ECUADOR is Spanish for ‘equator’. And if you travel an hour north from Quito, the capital, you’ll find the monument that marks the dividing line itself — though at a chilly 2,374 metres the climate is not one you’d think of as ‘equatorial’.
Odd though the name may be, it does serve as a metaphor for a country divided - racially, geographically and politically.
The racial division is between the Indians and the rest. Reduced to the level of serfs by the Spanish invaders, the Indian community today remains largely isolated and powerless — although it makes up 40 per cent of the population.
The Spanish used the Indians as labourers on their huge estates, many of which still survive; Ecuadorian agriculture is comparatively primitive and underdeveloped. One per cent of proprietors own 40 per cent of the land by value and the country has to import the most basic foods.
The Indians occupy small square plots of the mountainous Sierra. But you’ll see them too in Quito, short and determined, often bent double under heavy headloads as they scurry along the streets.
Ecuador has one of the world’s most beautiful capitals. Richly decorated colonial buildings crowd the streets of the old city. In its cafes you will see dark-suited Spanish gentlemen having important meetings over small cups of coffee.
Take the train down to the commercial capital of Guayaquil and you’re in another world. Indians are replaced by those of mixed blood — the mestizos. From snowcapped volcanoes you’re down to a swampy, humid plain. And instead of the conservative church-centred atmosphere of the capital the politics have become those of the godless liberals of commerce.
Political power has traditionally oscillated between the conservative city and the liberal city — with the military taking over when necessary. And no-one characterised Ecuador’s unstable politics more than Ibarro Velasco who gained and lost the Presidency five times.
‘Give me a balcony,’ he used to say, ‘and I will be elected.’ Give him power, however, and he would immediately alienate all his supporters.
But the old political pattern was broken in 1979 with the election of President Jaime Roldos at the head of a coalition of more progressive parties. He was killed in an air crash in 1981 and now his successor Osvaldo Hurtado is in real trouble.
The problem is the falling price of oil. In 1973 oil from Ecuador’s sparsely populated eastern jungle overtook bananas as the chief export. But they are hardly in the Kuwait league.
As the oil price drops so does public expenditure. And as spending falls so does the support from the labour unions that was the basis of the election victory.
The army wait in the wings to ‘save the country from the forces of disorder and subversion’, as they put it. So for the time being Hurtado has to make deals with the country's old just to stay in power.