Ecuador’s El Presidente


Last night I was walking home from work and decided I wanted to take a detour down to Parque Calderon, where I’d heard there were a lot of Carnaval festivities going on. Sure enough, there was a big castillo and people sending glowing globos floating up lazily into the sky. I hung around for a few minutes, watched the people and their families, and then proceeded on my way home.

Rounding the corner, I saw a small group standing on the sidewalk, facing a parking garage exit expectantly. Remembering that one of my coworkers had said that Presidente Correa was in town and having dinner in the area, I asked someone if that’s why they were there and got an affirmative nod. Bueno, pues. I had nothing better to do at the moment, so I joined the little throng of loiterers.

Also present was a large group of police officers and military men, some in riot gear, others in their dress uniforms. Further confirming the eminence of an important figure was the motorcade of parked vehicles taking up the entire block. The officers weren’t at any kind of attention and none of the cars’ engines were running, which made me think we could be waiting for awhile. Indeed, about twenty minutes passed before there was any action whatsoever, during which our little group had more than a few cast changes, as some people lost the will to wait and others filed in to replace them. During this time I managed to casually work my way up into the second row and right in the middle of the group. Only a few stout, elderly women were now standing between me and the front line of the action, and they were stout enough that they didn’t pose much of an obstacle to my view, anyway.

We all stood around, shifting about with waning patience, when all the engines of the motorcade started one after the other. A renewed air of anticipation ensued, as people shuffled closer together, and the militares were ordered to give an about-face towards us, just in case we got out of hand. They obligingly stood at attention, facing us stiffly at first, their clear plastic riot shields raised. Then, as the minutes once again ticked by uneventfully, they lowered their shields and, facing us now as they were, starting making some casual conversation with the crowd. The younger ones, in a bid for greater relevance, began revealing what random bits of information they had about the President’s goings-on. He was here in Cuenca to talk about the economy, he had dined on trout from Cajas, they would say, with knowing smiles.

Meanwhile, the castillo of fireworks one block over on Parque Calderon began letting fly, and loud cracks, bright flashes and the smell of sulfur filled the air. This seemed to put some of the soldiers on edge, some of whom once again raised their shields and stood yet again at attention. It was probably good that they did, because it wasn’t long after the castillo expended its arsenal of assorted noisemakers that the President and his entourage made their sudden appearance.

They emerged from stage left of the parking garage, and through the door we could all see him. The crowd around me began pushing forward in excitement. He made for his car at first, but the crowd erupted in a collective cry that urged him over. The man at my right yelled repeatedly, “Presidente, una palabra con el pueblo!” and his sentiments were echoed all around. And yes, Presidente Correa emerged from the parking garage and approached us in the street, the military now pushing hard against us as the small crowd rapidly turned into a crushing mob of people. Somehow in these few seconds a lot of people managed to get between me and the front row, which was probably for the best because those little ladies in front now had plastic shields pressed against them and a mod pushing their faces into them. Unmindful of this, the ladies held out their hands and the President pressed them in his, saying a few quiet words to each of them, or at least they sounded quiet to me as my ears filled with the increasingly wild yells of the crowd.

People pushing frantically around me to get closer to the front, I stood and looked at the face of the man who had in the span of 4 months achieved the passage of a new Constitution that would allow him to be the first in generations to be permitted to run for a second term in office, pushed forward a controversial mining law that set him against many rural communities who had helped put him into power, and who in recent weeks saw a heavy new tax leveled on imports which would drastically affect the sales of wealthy merchants and small importers around the country. The man who had with the New Year announced that he would renege on the greater part of Ecuador’s foreign debt, calling it the illegitimate dealings of past dictators. Here he was, smiling and shaking hands, receiving the full brunt of unbridled mob support. I caught the wild eyes of one of the young military men, pushing hard against the enthusiastic crowd.

Seconds later, the President climbed into the white SUV that had pulled out of the garage and into the street behind him. Once in the vehicle, the guards let up their front a bit too early and as the motorcade moved forward, some few people broke free from the crowd and in a moment of abandon went chasing after the car of the president. The motorcade kept pressing forward and picking up speed, and soon left even these wildest supporters behind, though some of them continued running after. I, still standing where I had been the whole time, was far behind the action. The crowd was dispersing, and once again I began the walk home.

The sidewalk was still full of people, and as we moved slowly towards the end of block together, I watched the faces of the people around me. Everyone was smiling; the little girl in front of me, her hand in her mother’s, recounted excitedly everything she had seen. I noticed that two of the people ahead of me were amongst the women who had been in the front of the crowd, their faces now lit up with a shared and wordless joy.

When this moving remnant of the crowd reached the corner it split up further as people went their separate ways. As I went my own, I thought about this smiling, confident President and the wildly enthusiastic reception he had just received. Decades have passed since the last time a President has completed his four year term and not having been ousted or assassinated. Presidente Correa has enjoyed a level of support that few people can remember and has lately been spending his political capital seemingly more freely than ever. In more recent memory, Ecuadorians have watched their currency inflate and collapse, to be replaced by dollar bills bearing a foreign language and the dead Presidents from another place.

Today, Cuenca’s finest streets are lined with banks full of people who choose to put their faith once again into a system that corrupted their Sucre rather than stuffing it under the mattress. Today also, they put their faith into their President, and hope for the best. As we from the United States do with ours. Que nos vaya bien!

Brian Horstman
Brian Horstman is a teacher of English as well as a traveler, writer, photographer and cyclist. His interest in traveling around Latin America began while he was living in New Mexico, where he began to experience the Latino culture that lives on there. From there he spent time in Oaxaca, Mexico and has since been living in Cuenca, Ecuador and will be living in Chile starting in 2011. Cal's Travels chronicles some of his more memorable experiences from Mexico and Ecuador, as well as some side trips to other parts.
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