History of Ecuador

THE FIRST CENTURY OF THE REPUBLIC

Before the year 1830 drew to a close, both Marshal Sucre and Simón Bolívar would be dead; the former, murdered (on orders from a jealous General Flores, according to some historians), and the latter, from tuberculosis. Heartbroken at the dissolution of Gran Colombia, Bolívar is quoted as saying shortly before his death, "America is ungovernable. Those who have served the revolution have plowed the sea." These words would seem prophetic during the chaotic first thirty years in the life of the Republic of Ecuador.

Initial Confusion, 1830-60

Independence did not occasion a revolutionary liberation of the masses of Ecuadorian peasants. On the contrary, as bad as the peasants' situation was, it probably worsened with the loss of the Spanish royal officials who had protected the indigenous population against the abuses of the local criollos. This criollo elite, which had spearheaded the struggle for independence, was to be its principal beneficiary. The early battle to define the political parameters of the new state was fought, to a great extent, among the various sectors--Ecuadorians and foreigners, military personnel and civilians--of this elite.

Flores was of the foreign military variety. Born in Venezuela, he had fought in the wars for independence with Bolívar, who had appointed him governor of Ecuador during its association with Gran Colombia. Although of humble origins with little formal education, Flores married into the Quiteño elite, gaining acceptance, initially at least, within the local criollo upper class. As a leader, however, he appeared primarily interested in maintaining his power. Military expenditures, from the independence wars and from an unsuccessful campaign to wrest Cauca Province from Colombia in 1832, kept the state treasury empty while other matters were left unattended.

In 1833 four intellectuals who had begun publishing El Quiteño Libre to denounce the "pillaging of the national treasury by foreigners" were killed by the authorities at a time when Flores was absent from Quito. Although not directly responsible for the killings, Flores inevitably became associated with them, and criticism of his regime grew. In 1834 opponents staged a rebellion in an effort to place José Vicente Rocafuerte y Rodríguez de Bejarano, a member of the Guayaquil aristocracy who had recently returned from fourteen years abroad, into the presidency. The rebels effort failed; Flores then coopted his opponent and sponsored Rocafuerte as a presidential candidate. For four years following this Machiavellian political move--in effect the nation's first coup d'état--Flores continued to wield considerable power from behind the scenes as commander of the military.

President Rocafuerte's most lasting contribution was to begin development of a public school system. Although he had previously condemned Flores's violations of civil liberties, Rocafuerte argued that "the backwardness of Ecuador makes enlightened despotism necessary." At the end of his term in 1839, Rocafuerte returned to his native Guayaquil as provincial governor, while in Quito Flores was again inaugurated into the presidency. After four years in office, Flores summoned a constitutional convention that wrote a new constitution, dubbed "the Charter of Slavery" by his opponents, and elected him to a new eight-year term of office.

After 1843 the opposition to Flores often manifested itself in unpleasant ways: in reference to the dark skin of Flores and his fellow Venezuelan and Colombian soldiers, Rocafuerte (by now exiled in Lima) wrote that "the white oppressors of the peninsula were less oppressive than the Negro vandals who have replaced them." A young student named Gabriel García Moreno--later to become the most infamous of all of Ecuador's nineteenth century dictators--tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Flores. Discontent had become nationwide by 1845, when an insurrection in Guayaquil forced Flores from the country. Because their movement triumphed in March (marzo), the anti-Flores coalition members became known as marcistas. They were an extremely heterogeneous lot that included liberal intellectuals, conservative clergymen, and representatives from Guayaquil's successful business community.

The next fifteen years constituted one of the most turbulent periods in Ecuador's century and a half as a nation. The marcistas fought among themselves almost ceaselessly and also had to struggle against Flores's repeated attempts from exile to overthrow the government. The first marcista president was a businessman, Vicente Ramón Roca, who served a full four-year term of office. The most significant figure of the era, however, was General José María Urbina, who first came to power in 1851 through a coup d'état, remained in the presidency until 1856, and then continued to dominate the political scene until 1860. During this decade and the one that followed, Urbina and his archrival, García Moreno, would define the dichotomy--between Liberals from Guayaquil and Conservatives from Quito--that remained the major sphere of political struggle in Ecuador in the 1980s.

Liberalism under Urbina took on anticlerical, ethnic, and regional dimensions. In 1852 he accused a group of Jesuit priests-- admitted by his predecessor, Diego Noboa, only a year earlier--of political meddling and expelled them. Urbina freed the nation's slaves exactly one week after his coup of 1851, and six years later, his successor and life-long friend, General Francisco Robles, finally put an end to three centuries of required annual payments of tribute by the Indian population. Henceforth, liberalism associated itself with bettering the position of Ecuador's non-white population. Urbina's and Robles's favoring of the Guayaquil business classes over the Quito landowners reinforced the regional aspect of the political dichotomy.

Opposition against Robles intensified after his signing, in 1857, of an unpopular contract aimed at alleviating the burdensome foreign debt. By 1859--known by Ecuadorian historians as the Terrible Year--the nation was on the brink of anarchy. Local caudillos had declared several regions autonomous of the central government. One of these caudillos, Guayaquil's Guillermo Franco, signed the Treaty of Mapasingue ceding the southern provinces of Ecuador to an occupying Peruvian army led by General Ramón Castilla. This action was outrageous enough to unite some previously disparate elements. García Moreno, putting aside both his project to place Ecuador under a French protectorate and his differences with General Flores, got together with the former dictator to put down the various local rebellions and force out the Peruvians. This effort opened the last chapter of Flores's long career and marked the entrance to power of García Moreno.

The Era of Conservatism, 1860-95

García Moreno is the father of Ecuadorian conservatism and no doubt the most controversial figure in the nation's history, condemned by Liberal historians as Ecuador's worst tyrant but exalted by Conservatives as the nation's greatest nation-builder. In the end, both appraisals may be accurate; the man who possibly saved Ecuador from disintegration in 1859 and then ruled the nation with an iron fist for the subsequent decade and a half was, in fact, an extremely complicated personality. Born and raised under modest circumstances in Guayaquil, he studied in Quito, where he married into the local aristocracy, then traveled to Europe in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutionary uprisings and studied under the eminent Catholic theologians of the day.

García Moreno's religious education had a profound impact on the future president. In the words of historian Frederick B. Pike:

His personal experiences seem to have influenced his attitudes toward governing his country. In his own case, liberalism and religious indifference had gone hand-in- hand with personal debauchery and lack of self-control, while religious fervor had been intertwined with a life of rigorous self-control and spartan discipline. After coming to the presidency, García Moreno set out to rekindle religious fervor among Ecuadorians in the expectation that the entire country could be made to undergo a transformation paralleling his own.

President García Moreno saw Roman Catholicism as the ingredient of Ecuadorian culture that, through its emphasis on order, hierarchy, and discipline, could unite the nation and save it from the multiple crises and disorder of the 1850s. Catholicism thus held a prominent position in each of the two new constitutions that he introduced: the charter of 1861 named Catholicism as the exclusive religion, and its replacement in 1869, in addition to providing for a six-year presidential term and unlimited reelection, made citizenship dependent on one's adherence to the Roman Catholic religion. In 1863 García Moreno promulgated Ecuador's first concordat with the Vatican, bestowing vast powers on the Ecuadorian Roman Catholic Church, especially with respect to education. A decade later, the dictator's puppet congress dedicated the republic to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Despite such proclerical measures that have led many historians to dub his regime a theocracy, the local clergy believed García Moreno to be fanatical and criticized him for it. The president, in turn, replaced many local clergymen with foreign priests in an effort to revitalize the Roman Catholic Church in Ecuador, which he considered degenerate and dissolute.

The highly anticlerical Liberals were, of course, livid. Urbina organized an invasion in 1864, which was defeated with the help, once again, of General Flores. García Moreno was ruthless in his repression of the captured rebels, as he was commonly with less formidable opponents as well. Nor did he hesitate to manipulate the presidential succession. Finding his hand-picked successor deficient after two years in office, in 1867 García Moreno presided over the installation of a second puppet, whom he also overthrew in 1869, when it appeared that the Liberals might win scheduled elections. In 1869 García Moreno also formally established the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador--PC).

Shortly after the onset of his third presidential term in 1875, García Moreno was hacked to death with a machete on the steps of the presidential palace. The exact motives of the assassin, a Colombian, remain unknown, but the dictator's most outstanding critic, the liberal journalist Juan Montalvo, exclaimed, "My pen killed him!"

Although maligned for his highly proclerical and dictatorial ways, García Moreno made a number of vital contributions to the development of the nation. Perhaps the most important advances were in education. The generation of many new schools at all levels, from primary to the polytechnical training school in Quito, elicited universal praise, despite the fact that the Jesuits were largely responsible for these accomplishments. Transportation links with Quito were also vastly improved with the building of roads to Esmeraldas and to Babahoyo, near Guayaquil, as well as the first portion of the railroad linking Quito with Riobamba and Guayaquil. These public works not only promoted national unity but also helped Quito begin a long-delayed effort to overcome the geographic barriers that had historically caused its isolation, an isolation that had hindered the nation's integration into the world economy.

Between 1852 and 1890, Ecuador's exports grew in value from slightly more than US$1 million to nearly US$10 million. Production of cacao, the most important export product in the late nineteenth century, grew from 6.5 million kilograms to 18 million kilograms during the same period. The agricultural export interests, centered in the coastal region near Guayaquil, became closely associated with the Liberals, whose political power also grew steadily during the interval. After the death of García Moreno, it took the Liberals twenty years to consolidate their strength sufficiently to assume control of the government in Quito.

Five different presidents governed during the two decades of transition between Conservative and Liberal rule. The first, Antonio Borrero, tried valiantly to return the nation to the rule of law, but, after only ten months in office, he was overthrown by the only military dictator of the period, Ignacio de Veintemilla. Although he came to power with the help of the old Liberal General Urbina, Veintemilla later evolved into a populist military dictator rather than a politician with any party or ideological affiliation. He was extremely popular with his troops and able to woo the masses with employment on public works programs and large-scale public festivals and dances during holiday periods. In office until 1883, Veintemilla enjoyed a period of relative prosperity resulting primarily from increased maritime activity while Peru, Bolivia, and Chile were mired in the War of the Pacific.

José María Plácido Caamaño, a Conservative, then served as president until 1888, and he remained a powerful figure during the administrations of the duly elected Progressive Party (Partido Progresista) presidents who followed him, Antonio Flores Jijón and Luis Cordero Crespo. Flores, who was the son of President Juan José Flores, intended progressivism to represent a compromise position between liberalism and conservatism. The Progressive program called for support for the Roman Catholic Church, rule by law, and an end to dictatorship and military rule. Although neither Caamaño, Flores, nor Cordero was able to curtail the growing animosity between Conservatives and Liberals, their periods in office were, for the most part, characterized by relative political stability and prosperity. The latter resulted more from favorable international circumstances for cacao exports than from astute government policy making.

In 1895, midway through his term in office, Cordero fell victim to scandal and charges of "selling the flag" over an agreement made with Chile. Cordero allowed the warship Esmeralda, which Chile was selling to Japan, to fly the Ecuadorian flag briefly in order to protect Chile's neutrality in the conflict between Japan and China. Bribes were apparently involved and, tremendously weakened by the scandal and also challenged by the outbreak of several military rebellions, the president resigned in April. In June the Liberals seized power in Guayaquil in the name of their most popular caudillo, General José Eloy Alfaro Delgado. Three months later, "the old battler" (a name Alfaro had earned during his armed struggle against García Moreno) returned after a decade of exile in Central America and marched triumphantly into Quito. It was the end of Ecuador's brief experiment with progressivism and the beginning of three stormy decades of rule by the Radical Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Radical--PLR), commonly referred to as the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal).

The Rule of the Liberals, 1895-1925

Eloy Alfaro is the outstanding standard-bearer for Ecuador's Liberals, much as García Moreno is for the Conservatives. Some Marxist groups have also looked to Alfaro; although his political program was in no way socialist, it did prove to be revolutionary in the extent to which it stripped the Roman Catholic Church of the power and privileges previously granted to it by García Moreno. Catholic officials and their Conservative allies did not give up without a fight, however. During the first year of Alfaro's presidency, Ecuador was ravaged by a bloody civil war in which clergymen commonly incited the faithful masses to rise in rebellion against the "atheistic alfaristas" and were, just as commonly, themselves victims of alfarista repression. The foreign-born Bishops Pedro Schumacher of Portoviejo and Arsenio Andrade of Riobamba led the early resistance to Alfaro. A fullfledged bloodbath may well have been averted only through the magnanimous efforts of the outstanding historian and Archbishop Federico González Suárez, who urged the clergy to abandon the pursuit of politics.

This final ecclesiastical struggle for control of Ecuador was in vain, however. By the end of the Liberals' rule in 1925, Roman Catholicism was no longer the constitutionally mandated state religion, official clerical censorship of reading material had been suppressed, many powerful foreign clergy had been expelled, education had been secularized, civil marriage as well as divorce had been instituted, the concordat with the Vatican had been broken, most of the church's rural properties had been seized by the state, and the republic was no longer dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Roman Catholic Church in Ecuador would never again hold prerogatives as extensive as those it enjoyed during the late nineteenth century.

The other accomplishment for which the three decades of PLR rule are remembered is the completion, in 1908, of the GuayaquilQuito railroad. At the time, however, Alfaro was condemned by his critics for "delivering the republic to the Yankees" through a contract signed with North American entrepreneurs to complete the project begun by García Moreno. Although the criticism did not halt Alfaro on this project, a similar nationalistic outcry did force him to end negotiations with the United States, which wanted to protect the soon-to-be-completed Panama Canal, over military base rights in Ecuador's Galápagos Islands. Alfaro's affinity for the United States was also evident in 1910, when war between Peru and Ecuador over their perennial boundary dispute was narrowly averted through the mediation of the United States, together with Brazil and Argentina.

The Liberals can be credited with few further accomplishments of major proportions. The system of debt peonage that lingered in the Sierra came under government regulations, albeit weak ones, and imprisonment for debts was finally outlawed in 1918. These and other limited social benefits gained by the Indians and the mixedblood montuvio (coastal mestizo) working class were overshadowed by the ruinous economic decline world wide and the severe repression of the nascent labor movement at the hands of the Liberals during the early 1920s. Furthermore, Liberal rule did little to foster the development of stable democracy. On the contrary, the first half of the period saw even more illegal seizures of power and military-led governments than in previous decades.

A major cause of the instability of the period was the lack of unity within the PLR itself. Alfaro and a second military strongman, General Leónidas Plaza Gutiérrez, maintained a bitter rivalry over party leadership for almost two decades. Following Alfaro's first period in the presidency, Plaza was elected to a constitutional term of office that lasted from 1901 until 1905. In 1906, shortly after a close associate of Plaza had been elected to succeed him, however, Alfaro launched a coup d'état and returned to the presidency. Alfaro, in turn, was overthrown in 1911 after refusing to hand power over to his own hand-picked successor, Emilio Estrada. Four months later, Estrada's death from a heart attack precipitated a brief civil war that climaxed the rivalry between Alfaro and Plaza. Alfaro returned from his exile in Panama to lead the Guayaquil garrison in its challenge to the Quito-based interim government, which was under the military authority of General Plaza. The rebellion was quickly defeated, however; Alfaro was captured and transported to Quito via the same railroad that he had done so much to complete. Once in the capital, Alfaro was publicly and unceremoniously murdered, along with several of his comrades, by a government-instigated mob.

Shortly thereafter, Plaza was inaugurated into his second presidential term in office. It was the first of four consecutive constitutional changes of government: following Plaza (1912-16) came Alfredo Baquerizo Moreno (1916-20), then José Luis Tamayo (1920-24), and Gonzalo S. Córdova (1924-25). Real power during this second half of the period of Liberal rule was held, not by the government, but by a plutocracy of coastal agricultural and banking interests, popularly known as la argolla (the ring), whose linchpin was the Commercial and Agricultural Bank of Guayaquil led by Francisco Urbina Jado. This bank gained influence by loaning vast quantities of money to the free-spending government as well as to private individuals. According to Ecuadorian historian Oscar Efrén Reyes, the bank was influential "to the point that candidates for president and his ministers, senators, and deputies had to have the prior approval of the bank." Many of the private loans were to members of the Association of Agriculturists of Ecuador, an organization that also received government funds intended to promote an international cartel of cacao growers, but which instead were used to line members' pockets.

All parties involved in la argolla, from the government officials to the bankers and the growers, were professed militants of the Liberal cause. It was not only the political fortunes of the party that fell victim to their financial activities, however, but also the national economy, which experienced runaway inflation as a result of the printing of money by the private banks. The severe economic problems during the final years of Liberal rule were also partially caused by factors beyond the control of the politicians. A fungal disease that ravaged Ecuador's cacao trees and the growth of competition from British colonies in Africa abruptly ended conditions that had favored Ecuador's exportation of cacao for over a century. What was left of the nation's cacao industry fell victim to the sharp decline in world demand during the Great Depression.

Ecuador's economic crisis of the early 1920s was especially devastating to the working class and the poor. With real wages, for those lucky enough to have jobs, eaten away by inflation, workers responded with a general strike in Guayaquil in 1922 and a peasant rebellion in the central Sierra the following year. Both actions were aimed at improving wages and working conditions; both were put down only after massacres of major proportions.

President Córdova, closely tied to la argolla, had come to office in a fraudulent election. Popular unrest, together with the ongoing economic crisis and a sickly president, laid the background for a bloodless coup d'état in July 1925. Unlike all previous forays by the military into Ecuadorian politics, the coup of 1925 was made in the name of a collective grouping rather than a particular caudillo. The members of the League of Young Officers who overthrew Córdoba came to power with an agenda, which included a wide variety of social reforms, the replacement of the increasingly sterile Liberal-Conservative debate, and the end of the rule of the Liberals, who had become decadent after three decades in power.

Reform, Chaos, and Debacle, 1925-44

The reformist officers initially named a governing junta consisting of prominent opponents of the Liberal plutocracy, but neither it nor a succeeding junta was able to consolidate the power necessary to govern effectively. In 1926 they named as provisional president Isidro Ayora, a dedicated reformer who, although married into one of the wealthiest coastal families, possessed a social conscience and the vision to see that reform would help preserve the status of the upper classes. Ayora quickly assumed dictatorial powers, with which he set out to institute reforms that were partly of his own making and partly the making of the League of Young Officers.

An advisory mission from Princeton University, headed by Edwin W. Kemmerer, was invited to propose measures to reorganize Ecuador's fiscal and monetary structures. Its major accomplishment was the creation of the Central Bank of Ecuador (Banco Central), which replaced the private banks' authority in the issuing of currency; in addition, the Kemmerer mission also reorganized the state budgeting and customs agencies. The appropriation of these functions, which were previously under the control of la argolla, brought a revenue windfall to the government during the next half-decade. In addition to building state fiscal and social agencies, the funds were used to initiate a number of programs, including pensions for state workers, that enhanced the security of the middle and lower economic sectors of the population. A range of social legislation--quite progressive for its day--intended to protect the working class from unscrupulous employers and to improve working conditions emerged from the enactment of the 1929 constitution.

The same constitution, Ecuador's thirteenth in just under a century as a republic, also provided for a powerful legislative body with authority to censure presidential ministers. This diminution of executive power, the appearance of a wide variety (socialist, communist, and populist) of new groupings in political competition with the traditional parties and with the military, and the devastating effects of the Great Depression combined to make Ecuador's political record especially unstable during subsequent years. Ayora was the first of fourteen chief executives during the 1930s.

World demand for cacao and other Ecuadorian export crops dropped precipitously in the wake of the 1929 Wall Street crash: export crop value fell from US$15 million in 1928 to US$7 million in 1931 and US$5 million in 1932, causing widespread unemployment and misery. Few objections were voiced in 1931 when Ayora was the victim of a military coup. Neptalí Bonifaz Ascázubi was then elected with the help of a quasi-fascist grouping of the serrano lower classes called the Consolidation of National Workers (Compactación Obrera Nacional). In August 1932, after various Liberal and leftist elements in Congress blocked Bonifaz's assumption of power, the Compactación fought a bloody four-day civil war against other paramilitary forces amassed by opponents of the president-elect. The latter were victorious, largely because the great majority of the government military forces remained in their barracks rather than defend Bonifaz.

Another election two months later brought victory for the Liberal candidate, Juan de Dios Martínez Mera, but soon accusations arose that the election had been fraudulent. The congressional opposition censured virtually every minister as soon as he was named and also encouraged the Compactación to lead demonstrations against the president in the streets of Quito. The campaign against Martínez was led by the charismatic president of the Chamber of Deputies, José María Velasco Ibarra, who at the time professed a "total lack of presidential ambitions." In September 1934, less than a year after Martínez was forced to resign, Velasco assumed the presidency after having won popular elections by an overwhelming margin.

The first of Velasco's five periods as president lasted only eleven months. He was overthrown by the military after attempting to assume dictatorial powers by dissolving Congress and jailing his congressional opponents. Shortly thereafter, the military placed Federico Páez in the presidential palace. An engineer and former senator, Páez ruled precariously for two years, first with the political support of the socialist left and then with that of the right, and he tried to advance the reforms undertaken by Ayora a decade earlier. Ongoing fiscal difficulties severely limited Páez's efforts, however, and in September 1937 he was overthrown by his minister of national defense, General Alberto Enríquez Gallo. Although he ruled for less than a year, Enríquez achieved note as a social reformer by his promulgation of the Labor Code of 1938.

Enríquez is also remembered for having initiated a protracted confrontation with the United States-based South American Development Company over the terms of its Ecuadorian concession and the wages it paid its Ecuadorian employees. The company refused to comply with Enríquez's entreaty that more of the profits from its mining operations stay in Ecuador, and it won the support of the United States Department of State. The Ecuadorian government continued its demands despite United States pressure. In 1940 the United States, hoping to obtain Ecuadorian cooperation in its anticipated war effort, ended its support for the mining firm. Ecuadorian President Carlos Alberto Arroyo del Río, in turn, proved generous in his cooperation with the Allies, allowing the United States to build a naval base on the Galápagos Islands and an air base at Salinas on the Ecuadorian mainland.

In addition to being a genuine friend and admirer of the United States, Arroyo del Río was the leader of the PLR and a representative of the Guayaquil-based "plutocracy." He came to power constitutionally in November 1939 upon the death of his predecessor, but he continued in office in January 1940 through fraudulent elections that were universally believed to have been won by Velasco, and continued in power later, through repression. Despite such antipopular methods of ruling, he managed to remain in office for almost four years, thanks to economic support by the United States and the recuperation of Ecuador's export markets as worldwide economic depression gave way to recovery during World War II.

Arroyo del Río's undoing was the disastrous 1941 war with Peru. Although the prior sequence of events--the breakdown of talks aimed at resolving the boundary issues in 1938, followed by repeated border skirmishes--had given ample warning of a possible outbreak of large-scale hostilities, Ecuador was unprepared to meet the July 5 Peruvian invasion. Furthermore, the president's fear of being left unprotected from his opponents led him to keep the nation's best fighting forces in Quito while Peruvian troops continuously attacked the nation's southern and eastern provinces until a ceasefire went into effect on July 31.

Peru's occupation ended only after January 1942, when the two nations signed the Protocol of Peace, Friendship, and Boundaries while attending the Third Conference of Foreign Ministers of the American Republics in Rio de Janeiro. Under the terms of the Rio Protocol, the informal name of the agreement, Ecuador renounced its claim to some 200,000 square kilometers of territory. Shortly afterward, the Rio Protocol was ratified by a bare plurality of the Ecuadorian legislature.

The Ecuadorian government quickly regretted having become a party to the Rio Protocol. The protocol became the focus of a surge of Ecuadorian national pride and concomitant opposition to Arroyo in a new coalition--the Democratic Alliance. The coalition brought together a wide array of Ecuadorian politicians dedicated to replacing the "president who had been unable to defend the national honor." Arroyo's rejoinder that he would remain in office the full four years, "neither one day more nor one day less," and his being prominently hailed in Washington as "the Apostle of PanAmericanism " only increased his political isolation. A persistent inflation that whittled away at the purchasing power of salaried workers was a further cause of popular resentment against Arroyo.

In May 1944, following an uprising in Guayaquil that pitted the military and civilian supporters of Velasco against Arroyo's police, the president finally resigned. The military handed power to the Democratic Alliance, which in turn named Velasco, whose electoral candidacy had recently been vetoed by Arroyo, as the popularly acclaimed president of the republic. The populist master returned triumphantly from exile in Colombia, greeted by throngs of enthusiasts during a three-day journey to Quito, to assume the presidency for the second time.

Ecuador History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress