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A brief history of Ecuador

A small country by South American norms, Ecuador is one of the most environmentally diverse countries in the world, with large areas of rain forest, mountains and fertile soil. What is now the Ecuadorian coast was the site of the first ceramic production and agricultural villages in the Americas (circa 4,500 B.C.). Present-day Ecuador was part of the Incan empire, which was at its height at the time of the Spanish conquest. The Spanish first arrived in Ecuador in 1526 but found it most useful as a stopping place on the way to the riches of neighboring Peru. Although the Spanish founded estates in the mountains of central Ecuador and ran them with forced indigenous labor, Ecuador was a neglected backwater region during the colonial period.

Simón Bolívar helped liberate Ecuador in 1822, the year of independence. From the beginning of this period a rivalry sprang up between the conservative aristocracy of the sierra, whose power came from vast semifeudal estates worked by indigenous labor, and the more dynamic and modern liberals of the coastal region, centered in the port of Guayaquil.

In postwar Ecuador neither liberals nor conservatives could win an election against the populist José Velasco Ibarra, who was elected president five times. The discovery of oil in the 1970s expanded the middle class, but whatever benefits the poor may have reaped were wiped out by inflation. Control of government has been in civilian hands since 1979. In the 1990s, Ecuador’s development was delayed by the great gap between rich and poor. More agricultural than most of its neighbors, Ecuador’s large estate owners still rely on exploiting indigenous sharecroppers. Ecuador has one of the highest percentages of aboriginal peoples, but they are disenfranchised and participate little in the national economy.

With the election of the populist leader from the left, Rafael Correa, as president in 2007, there has been a rupture that has encouraged the indigenous cultures to seek political inclusion in civil society and agrarian reform. However, unrest and conflicts between indigenous people in the Andes and the wealthy landowners and corporations on the coast continues. Correa has entered into conflicts with Colombia over the spilling over of narcotics traffic and the presence of FARC over the border and with Brazil over corporate companies and projects. The dollarization of the economy has not improved the economy or eliminated inflations. Literacy, malnutrition and infant mortality continue to be challenges.

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