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A Corrupt Government, Improved Living Standards, and Gay Rights

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A trip to Cuenca, Ecuador exposes the contradictions of a changing Ecuador

August 2018

Cuenca, Ecuador

“In Ecuador, some people say it is better to let a kid be homeless than raised by a gay couple,” says Mario, our new friend in Cuenca. Mario is a homosexual male in his late 20s. Mario’s statement is shocking because we have met many openly gay males in Latin America. Moreover, the year is 2018, just one year before Ecuador’s Supreme Court will rule 5-4 that gay marriage is legal just five years after the U.S. Supreme Court made the same ruling with the same slim margin. Given this, hearing of intense homophobia surprises us.

Mario says his mother and siblings accept his homosexuality. Mario also shows me a gay bar he frequents. I bow out early, but Mario sends me pictures later that show the place completely packed. The bar is in the center of Cuenca, not on a side street to cover its patrons.

Cuenca is also the third largest city in Ecuador, after Guayagil and Quito. It feels like a large, spread out town but in a small country it does not take much to become the third largest city. Still, as in many countries, larger cities are more open to gays than the countryside.

Cuenca also is a uniquely liberal place in Ecuador in part because it has a large North American retirement community. Despite the age difference, Mario attends many gatherings of gay retired North American men. His ex-boyfriend is also American.

A view of Ecuador's third largest city, Cuenca

Mario’s relationship with his ex-boyfriend, Howard, ended in part because Mario’s coffee and breakfast shop failed. Mario had taken on significant debts to open his shop but it failed within a year. Unable to pay for dates with Howard as his business failed, Mario stopped going out with Howard and his friends. Howard pressured Mario to come out and said he would pay for his drinks and meals.

Mario resented this treatment. Many of Mario’s gay Ecuadorian friends gave him a hard time for going out with an American, saying that he only wanted to use Howard for his money. He was determined not to be the person his friends labeled him as. When Mario went out with us, he always insisted on paying for his portion of drinks and food. His pride is strong.

Mairo’s troubles with Howard eventually boiled over and the relationship ended. To add insult to injury, as they broke up Howard accused Mario of using him to get a Green Card to the United States. Mario’s previous application for a U.S. tourist visa was denied and Mario had no intention of asking Howard for help in coming to the United States. Despite Mario’s steadfast independence from Howard, by dating a North American Mario was labeled as both someone who used his American boyfriend for money and a U.S. visa.

Mario’s experience with Howard is a testament to the tensions inherent with a large, North American expat community in a poor country. The North Americans move to Cuenca and spend most of their time in North American social circles. Most do not learn Spanish beyond the bare minimum. They live in Cuenca because of its moderate climate and the low cost of living, not because of an interest in Andean culture. Their presence makes Cuenca more expensive than most parts of Ecuador even though it is still very cheap by North American standards.

The North American presence generates jealousy amongst many because of the relative wealth. Ecuador’s minimum wage is 427 dollars a month. Those like Mario who have had relationships with foreigners are the object of others’ envy. They have potential access to another world of visas and free nights out. There are no doubt people who do use the Americans for visas and free meals. Ironically, this world does not interest Mario.

A view of the mountains surrounding Cuenca

Mario currently works for minimum wage at a pizza restaurant. He is heavily indebted due to his failed business. Still, he maintains strong spirits. A couple years ago, while working for a Chinese company that paid him over 1,000 dollars a month, he took his first foreign trip to Machu Picchu in Peru. When his job with the Chinese company ended, he took his savings and invested it, along with loans, in his business that would fail. He says he was lucky, though, to have limited his debt and to have afforded a foreign trip.

Mario’s positive outlook is also a reflection on his family’s relative rise economically. Growing up, there were about three years where he and his family were homeless. Mario begged on the street to survive and did not continue going to school after primary school. Once his siblings, all older, started to work they generated enough income to get the family off the street. Now his mother sells fruit in the market which, combined with his income, is enough to pay the rent and food. His siblings are all married and economically stable. Despite earning minimum wage and holding debts from his failed business, life could be far worse.

Mario is, however, jealous of the younger generation in Ecuador. In the last 10 years under a left-wing government, secondary education went from being a privilege for a few to be universally compulsory and paid for by the state. Free university access also expanded greatly. “I often think about what would have happened to me if I was born ten years later and got more than a primary education,” he confesses.

Even though he missed the chance for education, Wilmer has benefited from other government initiatives. He says the government has greatly expanded access to healthcare and improved Ecuador’s roads.

Beyond a left-wing government’s commitment to expand fundamental services to all, I ask Mario why the standard of living has improved so much in Ecuador the last 10 to 15 years. Mairo thinks it is because Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar. “Prices have been very stable here. Before the country adopted the dollar in 2001, there was a lot of inflation. With a stable currency, our country’s economy has become more stable.”

The irony of Ecuador’s dollarization is that it had a very anti-American government in recent years. Its left-wing ex-president, Raphael Correa, presided over the improvement in services and recent economic stability while openly challenging the United States. Ivan, a hostel owner in Vilcabamba near the Peruvian border and former political appointee in Correa’s government, proudly tells me that Correa told the American ambassador that the United States could keep its military base in Ecuador only if Ecuador could have a military base in Miami. The Ecuadorians did not get their deal and kicked out the Americans.

The dolarized economy, however, has attracted large numbers of Venezuelans. Despite many potential destinations and no shared border with Ecuador, many are streaming into the small Andean nation in large part because they want to make dollars to send home to relatives in Venezuela. The dollar is the most stable currency in the world and holds great value in Venezuela.

While Mario welcomes the Venezuelans and pities their situation, many are working well below the minimum wage. He thinks Venezuelans should be allowed in Ecuador but only if they work for minimum wage.

While at a restaurant with Mario late one evening, we see many police officers standing in the street. Mario says the police are looking for Venezuelans without papers. Police can ask anyone for an ID at any time.

The police in Latin America have far greater power to arbitrarily target people than in the United States. While profiling occurs frequently in the United States, police are supposed to at least have probable cause to initiate a search or ask someone for identification. In Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador and other countries, however, police can create roadblocks and search cars at will. They can ask for IDs without cause.

We witness the power the police wield, and the consequences for individual rights, when we go to nearby Cajas National Park in a cab. At a roadblock, the police tell the cabbie to pull over. The police say that because the driver and us were not wearing seatbelts, the fine was 75 dollars. The driver cooly got out of the car, went over to the squad car with two officers, and resolved the issue.

A stunning view of Cajas National Park near Cuenca

As we drove away, the driver calmly told us he paid a 20 dollar bribe to avoid the 75 dollar fine. The cabby’s body language says, “Business as usual. No way to fight it so why get mad.” He adds that the police are from Guayaquil, three hours away. This is outside their jurisdiction. He says they come to the park to stop people and extract bribes for minor infractions.

In addition to our 15 dollar cab fare, we give the drive an extra 10 dollars. A 20 dollar bribe would significantly eat into his daily earnings. Besides, we also were not wearing seatbelts either. Little did we know that seatbelts were an issue in Ecuador. It was rare to see anyone wear seatbelts in Latin America, much less be fined for not wearing them.

Vastly improved government services but blatant corruption. Intense homophobia but gay marriage and gay bars in the city center. The legacy of their ex-president Rafael Correa, however, epitomizes the contradictions in a changing Ecuador. Despite Correa’s policies that have improved much of the country, allegations of corruption have stained his legacy. As we travel further south through the country, we will hear Ecuadorians forcefully argue about the contradictory legacy of the ex-president. This will be the subject of our next piece.

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