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Notes on Ecuador I: Guayaquil

Collective chronicles of a country's collapse. With Anamaría Garzón Mantilla, Eduardo Jaime, María Guadalupe Alvarez, Jessica Zambrano & Oscar Santillán.

We are
used to crises. The Earthquake of 2016. The continent-spanning Odebrecht corruption affair. Rafael Correa’s presidential period. The uprisings in response to the rising gas prices in 2019. And now the pandemic. Protests online calling for a reduction in the number of public assemblies are among the very few media events that could symbolically stand for the country’s relationship to its citizens: Everything works by impulse, not by strategy. „We are a society of slogans", says Roberto Andrade Malo, a lawyer and a friend of mine from school, on the phone.No one wants to know the details, everyone wants to see expenses cut, businesses reopened, but they don't want to know what steps should be taken. Just like in [Lansing] Michigan (1), I guess."

The Municipality of Guayaquil has collected more than 500 corpses of people who did not receive medical care. From the last days of March, bodies had begun to appear on the streets, on the sidewalks, in the neighborhoods and even in the city center. The mayor's office could not think of a better solution than to open a mass grave. On April 1st, it reported another story: the purchase process for 6,120 protective suits and equipment, 50,000 rapid tests, 40 portable respirators, 20 respirators for the ICU and three containers for the corpses.

"I think Lenin Moreno has to get up every day regretting who he is", says Roberto and makes me laugh. "Laugh, so you don’t cry", says my grandmother. Because "the system is not bad, it is the worst", as my grandfather says. As you see, it is easy for an expat in Berlin like me to report on the lack of basic services, equipment and medical and sanitary infrastructures. Ecuador is in debt and, since Correa sold most drilling rights to China, it is selling its oil at $25 a barrel; that is, the cost of its production. I come from a country that turned itself into a bottomless barrel.

There have been a hundred million problems afflicting Ecuador throughout the history of this country so rich in culture, biodiversity, and ruthless exploitation. Now, Arts of the Working Class dedicates a series of encounters to frame this state of constant crisis with voices marked by the context – beyond the clichés that tarnish the tropics, both in local and in international narratives.

Ricardo Bohorquez, Food for Guayaquil, an iniciative of the Manso Hostal

$60 for 400,000 families? We are talking about 4 million people living in poverty!

In recent months cascades of layoffs splashed society; psychoanalyst Carolina Huerta Jarrín reports on the phone about the lack of psychological help in the popular class and the urgent need to close that gap. I complain about the generic measures that are being applied in another call together with photographer Daniela Torres Zambrano. The quarantine seems designed for Germany, for example, a country where a large middle class prevails, with excellent connectivity, social security, and housing endowments and the European Union favors Germany’s economy over those of Greece, Italy or Romania. For the millions of Ecuadoreans without decent social security, home office just doesn’t work.

We are alone“ says Cinthya Viteri, the mayor of Guayaquil, on national television, accusing the government of the deliberate corruption of Guayaquil’s officials. “Either we come together in this, the government stops doing politics and accepts that we are one country and we work together, or I simply skip it and start to make (myself) an isolation plan in the city." There are people, like Viteri, and the rest of politicians in Ecuador, who clearly do not see the problem. They are making propaganda for themselves, not to mention the fact that these are the few, if not unique, aid measures that are being taken. All of this while millionaires in Guayaquil are rocking in their hammocks, unable to move a finger for the city enriching them.(2)

There is no horror comparable to that experienced in Guayaquil and social distancing is a class privilege that most of the country does not access. To think about the pandemic from Ecuador without acknowledging it, is to attack the memory that is being built in the present, it is to ignore the people who have died and the families who suffer. The rest is almost inconsequential. When the possibilities exist, routines adapt to new conditions. You walk with a mask, you stand in line at the supermarket, everything is disinfected and it is hoped that when you leave, the panorama will not be more painful than it already is."

- Anamaría Garzón Mantilla, independent curator and full time professor at the College of Communication and Contemporary Arts (COCOA), at Universidad San Francisco


Jessica Zambrano, Por la Plaza San Francisco, 2020  

Latin America Lives Like This

As deities of the underworld, the oligarchs thrive on the devastation of the majority of the population, condemned to misery. There, the culture of moral domination naturalizes material oppression and the claim of superiority translates into a difference in rights, privileges and discrimination. But it happens that both here and there a whip of true reality, the horror of contagion can disarticulate the persuasive discourse to unequivocally emphasize, in one place or another, the scheme of hierarchies.

Guayaquil, a paradigm of the Latin American oligarchic city, exhibits these days its nature in the crudest way. Without cultural infrastructures, without educational institutions and humanities research centers, irrelevant for decades in the cultural life of Ecuador, it lacks adequate facilities and health networks to care for the huge number of workers who live in crowded suburbs. The conservative oligarchy of Guayaquil long ago freed itself from the annoying but prescriptive manners of yesteryear to become an insolent mass largely devoid of notions such as citizenship and culture. For twenty-eight years, a conservative right has governed the city with boasts of machismo, classism, racism and non-observance of the law. Hence, its mayor has whimsically blocked the runway at the city's airport to prevent the landing of humanitarian flights from Madrid and Amsterdam, authorized by the State aviation authorities, under the pretext of “defending the city” from the European crew and the Covid 19."

- Mario Campaña, poet and essayist, for El Rebrote.(3)


This pandemic is the first time that the upper class has infected the popular class, tearing it apart and bringing the virus home from all the trips they made for their winter holidays. Guayaquil, a port of great size and potential, was never fair. It’s always been chaotic, poor, and unbelievable. On March 24, the same day on which the municipality collected corpses from houses in poor neighborhoods, Melvin Hoyos, the Director of Culture and Civic Promotion of the City Council - bypassing the municipality's library and museum - allowed himself to publish an abominable official statement, full of misspellings and misprints, in which he accuses hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of the city’s poor local and international migrants of the rapid spread of the virus. He says that "extremely ignorant" and "primitive" people, "poor people", "indolent" and "undisciplined" arrived in Guayaquil from the countryside. He points to "the thousands of Venezuelans" who would have settled in Guayaquil "to live as parasites". The authentic Guayaquileños, he assures, are the "truly conscious [sic] and disciplined, who take care of themselves and their families."

Melvin Hoyos has been in charge of the city’s cultural agenda for 28 years, nearsighted by his own ignorance, happily smeared with the privileges that the country's class culture has granted him for so long. No artist, nor official, nor activist has managed to unmask this opportunist in his position for the past three decades. But don't be fooled: the schemes of moral domination are neither original nor exclusive to Latin America, but come from the oldest societies, the European ones that, due to their projection, survive in the open veins of these ports crowded with people living in precarity. Sign this petition to get him off  of that throne. (4)


My Neighborhood After a Storm

"And what of those who earn their living do with their daily sweat? The "aguateros“ and the zombies, where will they get their bread and heroin? What about the crazy trans wearing that nice dress that frequents my street? And the whores who complimented me when they saw me passing Los Ríos Street, and the ladyboys of the ninth ..?

Yesterday I met a mountain herb seller, I stopped her and told her about my symptoms, all my pains, and she gave me a bunch of everything she had before attending my back. Chamomile, eucalyptus, rue- in case I am haunted. All in all she sold me every available botanical treatment there was. At night, I took every leaf and boiled it in a pot, drank it until I was so hot, like a boiled chicken, I bathed and went to sleep. Today I woke up very well."

- Eduardo Jaime, photographer

Eduardo Jaime, Guayaquil Barrio Luego de un Aguacero, 2020

In Ecuador, 60% of workers operate informally. The health crisis dismantles the abysses of their social classes with violence, showing a 25% rise of radicalization in extreme poverty. For every 100 men living in extreme poverty, there are 116 women living in the same conditions. Ecuadorian women are poorer than anyone in the world: only 30% of them are affiliated with the IESS for social insurance. That says a lot about the kind of population that is most affected by the pandemic. (5)


During a crisis such as this, the discriminatory conditions typical of Latin American societies become much more aggressive, especially in the popular classes.  Some conditions more than others. The statistics on poverty are lower than the statistics on precarious housing: 11% are living in extreme poverty in Guayaquil, 30% of people living in a precarious way, that is, with scarce resources of space, water and electricity. This is key to understanding the problem of this city, considering how essential hygiene and isolation are. In 21% of the households in Guayaquil, there is hacinamiento, that is, when there are more than three people per room. If a person is infected in a space like this, it means stewing in a broth of infection for the whole family and for the entire neighborhood. This occurs not as an exception, but as a high probability. Which of Ecuador’s rulers thinks of this reality and, from this basic analysis, designs specific policies to address it? None. And that is totally crazy.


Michael Schick, Slums of Guayaquil, Ecuador



Rows, rationing and scarcity. 

This is the result of the attempts of the rickety Ecuadorian economic system to move away from realities that do not represent the American dream eternally pursued. The dream has made us forget the dead, the poor, the weak. From where the mayoress of Guayaquil allows herself to close the airport denying humanitarian aid to those outside and now she is locked up ignoring those inside. It is painful to see him from afar, but what increases is shame. We are in Cuba in quarantine where we have not been abandoned, where those who come to see us every day are Cubans concerned about our state. I am very sad because I wanted to be with my family in Ecuador, but I am sadder because I want my family to be with me here in Cuba."

This is what art student Ari Salas wrote from La Habana, shared by the Professor of History and Theory of Art at the UArtes, María Guadalupe Álvarez, on her Facebook account. Salas puts it on her wall next to the pathetic images that her family shares from Guayaquil. Ari, together with other UARTES students make up a contingent that went to Cuba, specifically the ISA, for a student exchange that would broaden their horizons and networks. Alvarez is very critical of the situation in Cuba, having grown up on the island during the dictatorship, but she points out an important difference that manifests itself in relation to what we are experiencing here. There still exists a general sense of collectivity and solidarity. Yesterday I thought that this isolation that I experience now, that fear that I might run out of essential  things: medicine, something to eat, help ... I would not have it there”, she says.

 I am sure that the minimum that many people have, would be concerned to provide the least predictable people. This, obviously, looking at it from a limited perspective and trying not to judge, I do not perceive it here. Talking with different people from my island and with all the unimaginable deficiencies that exist there, there is no such feeling of helplessness, of being at the expense of the unworthy treatment that we have seen here in Guayaquil, as something representative and uncontrolled. There is confidence in the health system, even with its deficiencies. Mircka Alvarado, another of the students in quarantine in La Habana, confirmed this in her observations as a visitor. I wonder: Is a culture of support and solidarity beyond policies located in a political correctness about to be created here?"

- Maria Guadalupe Álvarez, professor at the Guayaquil University of the Arts, UArtes


Inequality is Time 

The pigeons of the Plaza San Francisco fly over the center looking for the beggars, migrants and devotees, who in times of daily encounters, sat down with a blessed loaf to throw their crumbs on the ground. Beggars, migrants and devotees have expanded their steps to curfew without a fixed place. They simulate with half-face masks that can protect themselves and maintain their independence. They wander while the city is saved or trying. The virus put everyone on a dart board. A blind man points. The health system never responded in time, but there were no warnings about the possibility of the death bureaucracy collapsing. Inequality is the time you wait for an emergency, it is the time for you to collect loved ones at home. It is the time in which our lungs will recover and we stop having symptoms as a reflection of survival. We no longer walk with our dead. There is no how. A dart is pointed at us. There is no time.

- Jessica Zambrano Alvarado, arts editor of the newspaper El Telégrafo


Everything is on Instagram", says Diego Espinoza, commercial engineer for Inalecsa, one of the main food distributors in Ecuador. With his hint, I immerse myself in the initiatives of Mujer & Mujer, or that of Carla Morales, and I wonder how to measure the emergency from here, if the only form of effective solidarity passes through social networks, that is, on platforms unrelated to a system that should operate between the government, the mayor's office and the health institutes. 

What can be done to transform Guayaquil into a city of solidarity, a city with a better structure? I only shop at a couple of stores and I don't go to supermarkets”, writes Ricardo Bohorquez, whose photographs illustrate these notes. In the first week I went to the central market, but the situation was chaotic. Markets have been a factor in spreading the virus in several cities. I do not have a job and although they called me to cover the crisis, I declined. I prefer to take care of myself, I have a 5-year-old son who lives with his mother in Cuenca, whom I will not be able to see until the isolation measures are over. Meanwhile I carry out some personal and collaborative projects to try to stay active. Currently, photography moves almost only within the internet. It is personal and archival. It stopped being about the other. The public space is out there, empty, alien. I don't know how long the savings will last before it is time to take out loans. Everything is present, the future is a curve.


The pandemic has shown us that we need the State, but not the politicians.

This contradiction has a solution, and this requires walking paths outside the zombie ideologies of the past. This vision would sound like this:

1.- Abolition of the political class. In the past, this invocation immediately alluded to the replacement of political parties by a dictatorship. Yet I am referring here to something very different: the "sortition" method, which simply means the positions of popular election are assigned through a draw to which any citizen who meets certain basic requirements can register.

2.- Convert the Ecuadorian State into an E.I. (Estado Inteligente or Smart State). The State is vital to provide health, education, security, among other powers. To do it well, with efficient responses such as those required at the start of the pandemic, the State must undergo a radical re-engineering that turns it into an E.I., where all intermediate functions are automated. That huge bureaucracy paper clip is reduced to zero. And, through the correct administration of data, all the procedures can be done online. Never again does anyone have to queue in front of a window surrounded by pipones.

3.- Creation of the "Governmental Scientific Committee". Today the vast majority of politicians are lawyers, not people with scientific training. In this century we do not need more lawyers, we need sensitive people with first-rate scientific education to allow the State to make decisions based on verified evidence. Constitutionally, the political class cannot act against the Committee's recommendations. No magician of politics has any idea, no matter ​​how much he tries.

4.- After this pandemic, the next great catastrophe will be environmental. If the lesson we learn is that we should only prepare for the next pandemic, we have learned nothing. The "green economy" is not an extravagant luxury for some Scandinavian countries, but will be the greatest protection for the most vulnerable in the near future.

- Oscar Santillán, visual artist from Guayaquil, living in The Hague, Netherlands




Read Notes on Ecuador II in two weeks, on May 8.

  • Footnotes

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    (5) Numbers reported by sociologist Ybelice Briceño in a Zoom conversation.



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