Ecuador Table of Contents


Ecuador's elite, in the late 1980s, included Sierra latifundistas (large landowners), Costa agro-exporters, financiers, and industrialists. Commercial and industrial interests overlapped with those of agriculture, as families in finance and industry often maintained at least a token interest in agriculture. Indeed, the purchase of land with the profits of commerce had long been considered a critical step in improving a family's standing. In addition to this overlap, there were strong intragroup ties among the elite; kinship and marriage contributed to cohesion. Newly rich families tried to turn their economic success into social capital by marrying into older, established families.

Historically, the basis of class in Ecuador lay in the control of land and the labor of those who lived on it. The Spanish conquistadors had found the region devoid of valuable minerals and the ready wealth mining provided, so the combination of land and Indians welded together in vast haciendas formed the basis of the colonial economy. The few who held land constituted a rural oligarchy. The rest of society depended on this pivotal group, in varying degrees, for livelihood, political participation, and social identity. Hacienda owners spent much of their time in their urban residences; cities existed principally to serve their wants. The small, ill-defined middle levels of urban professionals found employment serving the commercial and administrative needs of the hacienda. Artisans likewise produced mainly for hacendados.

The hacienda with its resident labor force was the center of the Sierra elite family's influence. The landowner's power within his domain was nearly absolute. Ideally, the hacendado exercised this power beneficently, to protect his followers and dependents. Whatever his inclination, everything from private morality to public religious observances fell within his purview. He settled land disputes among his resident peons, arranged marriages, and dispensed favors.

The Costa elite's lifestyle, values, and economic interests differed from its Sierra counterpart. Trade grew on the coast in response to the impetus of export agriculture. As a result, the elite on the coast had ties to other Latin American seaports and links with world commerce.

The cleavage between the two elite groups, in evidence at independence, continued to play a pivotal role in Ecuadorian politics in the 1980s. Governments parceled out political offices between the two groups, and region of origin was a critical factor in an individual's political career. Economic developments since the 1950s reinforced the dichotomies between the Costa and Sierra. The banana boom of the 1950s and 1960s revived the Costa cacao elite and funneled money to Guayaquil; in contrast, the oil boom of the 1970s benefited Quito.

Agrarian organization provided the model for other social institutions and the exercise of authority in general. Social rank and power, in the elite view, were a natural part of the social order. Individuals were ranked on the basis of birth, race, wealth, breeding, and education. The elite (and middle class) often described itself as la gente buena (the good people) or la gente decente (the respectable people), contending that it had sufficient breeding, intelligence, and culture to rule others. The subordination of workers, peasants, servants, and all Indians was an essential part of this scheme. In the elite view, gains achieved by subordinates came not as their natural right but through the beneficence of their betters.

Land reform legislation in the 1960s and 1970s left elite hegemony in agriculture and landholding largely unscathed. For one thing, Costa and Sierra landholders mounted an intense effort to oppose those elements of agricultural reform that threatened their diverse interests. For another, the laws were designed to benefit resident agricultural laborers, but on most of the coast and on the more advanced haciendas of the northern and central Sierra, landowners had already begun switching to wage labor, so there were few peons and sharecroppers to receive expropriated land. Instead, the legislation merely freed the owners from their customary obligations to resident laborers. Land reform eliminated the paternal obligations landowners had previously assigned toward their workers.

The landed elite benefited in a number of others ways as well. The price paid in compensation for expropriated private land was often inflated well above market value. Well-connected landlords usually fared better in the courts than their less-privileged tenants. Those peasants who received land rarely became selfsupporting and had to supplement their subsistence plots with seasonal wage labor elsewhere. Large landowners gained a supply of temporary wage laborers with limited political ability to make demands beyond a single season's work.

Middle Class

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress