A History of Ecuador
Ecuador’s tumultuous history is, in many ways, cyclical. The country continually struggles against deep-rooted social, political-economic, and geographical challenges. The same factors that determined Ecuador’s history during the last two centuries continue to dominate its landscape at the beginning of the 21st century.
During Ecuador’s Pre-Colombian Period, a variety of indigenous groups coexisted for thousands of years before being subjugated, first by the Inca and then by Spanish conquistadors. Although both conquests were brutal invasions, inhabitants suffered far more under Spain than under the Inca.
During its colonial history, as part of the Viceroys of Peru and Nueva Granada, the people of what is now Ecuador saw a rise in exotic disease, forced labor and inequality. The economic decline of Spain, the rise of Enlightenment ideals, and a spreading South American independence movement coincided to help revolutionaries win independence from Spain on May 24, 1822. During its early years of independence, Ecuador belonged to Simón Bolívar’s Republic of Gran Colombia, which also included present-day Venezuela and Colombia. This association did not last long however, and the Ecuador’s establishment as a republic precipitated a period of strong influence by the Catholic church. Eloy Alfaro and followers fought for many secular reforms during the Liberal Revolution.
During the Great Depression, Ecuador experienced tremendous political instability, culminating in a war with Peru at the brink of World War II. Ecuador’s Post-War Period saw a marked increase in inequality, instability.
Correspondingly, contemporary Ecuadorian history has also been marked by radical instability stemming from fluctuation in world oil and financial markets, debt and modernization.
Examining the course of Ecuador’s history, four themes emerge:
First, the vast majority of the nation’s wealth sits in the hands of a very few; a small middle class struggles to survive; and more than half of the country’s population hovers at or below the poverty level. Ecuador’s highly inequitable economic and social structure can be traced to colonial era racial discrimination and land tenure patterns, and to its dominant European cultural expressions.
Second, the large-scale, export-oriented agricultural enterprises of Ecuador’s coastal region, represented by Guayaquil, continue to compete with the smaller farms and businesses of the Andean highlands, represented by Quito. This persistent regional rivalry often determines the outcome of key national issues and frequently paralyzes the government.
- Third, the economy continues to enjoy periods of “boom” and suffer periods of “bust” due to its dependence on a few export commodities, such as oil. The constant rise and fall of the economy makes it very difficult for Ecuador to realize any meaningful economic, social or political changes.
Ecuador’s colonial roots are not
confined to the history books,
they are visible in everyday life even after almost two hundred years of independence from Spain.
- Fourth, the political system lacks strong, stable institutions. Since independence from Spain in 1822, there have been more than ninety changes of power. On average, every two years a new civilian or military government takes control. Governmental institutions, without opportunity to mature, have been unable to address Ecuador’s constantly re-emerging problems. Ecuador’s lack of a stable political system is both the result and cause of the nation’s disparate class structure, regionalism, and roller coaster economy.