If the US political environment (or, in our binational family, the Brexit debacle) is getting you down, here is some consolation: At least you do not live in Ecuador.
Partout had the uncertain fortune of arriving in this small South American country in the midst of the campaign lustrum for electing (or re-electing, if not term-limited) every city councilman, mayor, county supervisor/commissioner, public works director and, perhaps, dogcatcher in the whole country.
This added up to 80,281 local, provincial, cantonal and parochial candidates from 279 political parties campaigning all at once, everywhere. Based on what we saw and heard while there, it felt like many many more.
Ignoring these local elections (as Americans routinely do) is not an option. Every Ecuadorian from 18-65 is required by law to vote. Scofflaws who do not exercise their suffrage are subject to fines equal to 10% of the nation’s minimum guaranteed salary for one month and become ineligible for public services such as education and health care.
Ignoring office-seekers is not an option either because, as we witnessed, they are inescapable, 24/7, for the duration of the campaign season.
We could not vote, but we also could not escape.
From all appearances, campaigning for local office in Ecuador goes something like this.
- Pick an office to run for, preferably the one most likely to line your pockets with bribes, kickbacks and other time-honored forms of graft.
- Come up with a catchy slogan, preferably something that emphasizes your honesty because the populace is desperate for some honesty. “Public Works Without Corruption” was one of our personal favorites, as if public works without corruption is a groundbreaking concept.
- Make about 20,000 colorful posters of your face and slogan (perhaps with a slate of fellow faces from your party) and splash them on every plasterable square inch of your community.
When public spaces run short, rent surfaces from the owners of fences and homes.
Flatness is not a requirement. Even trees will do.
- Strictly adhere to the rule that more noise = more votes. Buy, borrow or steal the most ear-shattering amplifiers you can, mount them to a car or truck and recruit your brother, brother-in-law, barber or whoever else stands to gain from your gain to drive up and down every block of your community day and night blasting your name and slogan in hopes of impressing everyone within earshot that you really, truly are the honest candidate.
- Augment mobile blasting with occasional rallies, preferably shutting down Main Street (“Calle Simon Bolivar”) in the process to demonstrate your ability to get things done. If already flush with cash (perhaps because you are already an office-holder?), rent a stadium or other venue and hold an event that can be heard for a mile in every direction or until every eligible voter within earshot promises you have their vote.
We were not in a position to determine whether these tactics are augmented with relentless radio and TV commercials or robocalls, but every person we talked to in any language and of whatever political persuasion assured us the process produces almost nothing but crooks and promise-breakers.
The consistent response when we protested, “Surely some of them are honest people intent on doing good work?” was that not more than 1 in 3 candidates might fall in either of those categories. There seems to be some hope the ratio is rising. The explosion of parties and candidacies in the 2019 election, the highest in the nation’s history, was viewed by some observers as a sign of political vitality and recuperation. Meanwhile, the populace remains in “hope and pray” territory.
On a More Serious Note
Yes, that was all pretty much the bright side of Ecuadorian politics.
(And, lest we sound like a couple supercilious Americans abroad, to the contrary. We found so much to like and admire in Ecuador that we have ditched our plan to tour Asia next cold season and instead will winter over in the colonial jewel of Cuenca. Yes! Partout will stay put for a change.)
Political stability and rectitude are just plain not Ecuador’s long suit. The country may have avoided the political cataclysms of some Latin American countries, but it went through eight presidents from 1997 to 2010, including a five-day period when it went through three. The nation’s immediate past president has been charged in absentia with kidnapping, and his predecessor has been convicted in absentia for embezzlement. Both are on the lam.
The country’s approach to term limits illustrates the dysfunction.
By law, local officials used to be elected for a maximum of six years (1978-1984), then for four years (1984-2009), then for five years (from 2009-2019, thus the 25-cent word at the top of the blog referring to “lustrum” elections). Beginning with this election, terms have been limited back to four years in order to synch them with general elections.
Similarly, reelection has been variably permitted and banned, variably for local officials and the president. Most recently, a two-term limit for every elected office was enacted in 2018 after being banned in 2015.
In a 2003 paper called “Money and the Rule of Law,” one economist described Ecuador’s political system as run by elites completely devoid of “moral inhibitions” who routinely secure special-interest legislation from weak and corrupt elected officials. During the economic tailspin of the 1990s, this “deadly cocktail” produced a free pass for bankers to commit “massive looting” of customer deposits while the country was replacing its native sucre with the US dollar. (Aside: Ever wonder where all those Susan B. Anthony dollar coins Americans reject end up? Ecuador.)
We heard about the looting repeatedly because it led to a devastating exodus of Ecuadorian youth whose parents were wiped out by the banker-swindlers. Almost overnight, something like 15% of the nation’s population decamped for other nations where they could find jobs and incomes to send home. Any 30-something we met who spoke fluent English was likely to have a personal story like our Quito tour guide’s (caption above). All told, some 2.5 million adolescents and young adults fled the country – something along the order of the entire city of Chicago disappearing from the population of Illinois.
Today, about half of the expatriates are back, both their families and the nation’s economy sufficiently restored they can go home, at last. Some went beyond merely sustaining their families with remittances to build modern new family homes called “emigrant houses” because they were built with money sent back by the diaspora.
Back on the Bright Side
Voters went to Ecuador’s polls March 24.
In the name of “calm elections,” campaign noise-making was banned nationwide beginning two days earlier “in order to allow for a time of reflection and definition to those who will vote.” Relief, at last! A suspension of alcohol sales took effect at the same time. Violators were to be fined half the monthly minimum wage in the country ($193).
Dismal and toxic as the US political scene may feel right now, absurd as the Brexit tragicomedy may be, Ecuador reminded us that things can be worse – and are, for untold millions worldwide, every single day.
Also on the bright side: We are told the candidates, by law, have to remove, paint over and otherwise obliterate all traces of their campaigns within a fixed period after the election or be fined. Stay tuned for further reports from Ecuador next winter on whether this actually happens.
FROM THE PARTOUT TOOLBOX:
We have a confession: We no longer try to live out of carry-on bags. We check bags, early and often.
Now, we recognize there are friends among our faithful followers whose reaction to this confession is, “DUH! Who carries on everything anyway?!?” Well, among road warriors living for extended time out of luggage, carrying on is a badge of experience and self-discipline. To which we say – bah, humbug.
If you travel for as many months as we do at a time, there are products you need that exceed the liquid carry-on limits (e.g., sunscreen, insect repellent, maybe speciality cosmetics, etc.) and that are either outrageously expensive or unattainable overseas. We have evolved a system in which Louis carries on his roller-bag (which also provides a convenient trolley for his backpack), and Doris checks a somewhat bigger bag (too big for an overhead) that holds all her belongings plus Louis’s big stuff (shoes) and all our big liquids (sometimes known to include unopened alcohol).
If lost baggage was the problem it once was, that would be one thing. It is not. Statistically, it is not and, personally, we have found it is not. In perhaps 30 flights in the last 18 months, every checked bag has arrived with us, in a timely fashion, with all our belongings still inside.
Don’t take more than you need, but don’t be afraid to check what you take. We have yet to meet a traveler who said, “Gee, we sure wish we were dragging more stuff through this airport and wrestling more suitcases into overhead bins.”
COMING SOON: Weather Wise: A Practical Partout