The Pillars of Our Society: Final Days in Ecuador

I knew when leaving Quito that a new President of Ecuador would be at the helm upon my return. Being in Cuba sans internet for two weeks, I had no idea whom the victor was until hopping online at the Panama City airport, where I connected on my way from Havana back to Quito.

Maybe the Ecuadorean election wasn’t on your radar. But I assure you, between a matchup that pitted a powerful banker against “Bernie Sanders in a wheelchair”, the status of Julian Assange’s asylum in London’s Ecuadoran embassy up for contention, and post-election protests abound, this was a campaign with plenty of intrigue. Moreover, it provided an opportunity to examine the current state of our society’s four pillars in a rapidly changing world.

 

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While waiting at the gate in Panama City I open up reddit for the first time in weeks and notice one of the front page posts titled “We’re on our 7th day of protests in Ecuador, but due to censorship the rest of the world isn’t hearing about it

This is what I’ll be arriving to in Quito?? Great.

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Protests aside, after two weeks in the Caribbean, feeling Quito’s cold air on my face upon arrival at Mariscal Sucre was a welcoming sensation. The familiar dizzying effects of high altitude…not so much.

I spent the next day hunkered down, recovering and catching up on writing of which I was woefully behind on, much like I am right now. While relaxing on the rooftop terrace of the Secret Garden Hostel I wrote about my trip into the Ecuadorean Amazon.

In the jungle I spent time in an indigenous Siona village. Despite largely being left to their own accords, the Sionan people are still Ecuadoreans and maintain all voting rights of the average citizen. The two Presidential candidates left no opportunity for support untouched, as I observed during my time in the village.

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The sign you see above is one of Lenin Moreno, the wheelchair-bound Vice President under outgoing President Rafael Correa and the Socialist Party’s candidate.

Moreno and Correa are democratic socialists. While in power their administration led massive infrastructure projects and education reform, which included raising the education budget from 2.5% to 6% of GDP.

They advocated for racial and cultural justice, appointed an indigenous Quechua woman as Communication Secretary, and an Afro-Ecuadorean as the Minister for Culture – the first black man to ever sit in the Ecuadorean Cabinet.

Correa also oversaw expansion in the healthcare arena. Though Ecuador had employed a universal healthcare system for decades, he ramped up government spending on medicine and implemented higher wages for doctors. Prior to my journey into the Amazon, I found myself a benefactor of the system, receiving a yellow flu shot for a grand to total of zero dollars and no hassle. It would have cost me $80 back in the states.

Correa and Moreno are beloved in city centers like Quito. Their record is reflective of one of the core pillars of society, a strong and stable government.

But their tenure was not without controversy. As my guide in the Amazon, Fabian, pointed out, Correa auctioned off three million hectares of Amazonian jungle to Chinese oil companies in 2013. This decision conflicted with Correa’s supposed support of environmental protectionism. Because of this, Fabian told me he supported Moreno’s opponent in the 2017 election, Guillermo Lasso.

A conservative and the Executive President of a powerful, multinational bank, Banco de Guayaquil, Lasso was lauded as the outsider who would bring change to what many Ecuadoreans perceived as a government run amok with abusive power and corruption. His party’s name, “Creating Opportunities”, reflects this position. I heard his catchy adverts on the radio in cabs and shops throughout Ecuador:

“Lasso! Lasso! Cambio! Cambio”

(“Lasso! Lasso! Change! Change!”)

The prolific banker sports a winning smile and an every man’s posture. He rode the “not a politician” wave that we’ve begun to see across the world. In many ways, Lasso is a figurehead for another pillar of our society: an innovative, thriving private sector.

Despite being embroiled in controversy, including a dubious role in Ecuador’s 1998-1999 financial crisis and being associated with forty-nine offshore companies located in tax havens (“lies made up by Correa”, says Fabian, invoking the “fake news” claim), his supporters are fervent.

It is these supporters that protested in the streets of Quito for weeks after Lasso’s narrow loss to the socialist Moreno on April 2nd.

That afternoon I heard through the hostel grapevine that they were mobilizing once again, so I abandoned my writing and went to check it out.

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The demonstrators were decrying the election’s results and claiming the illegitimacy of the government. Moreno’s razor-thin winning margin was enough to get thousands of Lasso supporters to the streets to demand a recount.

Having already had my phone stolen in Ecuador, I didn’t want to risk losing anything else in such a densely packed, hostile crowd. I snapped a few pictures and took my leave, leaving behind the angry mob and onlooking riot police.

The following day a different kind of crowd took to the streets to celebrate Good Friday.

Our society’s third pillar, religion, manifests itself in a fascinating way for Quito’s Good Friday celebrations. That morning when myself and other hostelers arrive in the downtown core, thousands have already gathered to observe the procession. Indeed, the religious doctrine runs deep in Ecuador.  What we saw that day can only be expressed in photos.

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A perplexing procession of faith unfolds in front of us, as several thousand purple-robed men and women march through the streets in front of crowds amounting to a few hundred thousand in total. The purple is said to represent penitence, and the cones atop their heads are said to symbolize humility. I have a tough time digesting the latter; coned robes invoke an entirely different response to my American eyes.

The start and finish times are set to coincide with the hour Jesus was condemned to death, noon, and the hour in which he was crucified, 3pm. I stay the whole time and observe an array of theatrical, often brutal demonstrations of biblical symbols. The masked, barefooted processors move through the streets in a hypnotizing rhythm as ominous biblical verses and songs play over speakers.

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Some are wrapped in barbed wire, displaying their solitude with the suffering of Christ, I suppose.
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Prickly, cringe-inducing cactuses in the shape of crosses are tied to the backs of some.
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Others walk with shackles tied to their ankles.
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Children carry small statues of Jesus or the Virgin Mary.

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Some men are carrying heavy logs and wear barbed wire as a crown as well. I’m told that some of the blood is real but most of it is makeup.

 

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Occasionally a man will walk by dressed as Jesus, towing a huge cross that looks as if it could be the same size as the one Christ was made to pull.
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As I’m situated near the end of the procession, many towing the crosses look to be completely drained by the time they reach me.
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…and some understandably require a little help at the end.
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One even collapsed in a heap of exhaustion.
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A benevolent onlooker offered him some water before he pressed on.

Quito’s Good Friday procession certainly made for a haunting scene. The countless hooded figures, multitude of self flagellation, evocative and rhythmic procession, it was a lot to take in.

Over 90% of Ecuadoreans identify as Roman Catholic, so despite a contentious election, this seemed like a uniting event. But that’s not to say there still weren’t political statements being made. Before the procession started, I noticed a man standing across from me wearing a Guillermo Lasso shirt. Clearly even Good Friday was not safe from the ongoing protests.

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There is some irony around his mother (I assume) being in a wheelchair, when Lasso’s opponent pushed for a stronger healthcare system and is himself confined to a wheelchair.

I ask a man standing next to me if he thinks the protests will continue past Easter Sunday.

“Maybe, maybe not. At the end of the day I only answer to God”

I smile and nod at him.

After four hours the crown jewel of the procession arrives. Jesus del Gran Poder (Jesus of Great Power), a statue of Christ being carried by two dozen men, turns the corner onto our street and is met with cheers, tears, and rose petals thrown from the rooftops.

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Policemen made sure no one tried to rush the statue.

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Behind Jesus are thousands upon thousands of people following behind.

This is the fourth and final pillar: Family and community.

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More sacred than religion itself, more important than a strong government or a thriving private sector, the family unit is without a doubt the most important pillar of our society.

Okay Jack, what are you getting at with all this pillar nonsense? 

I see my last few days in Ecuador as a mirror for which the United States and the rest of the world can gaze upon and see ourselves. Humanity is going through a period of immense change, and these changes are challenging our notions of societies pillars.

Take men like Guillermo Lasso and Donald Trump. Their rise to prominence was fueled by distrust for establishment politicians. Lasso’s shocking narrow loss and Trump’s even more shocking victory are both indicative that, in this great age of information sharing, politicians simply cannot continue to make deals in the shadows. Whether it’s selling weapons to the Saudi’s or Amazonian land to the Chinese, people are waking up to government’s injustices. Indeed, the intolerance for governmental corruption and successes of political outsiders like Lasso and Trump, in spite of their own flagrant corruption, are suggestive of the changing nature of the government pillar.

Make the logical next step and examine men like Lenin Moreno and Bernie Sanders. Though both are imperfect men with imperfect ideas, each has a powerful message that has resonated with the masses, especially the younger generation. Each decries the staggering wealth inequality we’ve seen, the horrific nature of poverty in even the most developed countries, and the need for stronger systems of education, healthcare, and racial justice. Both suggest that unchecked capitalism and big business, in all its lobbying power, are the underlying causes of our rigged economy. The only difference between the two men is that Moreno was his party’s nominee and won (you know it’s coming, but I’ll say it anyway…Bernie would have won). The successes of Moreno and Sanders are indicative of the changing nature of the economic pillar.

What about religion? If the pictures above are our sole gauge, this pillar is stronger than ever. And yet, as I wrote about here, we are currently undergoing a mass exodus away from organized religion the likes of which we have never seen. A young man I met in Ecuador told me about his doubts of religion and how much he hates the phrase that I heard almost every day, “Dios te pagará” (“God will pay you”), because it suggests people are not in control of their own lives. I believe the younger generation will gradually phase out outdated, disturbing religious institutions like the one seen above. Despite still wielding influence, the mass movement away from organized religion is indicative of the changing nature of the religion pillar.

Finally, the fourth pillar, the family pillar, is changing in that we have begun to redefine what it means to be a family. Widespread legalization of gay marriage, the growing embrace of the trans community, the waning intolerance of multiethnic/multiracial marriages, these and more are all indicative of the changing nature of the family pillar.

(Contributing to all this woken-ness is the vexed leader of Wikileaks, Julian Assange. No matter how you feel about the man, he has certainly had an impact how we view our institutions. President-elect Moreno has declared that he will uphold Assange’s asylum at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.) 

Though I am optimistic about it, the changing of society’s pillars has been jarring for a great many people, consciously or subconsciously. Change is hard but it’s how we evolve, how we create a better society for all, and how we come together to tackle the true challenges that will face humanity in the coming centuries.

Seeing people wake up to governmental corruption, the destructive power of unchecked capitalism, the controlling nature of religion, and the necessary redefinition of what it means to be family, is all good stuff in my mind. Of course, you could argue the exact opposite, and given the headlines these days, you could make a compelling case.

Either way, I think we can all agree that it is a fascinating time to be alive.

2 thoughts on “The Pillars of Our Society: Final Days in Ecuador

  1. Jack, a superb job on Ecuador, whichI visited as a Peace Corps Volunteer on vacation in 1968, arriving from Venezuela by bus over the mountains from Columbia. The Good Friday procession photos are superb and remind me of when I stood alone in the crowds in Seville, Spain to see their famous procession, which pales by comparison with what you have captured. You could sell a great article to a magazine on this!

    Liked by 1 person

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