As I begin to write this, I’ve been nearly four days without an Internet connection, and I find I have a lot more productive time – lonely, but productive. How dependent we’ve grown on being constantly connected to the world and to those we love. Anyway, I began to think about a few things that I’ve put on the back burner but wanted to write about before I leave Ecuador, one being the question some of you have asked about the political situation and President Rafael Correa.
An economist trained in the U.S., Correa, 50, took office in 2007, with the support of the indigenous vote, bringing a political stability to Ecuador after a turbulent decade, when three presidents were forced to step down (or flee) because of social and economic unrest. Usually referred to in the U.S. press as a “socialist” or “leftist,” Correa spent heavily on social programs in his first term, and this past February he was re-elected with an overwhelming majority to a second five-year term. By then, the indigenous organizations were less supportive – Correa has refused to dialogue with them on several important issues – but his highly-visible infrastructure projects throughout the country – mostly highways, improved country roads, tourist sites, and potable water systems, always accompanied with a big billboard, “The Citizen’s Revolution Financed This Work” – helped his party capture a majority in the National Assembly for the first time.
Ecuador has been in the international headlines these last weeks in two strangely connected matters. Julian Assange, the Wikileaks guy, just passed his first anniversary as resident in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he sought political asylum after an extradition order from Sweden. Apparently Correa is willing to give him safe conduct to Ecuador, but Assange is unable to step out of the embassy for fear of being extradited to the US, where he may face espionage charges, or to Sweden, where he faces accusations of sexual assault. Below: Julian Assange and Ecuador’s foreign minister Ricardo Patino inside the Ecuadorean embassy in London this week (AP foto) where discussions with British authorities were at a stalemate. (I’ll bet Correa wishes he’d never waded into this one!).
Also this past week, the National Assembly passed a restrictive media law, Ley de Comunicación, regulating the news, creating media watchdogs, imposing sanctions for smearing “people’s good name” and limiting private media – all in an effort to control the opposition. A favorite project of Correa, who last year brought a multi-million dollar lawsuit for libel against a newspaper publisher. Big misstep, from many points of view! Journalists and human rights organizations have called it a blow to free speech. And as one editorial critic pointed out, under the new law Julian Assange’s activities would certainly be considered illegal in Ecuador.
But before I go further, I’d like to recount some effects of Correa’s social programs here in Cañar. Many of you will remember Lourdes, the daughter of our compadre, Jose Maria, who worked on the house construction for 18 months and now watches over things while we’re gone. Three years ago, Lourdes, then 12, suffered acute renal failure as a result of childhood kidney disease. The same year, Correa’s government passed a health law covering all costs of “catastrophic medical conditions,” such as cancer or end-stage heart or kidney disease, hemophilia, etc. This new law saved Lourdes’ life: giving her emergency hospitalization in Quito followed by three years of dialysis. Her family was charged nothing.(Lourdes on the left, with her sister Maria, taken yesterday at Inti Raymi)
Dialysis three times a week in a city two hours away is a horrible existence for anyone, but for Lourdes it meant her normal teenage life was over. She had to leave school and stay at home with restricted diet and activities, her only hope a kidney transplant. But in Ecuador organ donation was virtually unknown, until last year, that is, when Correa’s government passed a law, following Spain’s example, authorizing default organ donation in the case of a fatal accident if a driver had not opted out the license. Last September, Lourdes’ parents got a call in the middle of the night that a kidney was available from a young man who had died in an accident in Cuenca. Lourdes and her mother were flown to Quito where she was admitted to one of the best private hospitals and given a successful transplant, provided a month’s lodging nearby with her mother for daily follow-up, plus weekly and now monthly follow-ups when they travel by bus to Quito. Today, Lourdes is healthy and planning to go back to school in September.
Also last year, her father, Jose Maria, found a job as a garbage collector with the municipality of Cañar, and a new minimum wage law gave him and his family the first decent financial security they have ever had.
So, two thumbs up for Correa’s social programs, and one down for media censorship!
Correa next turned to overhauling education, which has affected our women’s scholarship program here in Cañar. Two years ago, the government made all state universities free. This was good, but had minimum effect on us because tuition was very little: $60 – $100 dollars a year; still, we were pleased to have our scholarship dollars go further. At the same time, however, and very abruptly, the government put into place a system of qualifying exams, much like the SATs, throwing public secondary schools into chaos. No one could enter university without an exam score that qualified him or her for a certain “career” at a certain university, and the competition was nationwide. A graduating high school senior had to declare a first choice of career and university at the time of the exam. Students in Cañar were ill-prepared, the exams were given late in the academic year, test results were delayed, and everyone was confused by the new system. Last June, when our scholarship committee met to consider granting new scholarships, we did not have a single new applicant. Fortunately, the year before, seven women had qualified, having started their studies before the new law, and with one continuing, we have eight women in the program, all doing well in areas such as medicine, veterinarian medicine, nursing, laboratory technician, accounting and nutrition.
This year, things are better organized on a national level, but with painful results close to home. Our beloved goddaughter, Paiwa, who has been an excellent student since first grade in the best Catholic school here, exceling in math and science, took the exam last month. After careful thought, she’d decided to declare her first choice as civil engineering at University of Cuenca. Her exam score was 850 out of 1000, so we were sure she’d be on her way come September.
However, when the results were posted on the Internet last week, she was not listed. University of Cuenca had only 100 places for civil engineering students, and the competition included students from private high schools in Quito and Guayaquil. Paiwa probably needed a score of over 900 to win a spot. Suddenly, a young life that has been focused for years on going to university and becoming a professional is in suspension. We have no idea what will happen now. My friend Magdalena, who works in bi-lingual education, says it will take a generation for rural and indigenous students to catch up with the new law.
So this is a sketchy overview as I see it from on the ground in Cañar, where we live without TV, newspapers or serious radio (and now Internet), but we certainly feel the effects of government actions. On the one hand, Correa’s government is bringing needed reforms in education, health and the economy; on the other, his style of governing is ham-fisted and authoritarian, pushing through laws without sufficient debate, refusing to dialogue with the indigenous organizations, threatening to privatize water while privately negotiating with oil and mining companies.