Ecuador - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Ecuador: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Ecuador, country in northwestern South America, bordering the Pacific Ocean. The country also includes the Galápagos Islands (Colón Archipelago) in the Pacific, about 965 km (about 600 mi) west of the mainland. Ecuador straddles the equator (Ecuador is the Spanish word for “equator”). Quito, the country’s capital, is high in the Andes Mountains. Guayaquil, a port along the Pacific coast, is the largest city.

Ecuador has a diverse population composed of people of European, Native American, and African descent. The majority are mestizos, individuals of mixed European and Native American ancestry. Most of the Native Americans live in poverty in the highlands region, where a small elite of European descent controls most of the land and wealth.

Ecuador was a Spanish colony until 1822, when independence forces won a decisive victory over Spain. Since then the government has alternated between civilian rule and military dictatorship. Most of Ecuador’s political conflicts have involved squabbles among groups within the upper classes who control the nation’s wealth.

Agriculture dominated the economy of Ecuador until the 1970s, when the production of petroleum brought added income to the nation. The money generated by the oil industry produced a decade of prosperity and extensive government spending but eventually led to an economic crisis in the 1990s as revenues fell, prices spiraled ever higher, the currency was devalued, and the country’s foreign debt burden grew. Although successive governments have tried to implement economic reforms, Ecuador’s economic footing remains unsteady.


Ecuador is bounded by Colombia on the north, by Peru on the east and south, and by the Pacific Ocean on the west. It has an area of 272,045 sq km (105,037 sq mi). A highland region, the Sierra, crosses the central part of Ecuador from north to south. The Sierra consists of two parallel ranges (cordilleras) of the Andes and of upland basins, up to 65 km (40 mi) wide, that lie between the ranges. To the west of the Sierra is the Pacific coastal zone, the Costa. To the east of the Sierra is a part of the upper Amazon River basin, the Oriente or eastern jungle.


The cordilleras of the Sierra are highest in the north, where 12 peaks rise more than 4,900 m (16,000 ft) above sea level; in the south the highest peak is 4,820 m (15,800 ft). Many of the peaks are cones of volcanoes, some still active. At night, fires in the craters of these volcanoes cast a spectacular glow upon passing clouds, a glow that is reflected back on the snow-covered slopes of the peaks. The highest cones are Chimborazo (6,310 m/20,702 ft), Cotopaxi, and Cayambe. Cotopaxi (5,897 m/19,347 ft) is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. Earthquakes are also a serious threat to farm villages in the highlands.

The narrow upland plateau that lies between the crests of the cordilleras is deeply mantled with lava and ash ejected from volcanoes that tower above. Mountain spurs and volcanic ridges subdivide the plateau into self-contained basins at elevations of about 2,000 to 3,000 m (about 7,000 to 10,000 ft).

Many temperate-zone crops are grown in the basins. In the highest of these, the basin of Tulcán at 2,900 mi (9,500 ft), it is too cool to grow any grain, and potatoes are the staple crop. On the lowest level, at 760 m (2,500 ft) in the basin of Ibarra, sugarcane, cotton, and other tropical crops can be grown. Little can be grown on the ridges between the basins, so that each highland community is effectively cut off from its neighbors.


At the western base of the mountains is a zone of low plains and hills, about 100 km (60 mi) wide, along the Pacific Ocean. This zone—the Costa or coastal plain—extends from the border with Colombia southward to the border with Peru. The Guayas Valley lies between the Andes and a hilly area that separates the valley from the coast. Where the land in the Costa is not swampy, there is intensive cultivation of tropical crops on fertile alluvial soils. The Costa covers a little more than one-quarter of the area of Ecuador.


About half of Ecuador is in the Oriente, consisting of the eastern foothills of the Sierra and flat or rolling plains to the east of them. Much of the area is covered with tropical rain forest. The Oriente is crossed by many rivers that flow into the Amazon. Oil is found in the north. The region remains sparsely populated, with only about 4 percent of the nation’s population. The development of oil fields in the Oriente from the 1970s on increased the population of the region.

Galápagos Islands

The Galápagos Islands are a group of rocky, volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean. They consist of 13 large and many small islands. Some of the volcanoes are still active. The Galápagos archipelago was incorporated into Ecuador in 1830 and became a province in 1973. In 1991 the government ended a ban on migration from the Ecuadorian mainland, and people have since moved to the islands.

Climate in Ecuador

Although Ecuador lies on the equator, the country has a wide range of climates because of the varying elevations. The Costa has a tropical humid climate, with daily temperatures of 21°C to 29°C (about 70°F to 85°F). Yearly rainfall exceeds 2,500 mm (100 in) in the Costa north and west of Guayaquil and in the Oriente. Both sections support dense tropical rain forests, separated in places by swamp grasslands bordering sluggish rivers.

At Guayaquil, the temperature averages 25°C (79°F), and 1,000 mm (39 in) of rain falls annually, mostly from January to May. The rest of the year is very dry. Tall savanna grasses dotted with palms cover the land, and the brackish waters of coastal lagoons support dense thickets of mangrove trees and brush. In the Costa south of Guayaquil the climate is semiarid or arid. Thorn thickets, scattered clumps of low deciduous trees, and brush give way to giant cacti and other desert plants. Only 75 mm (3 in) of rain is recorded annually at the Peruvian border.

The climate on the Sierra is determined by elevation and by the degree of exposure of slopes to rain-bearing winds. For every 300-m (1,000-ft) rise in elevation, temperatures drop about 2°C (3°F). The Andean plateau basins are generally cool. Quito, which is some 2,850 m (9,350 ft) above sea level, has an average annual temperature of 13°C (55°F). Nighttime temperatures at Quito frequently fall 17°C (30°F) from the daytime high. From September to May daily showers brought by winds from the Oriente deposit most of the city’s yearly rainfall of 1,120 mm (44 in).

Natural Resources of Ecuador

Ecuador’s main mineral wealth is in petroleum. Other mineral resources of the country include gold, silver, copper, lead, and zinc. Forests cover 38.3 percent of the country.

Plants and Animals in Ecuador

Along the northern part of the Ecuador coast, and within the inner portion of the southern coast, tropical jungles abound. In some places the jungles extend up the slopes of the Andes as wet, mossy forests. Dense forests cover both flanks of the Cordilleras, as well as the Oriente, up to about 3,050 m (about 10,000 ft). At higher elevations, paramo grass predominates.

The animal life of Ecuador is varied. Large mammals include the bear, jaguar, and wildcat, and among the smaller mammals are the weasel, otter, and skunk. Reptiles, including the lizard, snake, and crocodile, thrive on the slopes of the Andes and along the coastal lowlands. Birds are the most varied group, and many North American birds migrate to Ecuador during the northern winter. The Galápagos Islands, with many unusual native animals, serve as a wildlife sanctuary.


Approximately 80 percent of the population of Ecuador is composed of Native Americans and mestizos (persons of mixed Native American and European ancestry); the remainder is equally divided between Europeans (chiefly of Spanish descent) and blacks. Immigrants have also come to Ecuador from countries such as Lebanon, China, Korea, Japan, Italy, and Germany. The country’s population is 63 percent urban.

Ecuador had a population of 13,927,650 in 2008. The average population density is 50 persons per sq km (130 per sq mi). A little less than half of the people live on the Sierra, where the population is predominantly Native American. The other half, mostly mestizos and blacks, live on the Costa. The remainder of the population is scattered within the Oriente and Galápagos Islands. The only significant groups of people of predominantly Spanish descent are in the cities of Quito, Cuenca, and Guayaquil.

Although the Sierra remains the administrative center of the country, it is no longer the most densely populated region, largely because of migration to the urban centers on the coast. Population is growing fastest in the Costa. The population of Guayaquil, a Pacific port on the Guayas River and the country’s largest commercial center, jumped from some 250,000 in 1950 to almost 2 million by 2001.

Quechua-speaking people who live in the Sierra are the most numerous of the Native American groups in Ecuador. They refer to themselves as Runa (“people”) and increasingly affirm a strong sense of Quechuan identity. The Shuar, Achuar, and other groups inhabit the Amazon lowlands. Small indigenous groups also live along the Ecuadorian coast.

Ecuadorian blacks, who see themselves as a distinct cultural group, are the descendents of African slaves. Ecuadorians of African descent are concentrated in the province of Esmeraldas in the northeast and in the Chota River valley in the northern Sierra.

Principal Cities of Ecuador

Quito, the capital, is situated in the central highlands and in 2001 had a population of 1,399,378. The oldest capital in South America, Quito retains much of its Spanish colonial architecture and is noted for its churches and for its art and culture. In 1978 Quito’s historic center was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. South of Quito is the Avenue of Volcanoes, a row of snow-capped mountains, 40 to 80 km (25 to 60 mi) apart, that rise from the plateau to more than 4,900 m (16,000 ft) above sea level.

Guayaquil, in the southwest, with a population of 1,990,000, is Ecuador’s largest city and its principal port and commercial center. The port has many foreign residents, and most foreign businesses are located there. Rivalry between the mountain and coastal regions has long been centered on the cities of Quito and Guayaquil. Other cities include Cuenca (277,374), an industrial and commercial center; Santo Domingo de los Colorados (287,018 ), a farming and forestry center; Machala (204,578), a commercial and farming center; and Ambato (154,095), a resort area and a commercial and transportation center.

Language and Religion in Ecuador

The official and most widely used language in Ecuador is Spanish. Many rural Native Americans speak Quechua, the original language of the Inca people.

Most Native Americans in Ecuador became converts to the Roman Catholic faith during the years following the conquest of Peru and Ecuador by the Spanish. Roman Catholicism became the state religion in 1863, but by 1889 a liberal movement resulted in a partial severance of church from state. A decree of 1904 placed the church under state control; properties of religious orders were confiscated, and absolute freedom of religion was introduced. Today Roman Catholicism is the faith of about 96 percent of the population. Native Americans of the Oriente maintain ancient religions; members of various Protestant denominations make up about 2 percent of the population.

Education in Ecuador

A campaign to reduce the high illiteracy rate in Ecuador was started in 1944; in 2005 some 93.1 percent of the people aged 15 or older were literate. Education is free and compulsory for all children between the ages of 5 and 14. All state schools are nondenominational, but private nondenominational and religious schools also receive state funds. Bilingual education in Quechua and other Native American languages is becoming increasingly widespread.

Elementary and Secondary Schools

In the 2000 school year 2 million pupils were enrolled in 18,014 primary schools. While nearly all children attended primary school, only 59 percent of secondary-school-aged children were enrolled in school.

Universities and Colleges

The main institutions of higher education in Ecuador include the Central University of Ecuador (1826) and the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador (1946), both in Quito; the University of Cuenca (1868); and the University of Guayaquil (1867).

Culture of Ecuador

Because the inhabited regions vary greatly in their ethnic makeup, Ecuador is a country of contrasting cultural patterns. The Native Americans of the highlands, the descendants of tribes conquered by the Inca, still play traditional Native American songs on ancient-style flutes and panpipes. The Oriente is populated almost entirely by Native Americans whose ancestors escaped both Inca and Spanish rule and whose customs resemble those of Native Americans of the Amazon Basin. Along the coast, descendants of Spanish settlers and black African slaves have intermingled to produce a culture that is a combination of Spanish and African characteristics.

Painting and Sculpture

Ecuador was a famous art center during the colonial period. The first of a long line of colonial painters was Adrián Sánchez Galque. He taught Miguel de Santiago, the most famous of all the Ecuadorian colonial artists. Santiago, in turn, taught Nicolás Javier de Goríbar. These three artists formed the “glorious trinity” of colonial Ecuadorian painting. In 18th-century Quito, sculpture flourished through the works of Manuel Chil Caspicara and Bernardo de Legarda. In the 20th century, a generation of talented artists inspired by contemporary Mexican painters arose in Ecuador, including Camilo Egas and Eduardo Kingman, both of whom are muralists, engravers, and oil painters, and Oswaldo Guayasamín, a painter, sculptor, and graphic artist. The works of these artists reflect a sense of Ecuadorian history and a desire for social justice.

Literature in Ecuador

Colonial literature in Ecuador, like painting of the colonial period, was baroque in style. Baroque literature is characterized by exuberant and often somber emotion presented in an elaborate style rich in imagination and metaphorical imagery. By 1800 Ecuadorian literature came under the influence of neoclassicism and later romanticism. The neoclassical style emphasized common sense, moderation, reason over emotion, and elegance over brevity. Romanticism stressed reliance on the imagination and subjectivity of approach, freedom of thought and expression, and an idealization of nature. José Joaquín de Olmedo, one of the first neoclassic poets of Latin America, was also active in Ecuador’s struggle for independence. Juan Montalvo, perhaps the most respected of all Ecuadorian authors, is known for his political essays.

The best-known Ecuadorian writers of the 20th century include Jorge Icaza Coronel, a scathing novelist with a leftist political slant, whose most famous novel is Huasipungo (1934; translated 1962); José de la Cuadra, a short-story writer; and Alfredo Pareja Díez-Canseco, Demetrio Aguilera Malta, Enrique Gilbert, and Humberto Salvador, all of whom were writers preoccupied with the struggle for social justice.

Quito, the least changed of any of the old colonial capitals of South America, is a fine example of early Spanish architecture. All the arts in colonial days were inspired by the church and reflected the baroque style prevalent in Europe. Many of the churches of Quito are now art galleries as well as places of worship; they contain priceless paintings, altarpieces, woodcarvings, statues, and adornments.

Libraries in Ecuador

The National Library, founded in Quito in 1792, is one of the oldest in the country and contains about 70,000 volumes. The university libraries in Quito and Cuenca have less extensive collections. Other libraries are maintained in the larger cities.

Museums in Ecuador

Many museums in Ecuador preserve artifacts and records of historic interest. Several historical and archaeological museums are in Quito, including the School of Fine Arts; the National Museum of Fine Arts in the Sucre Theater building; the Museum of Colonial Art; the Museum of Natural History; the Franciscan and Santo Domingo museums; and the Museum of the Central Bank of Ecuador. Guayaquil also has an archaeological museum located in the Central Bank, and a municipal museum with paintings. Museums in Cuenca include the Museum of the Central Bank, the Museum of Aboriginal Cultures, and the Museum of Folk Arts.


Agriculture has traditionally been the basis of the Ecuadorian economy. For most of the century and a half after 1822, when Ecuador won its independence from Spain, the Ecuadorian economy underwent only sluggish development and remained predominantly agrarian. The highlands, where most of the people lived, displayed a sharp social division between the masses of Native American peasants and a small class of rich creole (individuals of Spanish descent) landlords. The Indians generally farmed small plots, using traditional methods, on latifundia (big estates) owned by the creole elite. Ecuador’s main exports were cacao, coffee, and, later, bananas. Limited commercial and industrial development occurred along the coastal area centering on the country’s commercial capital, Guayaquil.

In 1965, however, an industrial development law was passed that brought about the establishment of factories manufacturing textiles, electric appliances, pharmaceuticals, and other products. In the 1970s substantial amounts of petroleum began to be produced and exported, with the completion of the trans-Andean pipeline providing a line between oil fields and the port of Esmeraldas. The profitable exploitation of petroleum produced rapid economic growth. Substantial progress was made in education, public health, irrigation, hydroelectric power generation, transportation, urban construction, and industrialization. However, social inequalities increased, the highland Native Americans remained impoverished, and foreign debt grew to high levels. In addition, Ecuador experienced some of the highest inflation rates in Latin America.

Today, Ecuador’s economy is based primarily on exports of petroleum and of bananas and other agricultural products. It remains one of the poorest countries in South America. Efforts to stabilize the economy, in accord with International Monetary Fund recommendations, have limited spending by the government and led to widespread labor unrest. In 2006 industrial production accounted for 35 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) while agriculture, including fishing, accounted for only 7 percent. The GDP was estimated at $41 billion in 2006.

Agriculture of Ecuador

Agriculture in Ecuador, especially along the coast, is vulnerable to the effects of El Niño. The effects include years of heavy rainfall and floods alternating with periods of drought, both of which can cause severe damage to crops. Ecuador’s earnings from agricultural exports are vulnerable to fluctuations in world prices.

The cultivated area (just 5 percent of Ecuador) lies primarily on the Sierra and the Costa. Bananas are the chief crop, and Ecuador grows more bananas than any other country in the world. Other important export crops are coffee, cocoa, and cut flowers. Crops such as sugarcane, rice, plantains, maize, and potatoes are grown mainly for home consumption. Some 7.5 million metric tons of fruits, primarily bananas, were produced in 2006.

Fishing in Ecuador

The coastal waters off Ecuador’s coast are rich in fish. The fish catch totaled 486,023 metric tons in 2005. Shrimp are the most important export product supplied by Ecuador’s fishing industry. Other fish found in abundance are tuna, sardines, mackerel, and anchovies.

Mining in Ecuador

Petroleum resources were first uncovered in Ecuador in the early 1920s, but they only became an important source of export income in 1972 when a Texaco-Gulf consortium brought the rich oil fields of the Oriente into production. The trans-Andean pipeline carries this oil to the port of Esmeraldas and to a nearby refinery. Additional oil deposits were discovered in the 1990s, and the completion of the trans-Ecuadorian pipeline in 2003 nearly doubled the country’s pipeline capacity. The deposits are the property of the country, but large, taxable concessions have been made to foreign concerns. Although the petroleum industry has grown slowly, the country is heavily reliant on oil revenues. Petroleum production in 2004 totaled 150 million barrels. Ecuador also has deposits of natural gas, but they have not yet been exploited. Gold, silver, copper, lead, and zinc are mined in Ecuador but do not contribute greatly to the GDP.

Manufacturing in Ecuador

Traditionally, Ecuadorian industry was confined to the manufacture of goods for local consumption. Under the industrial development law, production plants were established for the manufacture of food products, petroleum products, textiles and clothing, metalworking, paper products, wood products, chemicals, plastics, and pharmaceuticals. Despite government efforts to decentralize industrial production, Ecuador’s industry remains concentrated in the cities of Quito and Guayaquil. In 2006 manufacturing accounted for 9 percent of the GDP.

Energy in Ecuador

Ecuador has great potential for producing hydroelectricity, and 63 percent of its electricity is generated in hydroelectric facilities. Almost all the rest is produced in thermal plants burning coal or petroleum products.

Currency and Banking of Ecuador

In March 2000 the government changed the basic unit of currency in Ecuador from the sucre to the United States dollar, with the exchange rate set at 25,000 sucres to the dollar. The change to the dollar helped stabilize Ecuador’s economy and reduce the extremely high inflation rates of the 1980s and 1990s. The Central Bank of Ecuador (1927) is the bank of issue, and the country is served by several domestic commercial banks as well as offices of foreign banks.

Foreign Trade in Ecuador

The value of Ecuador’s yearly exports is generally somewhat higher than the cost of its imports. In 2003 the country’s exports earned $6 billion and its imports cost $6.5 billion. Export earnings from food products such as shrimp, cacao, and coffee accounted for 41 percent of the total, with 43 percent coming from sales of fuels, principally petroleum. Major imports included transportation equipment, machinery, metal, chemicals, and foodstuffs. The United States is by far the leading trade partner of Ecuador; considerable commerce also is conducted with other countries in Central and South America and several European countries.

Ecuador, along with Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela, is a founding member of the Acuerdo de Cartagena (Cartagena Agreement), also known as the Andean Group. The group works toward common policies on energy, tariff reduction, industrial and agricultural development, political cooperation, improved internal and international trade, and the creation of a common market. Ecuador is also a founding member of the Latin American Free Trade Association (LAFTA) which was replaced in 1980 by the Latin American Integration Association (LAIA). The LAIA aims to improve the economic and social conditions in member countries by improving trade within the group, which includes most of the countries in South America. Ecuador was a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) from 1973 to 1992, when it suspended its membership to avoid limitations on production imposed by that group. Ecuador rejoined OPEC in October 2007.

Transportation in Ecuador

Air transportation and highways have done much to foster national integration and to help diminish Ecuador’s international isolation. The road system of Ecuador comprises 43,197 km (26,841 mi) of roads, of which only about one-sixth are paved. The Pan-American Highway runs through the country from north to south. The road system was nearly doubled during the 1970s and early 1980s, opening new lands for agriculture and settlement in the coastal regions. Today, the road system is best near the coast where major roadwork followed flooding in the late 1990s. The nationalized railroads transport freight and passengers over 960 km (600 mi) of track. The government has introduced plans to privatize the railroads.

Ecuador has several seaports. Guayaquil, the main port, is connected by air and rail to the major cities and handles much of the country’s nonpetroleum trade. The port of Esmeraldas services the oil industry. Other ports include Manta, important for coffee and cocoa exports; Puerto Bolívar, important for banana exports; and La Libertad. Many rivers, including the Guayas, Daule, and Vinces, have been dredged and are now navigable. International airports are located near Quito and Guayaquil.

Communications in Ecuador

The major cities and towns of Ecuador are connected by telephone. Cellular telephones have helped to offset the lack of telephone lines in rural areas. There are more than 300 commercial radio stations and several television networks. Influential daily newspapers include El Comercio and Ultimas Noticias in Quito, and El Universo in Guayaquil.

Labor in Ecuador

The total labor force of Ecuador numbers 6.4 million people, of whom 8 percent are employed in agriculture, forestry, and fishing; 21 percent work in manufacturing, mining, and construction; and the remaining 70 percent engage in services. Skilled workers make up only a small percentage of the labor force. The country has several trade union associations; the largest is the Frente Unitario de Trabajadores, which comprises the Confederación Ecuatoriana de Organizaciones Clasistas, the Confederación Ecuatoriana de Organizaciones Sindicales Libres, and the Confederación de Trabajadores del Ecuador. There are also major unions representing manual laborers, intellectuals, maritime and port workers, and railway workers.

Tourism of Ecuador

Tourism contributes increasingly to Ecuador’s economy. Many of the country’s tourists come to visit the Galapagos Islands and see unusual plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. The name of the islands comes from the giant turtles there whose shells resemble saddles. Galapago is Spanish for “riding saddle.” The other center of tourism in Ecuador is Quito. The city’s historic center retains much of its Spanish colonial architecture. Ecuador’s other tourist attractions include the spectacular snowcapped Avenue of Volcanoes near Quito, palm-fringed beaches along the Pacific coast, Inca ruins, colorful markets, and Cotopaxi National Park on the slopes of a volcano.


Ecuador is governed under a constitution approved by voters in September 2008. The new constitution, with more than 400 articles, replaces one put into effect in 1998, which revised the constitution of 1979. Ecuador has had 20 constitutions since it achieved independence. Most have followed the classic republican form, providing for a directly elected president, an elected legislature, and a separate independent judiciary. In practice, however, Ecuador’s presidents and military leaders have frequently annulled constitutions and canceled elections. The 2008 constitution granted the president considerable power over the country’s economy and economic resources, including monetary policy, formerly controlled by the central bank.

Ecuador is divided into 24 provinces, which are subdivided into cantons and urban and rural parishes.

Executive of Ecuador

The constitution of Ecuador vests executive power in a president elected by direct popular vote who is limited to two consecutive four-year terms. Voting is compulsory for every Ecuadorian who is literate and aged 18 to 65. The president is assisted by a cabinet and appoints the governors of the provinces. The chief executive is commander in chief of the armed forces and may declare a state of emergency in the event of foreign invasion or internal disturbance.

Health and Welfare in Ecuador

Effective programs designed to check communicable diseases have been instituted in Ecuador. The country has greatly reduced the incidence of yellow fever, malaria, and tuberculosis. Malnutrition and infant mortality, however, still pose serious problems. In 1991 an outbreak of cholera spread to Ecuador from Peru. More than 35,000 cases were diagnosed and 606 people died.

A government-sponsored social security program, in existence since 1942, provides farmers, domestic workers, artisans, and professional people with such benefits as health, accident, maternity, and unemployment insurance, as well as old-age pensions. In 2004 the country had 1 physician for every 677 inhabitants.

Legislature of Ecuador

Legislative power in Ecuador is vested in the unicameral National Assembly, formerly known as the National Congress.

Political Parties of  Ecuador

Traditionally, the important political groups were the Conservative Party and the Liberals (officially the Liberal Radical Party). The Conservatives spoke for the landed aristocracy and the Catholic Church. Their stronghold was the capital, Quito. The Liberals represented the country’s wealthy and anticlerical mercantile elite. Their base was Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city and commercial center. Until the second half of the 20th century, the great majority of the population had no political voice. The real stakes of political conflicts, whether electoral or violent, were the division of spoils among groups within the upper classes.

Since World War II (1939-1945) and particularly since the transition to civilian rule in 1979, new political parties and movements have emerged to challenge the dominance of the two traditional parties. Although the social structure has not basically changed, the vote has been vastly extended. Ecuadorian political life has become much more varied and open, and the two traditional parties have dwindled into relative insignificance. In the early 21st century Ecuador had more than ten political parties, and they often formed coalitions to support candidates for election. Some of the more important parties include the leftist People’s Democracy Party, the populist Ecuadorian Roldosist Party, the centrist Party of the Democratic Left, and the Native American Pachakutik Movement-New Country. In the 1990s Native Americans gained increased influence over Ecuador’s politics through both the Pachakutik party and the Ecuadorian Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (Conaie), a group led by Native American farmers.

Local Government of Ecuador

Each province of Ecuador is administered by a governor, who is appointed by the country’s president, and a popularly elected provincial council. Urban cantons popularly elect a municipal council, which, in turn, elects the council officers. Each rural canton and each parish is administered by an official who is appointed by the president.

Judiciary in Ecuador

The court system of Ecuador includes a supreme court, 15 divisional courts, and 40 provincial courts. Criminal cases are heard before a “special jury,” consisting of one judge and three members of the bar. Capital punishment is prohibited.

Defense of Ecuador

Ecuador has a selective 12-month term of conscription for male citizens. In 2004 the armed forces included an army of 37,000 members, a navy of 5,500, and an air force of 4,000.


Architectural remains of ancient civilizations dating back thousands of years, and probably related to the Maya civilization of Central America, have been discovered in Ecuador. The present-day city of Quito served as the fortified capital of several Native American groups and is one of three cities in the Americas that antedate the coming of the Europeans. The other two are Mexico City, capital of the Aztec Empire, and Cuzco, Peru, capital of the Inca Empire. Quito was the center of the ancient Native American kingdom of Quito, which was conquered by the Inca Empire in the late 15th century. None of these pre-European civilizations left written records of their cultures. The Inca dominated the Native American tribes of Ecuador and provided the major military obstacles to the early Spanish invaders, who eventually conquered the region in the 16th century.

Spanish Rule

A Spanish scouting expedition first landed on the coast of what is now Ecuador in 1526, led by Bartolomé Ruiz. Spanish conquistadores under Francisco Pizarro invaded the country in 1532 and two years later were in control of the area. Pizarro, acting in the name of the Spanish crown, appointed his brother Gonzalo governor of Quito in 1540. A short time later Francisco Pizarro was assassinated, and Gonzalo Pizarro led a rebellion against Spain. His independent rule lasted until 1548, when forces of the Crown defeated his army at Jaquijaguana and he was executed.

Colonial Ecuador was at first a territory directly under the rule of the Viceroyalty of Peru, one of the two major administrative divisions of 16th-century Spanish America. In 1563 Quito, as Ecuador was then called, became a presidency, or a judicial district of the viceroyalty. In 1717 administrative authority over the Quito presidency was transferred to Bogotá, which was the seat of the new Viceroyalty of New Granada. It was returned to Peru from 1723 until 1739, when it reverted to New Granada.


The first revolt of the colonists against Spain took place in 1809, but it did not last long. A second attempt in 1810 resulted in a revolutionary government that was suppressed by Spanish troops in 1812. Revolutionary forces, led by General Antonio José de Sucre, chief lieutenant of South American independence leader Simón Bolívar, did not win final victory until 1822. Ecuador became the Department of the South, part of the confederacy known as the Republic of Colombia, or Gran Colombia, which also included Venezuela, Panama, and Colombia.

In 1830 Ecuador withdrew from Gran Colombia and gained independence under its present name. The first century of the republic is bound up with four remarkable men: General Juan José Flores, Vicente Rocafuerte, Gabriel García Moreno, and General Flavio Eloy Alfaro.

Regimes of Flores and Rocafuerte

Flores and Rocafuerte shared the government of the new republic from 1830 to 1845. They alternated between hostility and friendship, and likewise alternated in government. When Flores was president, Rocafuerte was governor of Guayaquil; when Rocafuerte was president, Flores was the commander of the army.

Flores was born in Venezuela and was an officer in Bolívar’s army in the War of Independence. He was in command of troops in Quito in 1830 and after Bolívar left Ecuador, Flores took advantage of the division and anarchy in Gran Colombia to head the movement that withdrew Ecuador from the federation. Flores was barely 30 years old when he first took power. His repressive government angered the Liberals, led by Rocafuerte.

Rocafuerte, a member of Quito’s upper class, was the first active opponent of the tyranny of Flores. Tolerant, progressive, a man of travel and culture, Rocafuerte was educated in Europe. Flores recognized his enemy as the kind of man he needed in the government, invited Rocafuerte to join him, and helped Rocafuerte to become president in 1835.

Rocafuerte gave Ecuador a remarkable four years of administration, with government reform, new schools and hospitals, and friendly relations with neighboring countries. At the end of his term, he returned to his position as governor of the port city of Guayaquil and left Flores in the presidential mansion in Quito. In 1845 Flores was ousted and exiled by the Liberals.

Flores fled to Spain, where he plotted with Queen Isabella II to bring the west coast of South America under Spanish rule. Ecuador’s neighbors became so alarmed that they called a conference at Lima, Peru, in 1847 to plan a mutual defense. Flores’s plans were foiled, but five years later he again menaced Guayaquil with ships obtained in Peru. No welcome awaited him there, and he departed. In 1860, with Ecuador in the throes of civil war, President García Moreno invited Flores back to command the army and help restore order.

García Moreno and Eloy Alfaro

García Moreno, a staunch Conservative, dominated Ecuador from 1860 to 1875. García Moreno favored road building, administrative reform, modernization of agriculture, and, above all, the development of a school system under the complete control of the Catholic clergy. In 1875 García Moreno was assassinated. His death was followed by two more decades of Conservative rule—at first under the dictatorship of General Ignacio de Vientimilla and then under a succession of civilian governments. During this period, world demand for Ecuadorian farm products, especially coffee, was high, and Ecuador was generally prosperous. Prosperity especially benefited the port of Guayaquil, stronghold of the Liberal opposition.

In 1895 the Liberals seized power in a coup led by their strongman Eloy Alfaro. After two years of dictatorial rule, he was elected president in 1897. In 1901 he was succeeded by another Liberal general, Leónidas Plaza Gutiérrez, but retained great influence. After a break between the two Liberal generals, in 1906, Eloy Alfaro overthrew Plaza Gutiérrez’s chosen successor and returned to power. In 1907 he was again elected president, and he held office until 1911, when he was overthrown. During his years of political dominance, Eloy Alfaro put into effect the essential points of the Liberal program—elimination of the privileged legal position of the Roman Catholic Church, establishment of a system of public education, and construction of a railroad between Guayaquil and Quito.


The next half century was marked by both economic and political instability. Starting in the 1920s, bananas were a major export crop, and Ecuador eventually became the world’s leading banana exporter. Thus the collapse of world markets for farm products during the Great Depression of the 1930s dealt Ecuador a hard blow. The country also suffered a military disaster in 1941, when it was invaded and partly occupied by Peru. An inter-American arbitration commission later awarded Peru sovereignty over a vast stretch of land in the Amazon basin that had been in dispute between the two countries ever since the breakup of Gran Colombia in 1830. Ecuador later repudiated the arbitration award, and the border between the two countries remained a point of contention until the end of the 20th century.

Ecuador followed the United States into World War II (1939-1945) against the Axis powers. At home, the end of the war coincided with a waning of Liberal influence. In 1944 the Liberal president Carlos Alberto Arroyo del Río, formerly president of the Chamber of Deputies, was forced from office and replaced by former President José María Velasco Ibarra, who had held office in 1934 and 1935 and who was supported by the Conservative faction. In 1945 Ecuador became a charter member of the United Nations. A new constitution, promulgated in December 1945, remained in force until 1967.

In 1947 Velasco was deposed by a military group that was almost immediately ousted by counterrevolutionaries. After a brief rule by a provisional government, Galo Plaza Lasso, a former ambassador to the United States, was elected president in June 1948. In early 1948 Ecuador attended the ninth Inter-American Conference in Bogotá, Colombia, and became a signatory of the charter of the Organization of American States.

The long-standing border dispute with Peru, which had been revived in 1941, cropped up again in 1950. Both times the issue was submitted to arbitration. Most of the disputed area had been awarded to Peru in 1942, and no boundaries were changed following the 1950 incident. (In 1960, reviving the dispute, Ecuador unilaterally nullified the 1942 settlement.)

Series of Short-Lived Administrations

In 1952 Velasco, this time the candidate of a coalition of left- and right-wing groups, was chosen president for the third time, holding office until 1956. In the presidential elections that year, the conservative candidate Camilo Ponce Enríquez won a close victory over a liberal candidate. Velasco ran as an independent candidate in the elections of 1960. Sharply critical of the conservative economic policies of the Ponce government, he promised widespread reforms and was elected by a wide margin. Lacking any well-defined program, however, he did not last long; he was forced to resign in 1961. Shortly before, he had signed the charter of the Alliance for Progress, a document providing for extensive aid from the United States to signatories over a ten-year period.

Velasco’s successor, Vice President Carlos Arosemena Monroy, did not enjoy a long tenure either. He was overthrown in 1963 by a military junta, which implemented economic and social reforms in a series of decrees, including one for agrarian reform. In 1964 the junta submitted a ten-year national development plan to the Alliance for Progress commission, thus opening the way for negotiation of loans to finance development projects. It soon, however, faced mounting demands for a return to constitutional government, and after two weeks of rioting in July 1965 it installed a cabinet more acceptable to the opposition, but political unrest continued. In 1966 violent antigovernment demonstrations that provoked harsh retaliation triggered a countrywide upheaval. The junta was then forced out.

An interim government held power until November of that year, when a newly elected constituent assembly chose Otto Arosemena Gómez to head the state. His government survived a difficult initial period of widespread opposition, and in May 1967 a new constitution was promulgated. In the first elections under the new charter, in 1968, Velasco was once more the winner. His fifth administration, however, was no more successful than the previous ones. He assumed dictatorial powers in 1970 in order to counter dwindling support, but in 1972 he was once again overthrown by the military. The leader of the coup, General Guillermo Rodríguez Lara, chief of the army, then assumed the presidency.

A New Prosperity

Among the first acts of the new regime was establishment of a five-year economic plan, stressing agriculture, housing, and industry. In August 1972 the first exports of petroleum were made from new fields developed and operated by U.S. companies. This made Ecuador, at the time, the second largest exporter of petroleum in Latin America, after Venezuela. Oil revenues provided Ecuador with badly needed foreign exchange and investment funds, which produced a decade of nearly uninterrupted prosperity and rapid economic growth, but also spurred inflation and increased the gap between rich and poor. Increased incomes among the Ecuadorians also led to large imports of consumer goods, which resulted in a foreign indebtedness that reached dangerously high levels.

In 1976 President Rodríguez was replaced by a junta of the chiefs of the three armed services, who oversaw a return to constitutional government. In 1979 Jaime Roldós Aguilera, a lawyer, was elected president to head a civilian government, and a new constitution took effect. Roldós promised to initiate social and economic reforms, but conservatives in the legislature blocked his program. In 1981 Roldós was killed in a plane crash, and Vice President Osvaldo Hurtado Larrea succeeded to the presidency.

Economic Stagnation

Ecuador’s excessive burden of foreign debt, falling demand for petroleum, and the broader effects of international recession forced Hurtado to abandon the reformist and expansionary policies of his predecessors and accept austerity measures and retrenchment. The 1980s became a decade of stagnation, made worse by bad floods in 1983, the collapse of world oil prices in 1985 and 1986, and a devastating earthquake in 1987.

In 1984 a conservative businessman, León Febres Cordero Rivadeneira, won the presidency. He proposed to keep Ecuador from defaulting on its foreign debt by devaluing the currency, cutting public spending, lessening protection of domestic industries, and reducing real wages. But these policies, which were resisted by Ecuador’s labor unions and opposition parties, were no more successful in generating economic recovery than the policies of preceding administrations. Not surprisingly, Febres Cordero’s Social Christian Party was badly beaten in midterm parliamentary elections. In 1987 Ecuador was forced to suspend all payments on its foreign debt, which by then had soared well beyond $9 billion.

Rodrigo Borja Cevallos of the Democratic Left became president in 1988. Borja was no more adept at reducing inflation, unemployment, and the foreign debt. Borja’s efforts, like those of his predecessors, were stymied in part by repeated clashes between the executive and legislative branches, a process that produced policy paralysis and served to heighten popular disenchantment with the political process. In a well-established pattern, Borja’s Democratic Left Party suffered major losses in parliamentary elections in 1990 and 1992.

Indicative of the fragmentation of the political system, 12 candidates competed for office in the 1992 presidential election. Conservative candidate Sixto Durán Ballén, who was born and educated in the United States, won the runoff election. Durán’s government instituted privatization measures, resulting in the breakup of Petroecuador, the state-owned oil company. Other measures included land-reform efforts requiring that unused land be sold rather than given to poor farmers. Various sectors of society mobilized against the privatization plans. The indigenous community, organized under the umbrella organization the Ecuadorian Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities, protested against the land-reform policy and plans to grant petroleum exploration rights on native lands.

Also in early 1995 Ecuador became involved in skirmishes with Peru in the border region claimed by both countries. The two-month war dealt a further blow to the Ecuadorian economy and aggravated the social crisis provoked by the process of economic reform. By the end of Durán’s term, the government had failed to enact its privatization program. However, a peace treaty signed in 1998 finally ended the long-standing border dispute between Ecuador and Peru.

Presidential Crisis

In 1996 voters elected Abdalá Bucaram, from the populist Ecuadorian Roldosista Party, as president. Bucaram, who campaigned on a promise of government aid for the poor, retreated from this position after the election and introduced an economic plan that bore a striking resemblance to that of preceding administrations. The removal of government subsidies on basic consumer goods and subsequent price increases triggered massive demonstrations. The business community, along with those who had voted for Bucaram, also expressed outrage at the rampant corruption and wild antics of the president.

In February 1997 the National Congress voted to remove Bucaram from office by declaring him “mentally unfit to govern.” Congress voted to replace Bucaram with Fabián Alarcón, president of the Congress. Later in 1997 a Constitutional Assembly was elected and charged with writing a new constitution.

Presidential Revolving Door

In 1998 Jamil Mahuad, the mayor of Quito and the candidate of the People’s Democracy Party, was elected president. In addition to an enormous foreign debt, Mahuad faced massive inflation, an economic downturn, and crop failures due to El Niño flooding.

Mahuad announced a series of austerity measures designed to get the nation’s unsteady economy back on its feet. The government eliminated gasoline and electricity subsidies, announced plans to reduce the number of government employees, and began plans to sell state-owned companies, including the government-run oil company, to private businesses. Widespread strikes and public demonstrations followed the announcement. In response, Mahuad reinstated the gasoline subsidy and said he would reevaluate his austerity program. The economy continued to worsen, however, with inflation remaining high and the currency, the sucre, losing much of its value.

On January 21, 2000, junior military officers led a bloodless coup. Vice President Gustavo Noboa Bejarano took office as president the following day, after the United States threatened to cut aid to Ecuador. In March 2000 the U.S. dollar replaced the sucre as Ecuador’s official currency. The government also opened Ecuador’s oil, electricity, and telecommunications industries to more foreign investment. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) then announced a $2-billion aid package for Ecuador.

In 2002 Lucio Gutiérrez, a former army colonel who participated in the coup that ousted Mahuad, won the presidency of Ecuador. Gutiérrez had received the support of many indigenous organizations and left-wing political parties. But he soon proposed economic austerity measures along the lines of his predecessors to pave the way for further IMF loans. In the process he lost political support.

In mid-April 2005 Gutiérrez dissolved the Supreme Court, reportedly with the aim of placating protesters who had accused him of stacking the court with his political supporters. But the move backfired and led to violent street protests. On April 20 the National Congress removed Gutiérrez from office and replaced him with the elected vice president, Alfredo Palacio, who was sworn in to complete Gutiérrez’s term.

The Rise of Correa

The 2006 presidential elections led to a November runoff between Rafael Correa, a leftist economist who ran as the candidate of the Alianza País, and Álvaro Noboa, a billionaire businessman who helped found the Prian Political Party. Correa easily won the runoff with about 57 percent of the vote. The Alianza País was the name given to the coalition that supported Correa. But the alliance was not set up as a political party and did not run any candidates for Congress.

The election attracted international attention because Correa’s victory continued the trend of leftist electoral victories in Latin America, following on the heels of similar electoral wins for the left in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, and Nicaragua. Correa proclaimed himself an admirer of Venezuela’s socialist president Hugo Chávez. He campaigned against IMF austerity measures and promised to renegotiate Ecuador’s foreign debt. Correa also raised the possibility that Ecuador would rejoin the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and he followed through on that by returning Ecuador to membership in October 2007.

In the months following Correa’s election, Ecuador’s Congress blocked many of the reform measures he sought to implement. In response, Correa called for the election of a special assembly to rewrite Ecuador’s constitution, a measure that he said would open up the democratic process in Ecuador and give more rights to its indigenous population. Resentment toward corruption in Congress was reportedly one of the major reasons for Correa’s presidential victory in 2006.

In the elections for the special assembly on September 30, 2007, Correa’s Alianza País won more than 70 of the 130 seats. Correa went outside the traditional parties to recruit candidates for the Alianza País, drawing from trade unions and human rights and farmers’ organizations. The assembly was to draft and submit a new constitution for approval in a nationwide referendum.

In March 2008 Colombia invaded Ecuador and attacked a guerrilla base maintained by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist-oriented group that has waged an armed struggle against the Colombian government since the 1980s. The attack resulted in the deaths of 25 guerrillas, including an Ecuadorean who had been working with the group. Ecuador protested this intrusion on its sovereignty, and the clash led to a summit meeting with Colombia in the Dominican Republic. In the aftermath Correa began purging the Ecuadoran military after learning that key members of the military had been tracking the whereabouts of the Ecuadorean and reportedly shared this information with Colombian forces and their U.S. military advisers but not with Correa himself. As part of the purge, Correa in April 2008 fired the defense minister; the commanders of the air force, the army, and the joint chiefs; and the army’s chief of intelligence. Correa charged that Ecuador’s intelligence services had become “totally infiltrated and subjugated” to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

New Constitution

In September 2008 voters approved the new constitution drafted by the special assembly by a margin of 64 percent to 28 percent with 8 percent of ballots declared void. The more than 400 articles in the constitution gave Correa the economic reforms he had been seeking, including executive power to set monetary policy. Previously, that power rested with the central bank. The new constitution also granted the executive greater control over vital industries, such as oil and mining, gave the government the power to cancel some foreign debts, called for the expropriation of idle land, and provided free healthcare for the elderly. Correa argued that many of these reforms were necessary to break the power of business and landowning elites over the economy.

The new constitution provided for significant political changes, including enabling the president to run for two more four-year terms and the creation of a National Assembly to replace the National Congress. The constitution also banned foreign military bases in Ecuador, effectively expelling a U.S. base in Manta on the coast. Among social reforms approved by the constitutional referendum were a prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and an affirmation of same-sex civil unions.

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