Beat Goes On But Ecuadorian Economy Reeling

DSCN1351Quito    I had not visited Ecuador for three years. I sat for hours in the sparkling new airport that opened after my last visit or more specifically in the Airport Center across the street from the actual ticket counters, security, gates and airplanes. If modern airports have become shopping malls serviced by airplanes and runways, Quito has essentially built a mall across the walkway from their airport. There’s a patio. There are plenty of chairs and free Wi-Fi. There are many worse places in the wide world to spent hours waiting for a plane.

Walking through the main streets of the city near our hotel not far from the major park and Botanical Garden, everything seemed clean and well-ordered. The coffee shops were active and on the streets people bustled along in well-turned sport coats or high heels and big leather purses. Talking to friends, colleagues, and organizers we had worked with us on campaigns either in the United States or Ecuador or both, a more unsettling picture emerges.

This is not Venezuela where food riots have become almost daily occurrences and political and social unrest is intense, but nonetheless Ecuador at all levels is feeling the pain. One former political activist we knew well from our work on field operations in the last presidential campaign in Ecuador in describing the impact of the falling price of oil, remarked that 60% of the national budget was derived from oil revenues and even as the price moves towards the $50 per barrel that is essentially breakeven in the United States, Ecuador needs the price to hit $60 to $70 because of the extra cost of bringing their crude to the market. An organizer I had worked with at Casa de Maryland, back home now and working at a governmental ministry, told us that this year the budget of her department had been cut from $20 million to $6 million. Needless to say, the impact was devastating and the layoffs severe. She was surprised to still have a job!

Many don’t! An activist we knew, was now living at home. Her brother had lost his job with the state, and her sister in another job had her hours cut in half. An old friend, comrade and former organizer who had worked with us in Florida on our Walmart campaigns a decade ago, told me when he responded to my email and arranged to meet us for breakfast at the hotel that he would do his best to make it because “he was so busy.” When we met, I asked him what kind of jobs he was handling now that were keeping him so busy. “None,” came the surprising answer from my well-connected friend. He was hustling just to keep above water. A job in another country had mysteriously fallen through a week before. When I asked after his father, an elegant and sophisticated gentlemen, whom I admired and knew well and would have thought traveled smoothly in the upper class of the country, I learned he was also now unemployed and in danger of losing his home.

I worried that our members, many of whom depended on the “bono” or basic, cash welfare assistance that President Correa had raised unilaterally in the previous political campaign, might have seen that cutback. The answer from everyone we talked to was, “Not yet,” which was hardly reassuring. Higher oil prices had led to more robust economic projects, expanded public programs and public employment, and increased debt for Ecuador, both externally and internally. Like any bubble of sorts, the country, like Venezuela and smaller states like Louisiana, was caught still standing when the music stopped and everyone raised for a chair.

After the encouraging gains in many Andean countries where recent economic growth in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia had lifted education, citizen wealth, health, and living standards, one gets the sense that this is unraveling in a case study of what globalization gives, it then takes away. We met with two young doctors. They were originally from Honduras, but had trained for seven years in the vaunted Cuban healthcare system. They wanted to practice in rural areas where the need was greatest, but Honduras had no government program to support their work, so then ended up in Ecuador about 4 hours by bus from Quito. I asked them to rank the healthcare systems they knew and how the economic situation was impacting healthcare. Not surprisingly, they said of the three, Cuba was first, Honduras last, and Ecuador in-between. As for the economy, they were still getting paid, so at least that was something they said, but they could already see shortages starting to show up in medicine supplies.

Being forced to root for the price of a barrel of oil to go up just about says it all about the unsustainable economy we have built in the world.

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Chincha Still Trying to Come Back from 2007 Earthquake with Little Help

barrios and squatters village built by Chincha citizens after 2007 earthquake

Lima   We drove 200 kilometers from Lima to visit the newest local group in ACORN Peru, Chincha, by the Pacific Ocean south of Lima, a straight shot on the Pan American highway.  This was a California climate, except drier perhaps with sand dune mountains along the way.  Grapes grow here and wine and Pisco makers abound.  A look at Wikipedia says there are 177,000 people who live here, but…

Only some of this is true anymore.  ACORN Peru’s head organizer, Orfa Camacho, estimates the population may only be 20,000 now since the 2007 earthquake devastated so much of this town, that too many have forgotten.  We spent most of our time going through the newly built barrios that had sprung up by the hardest hit areas in the last 5 years.  These were patchwork enterprises of thatch, plywood, and whatever.  There were signs everywhere of people trying to grow banana plants, trees, and flowers.

The committee told of a government program that was supposed to help in the rebuilding called Mi Techo Propio or My Own Roof.  Problem was that to access the program you had to put down 1000 soles or $400 roughly.  You also had to pay 20% interest and have a “formal” job which almost no one has anymore.   Worthless.

We were standing in the community center or what was supposed to be the community center some day.  The money had come from Venezuela, but someone messed up somehow and it was unfinished.

We heard about the issues of water where people were paying a fixed rate and could access water for only an hour or two per day and as more people came on there was less water.

There were industrial pig and chicken growing operations operating “informally” right in the barrio.  People would complain.  They would get a pig.

Most of the women were single mothers running households, but most of the governing councils making the priorities were all men.

Two story houses had been financed by Spain behind the unfinished plaza and the unfinished community center, but it was unclear if water connections had been provided.

ACORN Peru will have their work cut out for them here.

houses built by Spain without water connections

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