It sounds cliché, but Ecuador definitely feels at a crossroads. President Rafael Correa represents a radical change from the years of post-military rule, marked by chaos and turmoil, that had come to define politics as usual in Ecuador. With the dissolution of congress and the drafting of a new constitution, Correa has set the country on a new road forward. But that road, like so many in the country, is bumpy, winding, and steep -- and not yet entirely paved.
Long-lasting Inca and Spanish empires, followed by centuries of unstable national governments, have produced an ethnically, linguistically, and economically divided Ecuador. Around 65% of the country's almost 14 million people are mestizo -- of mixed Spanish-Amerindian heritage. Amerindians make up a full 25% of the population, with blacks accounting for 3%, and 7% falling into the "Caucasian/other" category.
There are 11 indigenous groups, each with its own language and customs. The largest is the Andean Quichua, over two million strong. They are joined in the equatorial Andes by the Otavaleños, Salasaca, and Saraguros. The shaman traditions of the Incas are carried on in the rainforest by the Huaorani, Zaparo, Cofán, lowland Quichua, Siona, Secoya, Shuar, and Achuar peoples. The nation's black population traces its ancestry to slaves who were brought to work on coastal sugar plantations in the 1500s. The Afro-Ecuadorean community is famous for its marimba music and lively dance festivals.
The population is about equally divided between the central highlands and the low-lying coastal region. Over the last few decades, there has been a steady migration toward the cities, and today 60% of Ecuadoreans reside in urban areas. Hundreds of thousands of people emigrated from Ecuador following the financial crisis at the beginning of the new millennium; the U.S. Department of State estimates that over two million Ecuadoreans currently reside in the United States.
The Ecuadorean economy depends heavily on the export of petroleum, which represents around 50% of the country's export earnings and almost a third of the government's revenues. Agriculture is strong as well. Ecuador is the world's largest banana exporter, shipping out roughly 4 million metric tons (4.4 million U.S. tons) of the fruit every year, which accounts for more than 30% of the world's bananas. Other crops include cocoa, coffee, cut flowers, rice, and sugar cane. Tourism and manufacturing are also important.
Per-capita income in Ecuador is around $3,400 per year. The gap between rich and poor is wide. Estimates vary as to what percentage of the population lives below the poverty line, but most agree the rate is at least 40% and perhaps as high as 70%. Though social turmoil has been limited, considering how vast the economic inequality is, economic weakness is not without its obvious social costs. The poverty rate helps explain, for instance, the number of young Ecuadoreans in gangs: over 65,000, by some estimates.
The nation's dependence on petroleum production has been a boon as of late, but it leaves the country vulnerable to the frequent swings in global prices. Ecuador suffered a massive economic crisis in 1999, with its GDP contracting by more than 6%. The adoption of the dollar as the national currency in 2000, replacing the rapidly devaluating sucre, was highly controversial, and though it led to the end of hyperinflation, it also resulted in a perceived loss of national sovereignty.
Social and economic divisions have significantly affected Ecuador's political landscape. National politics are fractured along geographic, ethnic, and ideological lines. The country has more than two dozen official political parties.
In recent years, the instability of Ecuador's executive branch has drawn international attention. Between 1996 and 2006, seven presidents attempted to govern the nation. They all failed to ameliorate the political volatility, either because of a hostile Congress, a military coup d'état, or what many Ecuadoreans considered the presidents' sheer mental incompetence.
After a decade that saw power most often change hands through military intervention or presidential resignation, free, popular elections were held in the fall of 2006, with 13 candidates vying for office. Because no candidate obtained a high enough percentage of the vote to win in the first round, a runoff election took place November 26, 2006. It pitted banana tycoon Alvaro Noboa, who had campaigned unsuccessfully in 1998 and 2002, against former finance minister Rafael Correa, a left-leaning populist. Correa defeated Noboa and announced plans to hold a referendum that would lead to the drafting of a new constitution. In a national referendum held on September 29, 2008, Ecuadoreans voted by a large margin to ratify the new constitution. (In Latin America, political movements routinely write new constitutions when they come to power.)
President Rafael Correa's PAIS Alliance (Alianza PAIS) party controls 74 of the 130 seats in the new Constituent Assembly (national congress), giving it broad powers to enact legislation. Other parties represented include the Ecuadorean Roldosist Party (Partido Roldosista Ecuatoriano), the Institutional Renewal Party of National Action (Partido Renovador Institucional de Acción Nacional), the January 21 Patriotic Society (Partido Sociedad Patriótica 21 de Enero), and the Social Christian Party (Partido Social Cristiano).
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