Elections!

Presidential candidate Lenin Moreno.                                      Photograph: Henry Romero, Reuters

Dear Friends:   The U.S. could learn a few things from Ecuador when it comes to national elections. To start, the political campaigning for a new president lasts officially one month – if this happened in the U.S. think how many gazillion dollars would be saved and spent on important things. Two days before voting (on February 19) all campaigning must stop: no TV ads, no noisy trucks with banners and flags and blaring speakers, no candidates making last-minute flights on private jets to far-flung corners of the country (that would be the U.S., again). On the day of voting, no publicity materials of any kind are to be displayed, and no public meetings are allowed, including church services (?). (Also: no liquor sales for three days before polling, though I easily bought two bottles of wine the day before.) Yesterday, as Michael and I walked into town to vote, we ran into a friend scraping a political sticker off his windshield. “I don’t want to be fined,” he said.

Voting is compulsory from age 18-65, and citizens can be charged a fine for not voting -$44.80 according to one headline. Turnout for the last general election in 2009 was 91%. Michael and I are eligible to vote (but not required) by virtue of our permanent residency status and ten years living here, plus we had to register for our voter’s cards.
Here’s Michael lined up at a local school for his first time voting. Polling sites are designated schools, with tables manned by university students who are obligated to serve and paid $20 for the day – presumably with a bit of training and supervision. (For reasons I don’t clearly understand, men and women vote at separate tables.) One young man checked off Michael’s name from the voters’ list and had him sign in, while another
handed him the paper ballots, called papaletos, large sheets of paper with color photos of candidates. There are no primaries in Ecuador to sort out presidential favorites, so we had our choice of eight candidates, pictured here with their vice president choices. The system allows for a run-off election if one candidate does not receive 40% of the vote with a ten-point lead.The presidential ballot is not too confusing – you simply put a vertical line in the box above your choice. The two top contenders this election are: Lenín Moreno (far right) and Guillermo Lasso (second from right). More on them later. In addition, we had to vote for about 140 asemblistas – members to the national assembly, and five Andean Parliment representatives (member states: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile). This ballot was a lot more challenging, especially for those such as the elderly and illiterate Cañari woman beside me when I voted, who understood little and certainly needed a Kichwa-speaking helper – nowhere in sight. Michael was handed his papaletos, stepped into one of the two cardboard voting booths, and made his rayas – vertical marks – with a blue ballpoint attached to a string in the booth – ink color matters here).

Happenings elsewhere

Dear Friends:  You’ll note by the header image that my horizon has recently expanded beyond Cañar. As far north as Quito, where I spent several days last week in happenings related to both archive/business and pleasure. Pleasure first: a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Fulbright Commission in Ecuador. When the evite that came a few weeks ago said: “cocteles between 7:00-9:00″ I imagined a circulate-and-chat event with wine and cheese bits and maybe a few words from the Commission director, Susana Cabeza de Vaca. When the locale on the evite said “Convento Santo Domingo” I imagined a smallish space – maybe the refectory – where nuns had once lived and shared their meals in silence. And when, the week before, an email came from Susana asking if I would speak “for five minutes” about what my Fulbright grants have meant for my life and work, I imagined a stand-up, informal, shout-out with cocktail glasses in hand. So I made a reservation at a nearby hotel for the night of the event, packed a skirt that I’ve never worn in chilly Cañar, my best Goodwill-find French top, espadrilles from Spain as good shoes, and Mom’s pearl and silver necklace made by my nephew Demian. The first surprise was the locale of the event – no austere convent this but a grand church built by Dominican friars in 1581, with Moorish ceilings, wood carvings, a gold and silver altar along with an adjoining monastery and beautiful formal gardens. The church sits on the southeast side of the Plaza Santo Domingo where, with sweet symmetry, Michael and I stayed when we first arrived in Quito in 1991. (We were robbed on the street the next day.) Because the evening was raining and cold and churches and monasteries are not known for their warmth, I gave up the idea of the skirt and espadrilles and put on pants, double socks, no-nonsense shoes, jacket and wrapped a silk ikat shawl for a touch of finery.The next surprise was the crowd! For over an hour about two hundred and fifty invited guests filed into the cloister entrance, dressed in suits and evening wear, and lined up to greet director Susana before being escorted into the church. I began to suspect that I was not in Kansas anymore when I was told to sit in a front “reserved” row and saw a podium on the altar with stage lighting. “Are we speaking up there?” I asked a friend from Cuenca I’d not seen for years who sat beside me, Francisco Salgado. Yes. He too was to speak as an Ecuador Fulbrighter who is now president of a university. As the audience was still gathering, I had time to walk up to meet the master of ceremonies and check the light on the podium, as I would read my little five-minute talk. “Here’s the program,” he said, “first Susana speaks about the history of the Fulbright program, then the American ambassador, then the mayor of Quito, then Doctora (so-and-so), then the Government Minister (of something or other), then I’ll introduce YOU.

The next surprise. The “five-minute talks” were way longer – some honorees read nervously, while others extemporized charmingly. Susana Cabeza de Vaca spoke of the “Fulbright family” of 3000 Ecuadorian grantees since the program began 60 years ago. Much beloved for her dedication, she was given a lifetime award from U.S. ambassador Todd Chapman, who also made a gift of $50,000 to the Commission for projects in Ecuador.

I kept sneaking a look at my little speech, which my Quito friend Marta had edited in Spanish. Everyone else had started by greeting all the dignitaries, one by one and by name. No way I could manage that. “Buenas noches todos,” would have to do. As the program progressed I realized I was there to represent those US Fulbrighters who had come from the north, I being the poster child of one who had stayed and made a life here. I sat waiting nervously, wearing black wool gloves; our breezy “reserved bench” was directly in line with the open archway to the garden. Then I was introduced, removed my gloves, took a deep breath, mounted the podium, squinted into the lights, and began: “Buenas Noches todos!”

Finally, a priest from this grand church gave a short talk and benediction, reminding us that the Dominicans have been around for 800 years, they too dedicated to education. This very monastery complex was, in fact, the first university in Quito, Universidad de Santo Tomas. The genial Spanish priest was wearing a vestment and cape that looked much like this image from Wikipedia.

Whew! It was about 9:30 when we were finally invited out into the colonnade around the garden (still rainy and cold) for the promised “coctel” – and a toast by the ambassador. Ah, a glass of wine at last. A second glass of wine at last. OK, one more and that’s it! My hotel was only steps away and everyone was so charming and here was the circulating and chatting that I’d imagined. It was a wonderful event and I was happy to be a part of it. Great thanks to my good Quito friend, Marta Alban, who made my speech better, to Ana Maria and Ted, who hosted me the first two days, and to all other colleagues and new friends whom I met around the archive project. I’ll write more on that next time AND get back to the Cañar Book Club.

Meanwhile, there’s another pressing subject:We are in the midst of a national election in Ecuador – voting on February 19 – and, other issues aside, it is refreshing that the campaign only started a couple of weeks ago – in Cañar at least – with a few trucks circulating with speakers blaring and party flags flying. I’ve seen one party office in town, and no doubt there’s radio and television coverage that Michael and I know nothing about, although we will both be voting. There are six candidates for president, replacing Rafael Correa a “populist-but-increasingly-authoritarian” figure who has been in office nearly ten years now. Which is not to say his party, Alianza Pais, is going away anytime soon. The candidate favored to win is Lenin Moreno, who served as vice president from 2007 to 2013 and has since been special envoy to United Nations on disability and accessibility. A shooting in1998 left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair. (He’s on far right in the graphic above.) You’ll notice a woman in the line-up: Cynthia Viteri, who the polls tell us is in second place. Her central-right Christian Social party promises to make 800,000 new jobs by stimulating production activity along the Colombian and Peruvian borders. OK! Lenin Moreno only promises 200,000 jobs, but says he’ll improve the living conditions of senior citizens through a program called “My Best Years.” Come on!  Bottom line: Michael and I have some serious research to do before we decide on our votes. More details next time. Until then, stay in touch. I love hearing from everyone.

Grabado 1743, Banco Central del Ecuador.