If laws on the books were all that mattered, I’d put Ecuador way ahead of the U.S. The new constitution gives a formal right to existence and protection to “nature”, and, somewhat more practically, offers civil unions to gay couples. Ecuador has nearly open-borders and strict gun control; almost the inverse of the U.S., where we regulate people but not the things that kill them. The government is taking serious steps to shift the energy grid—already 47% renewable—away from fossil fuels, complemented by schemes to give away free fluorescent lightbulbs and encourage public transportation. Moreover, all poor families now receive a monthly stipend of $30—not much, but enough to ensure a minimal level of subsistence and dignity. And, like all civilized countries in the world, Ecuador has done away with the death penalty.
Laws, of course, don’t by themselves count for that much. Ecuador has had fifteen-plus constitutions, and all have been—on paper—very progressive. Still, though, if you walk into a government ministry, you get the sense that—with the administration of Rafael Correa and the 2008 Constitution—this time it’s going to be different. Far from sclerotic, the ministries I’ve visited buzz with activity; civil servants working long past 5 p.m., hammering away at excel spreadsheets and pounding out fancy reports that talk about “Long-term planning,” “Economic diversification,” and “Buen vivir.” Perhaps my favourite image came in the Ministry of Patrimony, where I saw a woman dressed in traditional Kichwa garb presiding over a corner office, typing away and rocking out to an iPod, pausing only to fire off instructions to much whiter underlings. I am quite confident that this could not have happened two decades ago. The Ecuador of the 21st century, this all seems geared to project, is no banana republic.
All this machinery was on display yesterday at the Cancillería de la Republica, where the government and the United Nations signed the agreement creating the trust fund that makes Yasuní-ITT a reality. I suppose some of the trappings of the event—Ecuador’s most important people rolling up in fancy SUVs, doors opened by military men in dress uniform, and a red carpet leading up to Ecuador’s Salón los Próceres—are pretty standard affairs for corrupt third-world governments. What I appreciated, though, was the way these formalities were appropriated for something quite novel. In the Cancillería, under the gaze of portraits of Ecuador’s military heroes, in this bastion of conservatism and tradition, the Vice-President signed documents declaring Ecuador’s intention to be a post-petroleum eco-state. In the front row were representatives of the Huaorani indigenous nation. When we sang the national anthem, we did so in a half-dozen languages, as befits a “plurinational”country.
In my time here, I’ve been reminded why I used to declare F.D.R. my hero, and announce my intention to, someday, become a U.S. Senator. There’s something inspiring about the potential of the state to decide something and make it so: “Okay, we’re going to fight climate change now.” I remember I used to draw up lists of laws that I thought the country needed, figuring that someone, at some point, needed to tell people how to behave properly; to respect the poor, protect the planet, and live in harmony. The government of Rafael Correa is, as far as I (and the pollsters) can tell, enormously popular, because—despite making plenty of mistakes along the way—it is doing just that. Ecuador is changing, a fact that the government trumpets on billboards across the country. I can’t help but think, if only Barack Obama had the guts.
One day later, as I finish writing this, though, I’m back in the Oriente, 21 minutes away by plane, but a world away in reality. The pro-Alianza Pais grafitti has disappeared, replaced by slogans denouncing Correa: Neoliberal! Assassin! False Socialist! Here—in what Sarah Palin might call the “Real Ecuador”—people aren’t expecting anything from this new administration. Governments come and go, they make promises, and people scrape by all same. And I realize that, as fun as it is to talk to government officials who talk about 30 year goals, my work is here. I’ll learn more about how to fix the country from the old man in the Encebollería down the road than I would had I stayed in Quito and begged for an interview with the vice-President’s office. Sadly, Yasuní—and the planet—can’t be saved by legislative fiat.