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The aftermath of the earthquake in Ecuador, April 2016. (Photo: European Commission DG ECHO/cc/flickr)

The Geopolitics of Generosity

James McEnteer

On April 16, Ecuador suffered an earthquake registering 7.8 on the Richter scale. One week later, the death toll stood at 656, with more than twelve thousand injuries reported and more than fifty people still missing. Hundreds of aftershocks, some very powerful, continue to shake the country’s northwest coast and cause more damage.

The day after the disaster, aid began arriving from Ecuador’s Latin American neighbors: Colombia, Peru, Venezuela and Bolivia. Quick responses were crucial, as hundreds of people were still missing, many trapped in crumbling rubble. 

Cuba sent 53 medical personnel, in addition to the more than two hundred Cuban doctors already on the ground in Ecuador. Three Cuban doctors died in a building that collapsed. Mexico sent a rescue team. Even tiny Honduras offered an aid worker. 

European countries – chiefly France and Spain – sent more than 200 emergency personnel. Palestine, besieged and beleaguered, sent 19 aid technicians to Ecuador. But the United States responded more slowly, less aggressively. While U.S. military personnel helped prosperous and capable Japan deal with a lesser earthquake that struck there the same day as Ecuador’s, the Americans sent no rescue workers to this smaller, poorer country much closer to home. 

For the USA, political calculation takes precedence over compassion. 

Three days after the quake, U.S. President Barack Obama told Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa he would offer all possible help. Secretary of State John Kerry said USAID would send a team to assess the damages and prioritize needs. He also offered $100,000 in USAID funds for “critical supplies.” 

That may seem generous, but initial estimates of rebuilding costs exceed $ 3 billion, which may be a low guess. Chile spent $ 30 billion recovering from an 8.8 earthquake in 2010 that killed more than 500 people. Haiti’s catastrophic 7.0 earthquake that same year cost a staggering 316,000 lives and an estimated 14 billion dollars to rebuild, an effort still unrealized. 

On April 20, four days after the quake, with hundreds still missing, U. S. Ambassador to Ecuador Alan Waldman said his “most important mission” now was letting U.S, citizens know that the embassy is open for business as usual, an oddly impolitic remark. He also urged a search for any missing U.S. citizens. One American was reported killed, among the 656 dead. 

“We have expressed our condolences to the people and government of Ecuador and made it clear that the U.S. stands ready to help,” he said. 

Officials of both governments were forced to deny rumors that Ecuador had refused U.S. assistance, a sign of the tense relations between the two countries for decades, especially since Rafael Correa became President of Ecuador in 2007. 

Correa joined Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales, to break away from neo-liberal U.S. influence in Latin America. He refused to sign a free trade agreement with the U.S. or renew the U.S. lease on a military base in Ecuador, which expired in 2009. 

In 2011 Wikileaks made public a diplomatic cable in which U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador Heather Hodges accused the national police of widespread corruption, and said Correa knew about it. Ecuador expelled Hodges. Correa later flouted U.S. pressure to prosecute Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, offering him asylum in Ecuador’s London embassy, where Assange remains, after nearly four years. 

In April 2015 Correa confronted Obama directly at the Summit of the Americas in Panama. He castigated the U.S. for the 1989 invasion of Panama under George H.W. Bush which killed more than four thousand civilians. And then Correa said: “Your government is still trying to intervene in our affairs… by your executive order that declared Venezuela a threat to your national security… also… by officials from your office asking the U.S. Congress for money to defend freedom of expression in Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua. We totally reject this act of arrogance.” 

Clearly non-plussed, Obama replied that he appreciated the history lesson and hoped everyone could learn from past mistakes. For these reasons, and others, relations between the United States and Ecuador remain uneasy. 

For Ecuador, a small country of sixteen million people, the earthquake came at an especially bad moment. Depressed oil prices have devastated the Ecuadorean economy, which is largely based on petroleum exports. 

Correa’s many social programs and building projects extended the national budget to the limit and beyond. His government dissolved the national Emergency Fund, incorporating it into the general budget. 

Chile rebounded from its earthquake by deploying its cash reserves and selling its principal natural resource, copper, at a premium price. But Ecuador’s oil is devalued now and it has no reserves. 

To avoid U.S. influence, Correa welcomed the Chinese, who now own drilling rights to a third of the Ecuadorean Amazon. A new constitution, written under Correa’s aegis, promised to respect the environment, especially territories held sacred by indigenous peoples. But Correa’s critics say he traded away that respect for immediate liquidity, so that Ecuadoreans would not be “beggars sitting on a sack of gold” in his words. And the Chinese are not known for their scrupulous environmental stewardship. 

Correa has taken to taxing imported and local products more heavily to make up his budget shortfall. Prices rise daily. The government is no longer honoring all its contracts. Public budgeted payments to universities, local governments and even a cancer hospital have been suspended or delayed. Many workers in various institutions are simply not being paid. The earthquake has added injury to insult. 

Now in his third presidential term, Correa says he will not run in the 2017 election, perhaps a prudent move in what will certainly be a difficult time for his countrymen. The United States could alleviate some of Ecuador’s immediate and long-term suffering. But they have chosen instead a course of watchful waiting, perhaps until they are able to attach some of the many strings their aid to Latin America usually entails – especially military and economic intervention - that Rafael Correa has taken great pains to avoid.


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