While no one knows with certainty where Edward Snowden is heading after leaving Hong Kong on Sunday, Ecuador appears to be his most likely destination – a small country on the equator, as its name tells us, with fiery Rafael Correa as its outsize president. However, Correa is not the only larger-than-life politician that Ecuador has produced for the world. Indeed, for much of its history, Ecuador seems to have drawn its political inspiration from the gigantic volcano Chimborazo depicted on its coat of arms. Furthermore, like many of the titans who have dominated Ecuadorean politics, Correa has brought a rare stretch of political continuity to his country, although, as critics might argue of him but certainly his forebears, it has been at a cost.
Ecuador’s run of extraordinary leaders began in the late 19th century, when it produced one of the continent’s most bizarre dictators: Gabriel García Moreno. An arch-conservative, who built roads, hospitals and schools, Garcia officially consecrated his country to the Sacred Heart, made Catholicism a requisite for citizenship, and renamed his best regiments “Guardians of the Virgin”, “Volunteers of the Cross” and “Soldiers of the Infant Jesus”.
Very learned, and always dressed in black, faded sepia prints from the period show him carrying a crucifix through Quito’s colonial streets during an Easter procession. Although his rule brought 15 years of peace to post-colonial Ecuador, García was killed on the steps of Quito’s cathedral with a machete thrust and three attendant bullets. Juan Montalvo, an ardent liberal and exiled pamphleteer who had waged a war of words against Garcia from neighboring Colombia, exclaimed with justification and pride on hearing of his death: “My pen has killed him” – a foreshadowing, perhaps, of both Mr Correa’s emphasis on deeply-felt political principles and freedom of speech.
One of the closest friends of Juan Montalvo – the “South American Cicero” – was Eloy Alfaro, the fifth son of a Spanish merchant who had settled in the hat-making town of Montecristi (Panama hats, in fact, come from Ecuador). Noble, quick-witted and completely indifferent to material reward, Alfaro made a fortune from hats and spent it all on revolutions. He slayed Moreno’s conservative hegemony, but also left his family so broke that they couldn’t afford the stamps to send letters to each other. Although now a national hero, he also met a violent death: murdered by a mob in 1912, his body was dragged through Quito’s streets and burnt in Ejido Park.
Ecuador’s probably most remarkable leader, though, is José María Velasco Ibarra – a liberal and a populist whose career, charisma and multiple presidencies stretched from the 1930s to the 1970s. His political style, which still casts a shadow over Ecuadorean politics, has often been copied but never successfully imitated. One contemporary observer described his manner thus:
“Tall spare quixotic…quick bright eyes…cheeks as sunken as a fasting hermit…the long supple hands of a conjurer made for hypnotic gestures…his voice, now soothing, now inflaming, crackling with steely nuances, with strange inflections running the whole length of the scale, full of yelps, repetitions, outbursts, quivers, pauses and above all taunts and insults…electrifying momentousness. Such is Velasco Ibarra.”
Velasco’s last term ended prematurely, in 1972 and he died in 1979, some say of a broken heart, after his wife suffered a fatal accident when she fell out of a bus. Ecuadorean politics has never been the same since. Or has it? Velasco Ibarra was the man who once proclaimed, “Give me a balcony, and I will become president” – a populist belief that some say might lie close to Mr Correa’s heart today, given his media-muzzling laws at home, and his ability to grab the international limelight by offering political asylum to the likes of Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks and now Edward Snowden, the US whistle-blower.