Ecuador's culture and history mirrors the diversity of its landscape. Like much of South America, Ecuadorian culture blends the influences of Spanish colonialism with the resilient traditions of pre-Columbian peoples. Archaeologists trace the first inhabitants as far back as 10,000 BC, when hunters and gatherers established settlements on the southern coast and in the central highlands. By 3,200 BC three distinct agricultural-based civilizations had emerged, producing some of the hemisphere's oldest known pottery. They developed trade routes with nearby Peru, Brazil, and Amazonian tribes. Culture continued to thrive and diversify, and by 500 BC large cities had been established along the coast. Their inhabitants had sophisticated metalworking and navigational skills and they traded with Mexico's Maya.
The Inca were a dynamic, rapidly advancing society. They originated in a pocket of Peru, but established a vast empire within a century. That empire dominated Peru and extended as far as Bolivia and central Chile. The Inca constructed massive, monumental cities. To communicate across their empire they laid wide, stone-paved highways thousands of kilometers long and sent chains of messengers along them. These mailmen passed each other records of the empire's status, which were coded in system of knots along a rope. A winded runner could even rest in the shade of trees planted along both sides of the road.
In 1460 AD, when the Inca ruler Tupac-Yupanqui invaded from the south, three major tribes in Ecuador were powerful enough to give him a fight: the Canari, the Quitu, and the Caras. Remarkably, the Canari, Quitu, and Caras were able to hold back Tupac-Yupanqui, though they proved less successful against his son, Huayna Capac. After conquering Ecuador, Huayna Capac indoctrinated the tribes to Quechua, the language of the Incas, which is still widely spoken in Ecuador.
In celebration of his victory, Huayna Capac ordered a great city to be built at Tomebamba, near Cuenca. Its size and influence rivaled the capital of Cuzco in Peru--a rivalry that would mature with posterity. When he died in 1526, Huayna Capac divided the empire between his two sons, Atahualpa and Huascar. Atahualpa ruled the northern reaches from Tombebamba, while Huascar held court over the south from Cuzco. The split inheritance was an unconventional and fateful move, as the first Spaniards arrived in the same year. On the eve of Pizarro's expedition into the empire, the brothers entered into a civil war for complete control.
Francisco Pizarro landed in Ecuador in 1532, accompanied by 180 fully armed men and an equally strong lust for gold. Several years earlier, Pizarro had made a peaceful visit to the coast, where he heard rumors of inland cities of incredible wealth. This time, he intended to conquer the Incas just as Hernando Cortez had crushed Mexico's Aztecs--and he couldn't have picked a better time. Atahualpa had only recently won the war against his brother when Pizarro arrived, and the empire was still unstable. Pizarro ambushed the ruler, forced him to collect an enormous ransom, and then executed him. Although the Incas mounted considerable resistance to Pizarro, they were soon broken down.
Spanish governors ruled Ecuador for nearly 300 years, first from Lima, Peru, then later from the viceroyalty of Colombia. The Spanish introduced Roman Catholicism, colonial architecture, and today's national language. Independence was won in 1822, when the famed South American liberator Simon Bolivar defeated a Spanish army at the Battle of Pichincha.
Bolivar united Ecuador with Colombia and Venezuela, forming the state of Gran Colombia. His plan was to eventually unite all of South America as a constitutional republic, and one can only wonder what such a nation would have been like if his dream had been realized. After eight years, however, local interests sparked Ecuador to secede from the union. Colombia and Venezuela soon split.
Ecuador's modern history has had its struggles. A long-standing, internal dispute between the conservative city of Quito and the liberal Guayaquil has at times boiled over into violence. Near the turn of the century, leaders on both sides were assassinated, and military dictators have ruled the country for much of the 20th century. In 1941, Peru and Ecuador went to war over a territory dispute, and conflicts broke out again in 1981 and 1995. In May of 1999, the two nations signed a peace treaty, ending the nearly 60-year dispute.
Ecuador returned to democracy in 1979, however, and free elections have continued since. Ecuador's first democratically elected, post-dictatorship president was killed in a plane crash less than 2 years after taking office. Due to similarities in that crash and one that killed Panamanian president Omar Torrijos that same year, as well as less than friendly governmental relations between those countries and the US, speculations abounded that the CIA was covertly involved in both.
Despite the return to democracy, relations between the government and civilians have continuously fluctuated and led to the removal of many elected presidents for failure to listen to the demands of society.
In 1998, Ecuador experienced one of its worst economic crises. An year of el niño weather resulted in $3 billion in damage; the price of Ecuador's principal export, oil, plunged, and the country's inflation rate- 43%- was the highest in Latin America. In 1999, the government was near bankruptcy, the currency lost 40% of its value against the dollar, and the poverty rate soared to 70%. President Jamil Mahuad's proposed economic austerity plan was highly unpopular, and resulted in massive strikes and protests around the country. Mahuad was kicked out of office in January of 2000, and vice president Gustavo Noboa became the head of state.
Faced with the worst economic crisis in Ecuador's history, Noboa restructured Ecuador's foreign debt, adopted the U.S. dollar as the national currency, and continued privatization of state-owned industries, generating enormous opposition. In Feb. 2001, the government cut fuel prices after violent protests by various indigenous groups. Within two years, Ecuador's economy had rebounded from the brink of collapse. But chronic corruption among senior government officials, as well as among the courts and the judiciary, continued.
Lucio Gutierrez, Ecuador's sixth president in seven years, was elected in January 2003 on a platform of "no more neoliberal economics" and had the endorsement of the indigenous-led political party, Patchakutik-Nuevo Pais. However, he soon signed an IMF agreement to privatize everything from petroleum to telecommunications, leaving the indigenous leadership no choice but to break their coalition and resign from their government posts. His support waning due to closer ties to US interests, Gutierrez desperately sought to align himself with as many sectors as possible to remain in power. His administration's elimination of corruption charges for ex-president Abdalá Bucaram was the last straw, and the subsequent formation of the largely middle-class "forajido" movement ("outlaws"- referring to Gutierrez's label for the most recent protesters) led the Congress to remove Gutierrez from office in 2005.
Alfredo Palacio took over as president, but in 2006 huge nationwide protests took place concerning a potential free-trade agreement with the U.S. In the Nov. 2006 presidential elections, Rafael Correa, a left-wing economist, won with 56.7% of the vote, and took office in January 2007.
Correa immediately set out to boost economic growth and root out corruption in the country's political system. In an April 2007 referendum, voters overwhelmingly approved his call to rewrite the constitution. He hoped the new constitution would weaken Congress, which has been called inept and corrupt. However, Correa's critics accused him of trying to consolidate power, with moves reminiscent of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. In September 2008, 64% of voters approved the new constitution.
In March 2008, Colombian forces crossed into Ecuadorean territory and killed FARC rebel leader Raúl Reyes and 20 other rebels. In response, Venezuela and Ecuador broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia and sent troops to the Colombian borders, although both countries denied any ties to FARC. In an attempt to help cool the diplomatic tension between the three countries, the Organization of American States approved a resolution, which declared that the Colombian raid into Ecuador was a violation of sovereignty. In March of 2008, during a summit meeting in the Dominican Republic, the leaders of Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Nicaragua ended their diplomatic dispute over Colombia's raid into Ecuador.
In more recent news, on August 16, 2012, Ecuador announced that it was granting political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Assange had been seeking refuge at the country's embassy in London while waiting for the decision. The decision further strained relations between Ecuador and England. The night before the announcement, Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño reported that British officials had threatened to invade Ecuador's embassy, which resulted in a wide array of allegations of neo-colonialism by England.
Ecuador's unique natural environment has been the root of many conflicts, especially over oil and other natural resources in the Amazon Basin.
Ecuador has a large population of indigenous peoples, comprising approximately 40% of its total population.
Plan Colombia has had an enormous impact on Ecuador in the form of increased terrorism and drug trafficking around the northern border.
Free Trade and Fair Trade
Ecuador's relationship with the United States and global trade organizations has made it vulnerable to unfair trade agreements, but there are also many alternative fair trade initiatives sprouting up all over the country.