new mall, basically right at the base of the Turi hill, with venders selling their shish-kabobs and other wares right outside of the parking lot.
The first thing you see- the coral centro “Hipermarket” that takes up nearly a quarter of the whole space. It has 50 counters on 2 levels, and everything under the sun. Walking away from the Hiper, there was a fountain that sprayed water from the ground floor up through a large hole in the second. People were fascinated. Not nearly as fascinated as they were with the escalators though. I have never seen anything like it in my life. Women at the top putting their foot on the first stair, then pulling it back while doing the “cha-chai” hand motion (the one that looks like you’re packing dip), I watched this one women do that for a couple minutes at least. There was always a line for the escalator becuase of these women. The best was the 60 year old indigenous women who lost her shoe and had her legs being dragged up while her daughters who had her by the armpits dragged her off.
Other than that, the highlight had to have been the movie store- beautiful, well done,
looked like blockbuster, selling -maybe you’ve already guessed- pirated DVDs. Three television stores, half naked women selling TVs, Coldplay on the radio, this mall could be anywhere in the world. And it was packed.
On the other side of the country, the strikes were by all accounts a failure. By the 2nd day CONAIE knew it didn’t have the numbers to force out Lucio, and stopped putting his resignation in the list of demands. Attempts to gather in Quito failed, and for what I know, almost no traffic was stopped. At the same time, everyone with disposable income spent it at the mall, including some indigenous (although not many). At the Peugot dealership (which was PACKED), the sales table was in the exact middle of the room-so everyone could see. It was like a race to spend, and to be seen doing it. Sunday best for mall day.
What does it all mean? To me, a couple of things. First, unless he runs afoul of the military, Lucio won’t fall. Plus, he’s already been to Washington to say he wants to be George’s best friend in the hemisphere. He has also said that he wants a free trade agreement with the US regardless of whether or not the rest of SA agrees with him. Consumerism is here to stay. People want to be spenders, to be havers. When Lucio got elected, it looked like he would be a leftist. No one accuses him of that anymore. Ecuador is in a boom time for it’s budget right now because it was based on $16 a barrel and it’s now getting around $35 a barrel. Where is the money going? To build rural roads? No, to fix up the tourist centers of Quito and Guayaquil (and Cuenca to a lesser degree). To host the Miss Universe (incidentally, Miss Peru got robbed). I think that this government, and the people, have made a choice to join the “global economy” whatever that might mean for a raw goods exporter. I think the most telling of anything is the number of TV stores in Cuenca and the new mall. Consumerism and the TV go hand in hand, and everyone has one. You might even be able to measure class status with the number of TVs that someone has. It’s a little disappointing, but what can you expect.