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Thoughts and Hallucinations

Cuenca, Ecuador--The Previous Home Page

It’s been awhile since I’ve written for the web page. It's the usual paradox, you don’t write much because you’re too busy, which means there’s a lot to write about, which you don’t have time to write. A lot of rant ‘n rave (the elderly version of toys ‘r us) pressure has built up on the keyboard, about academic publishing, about projects, about changing directions, about New Mexico. And there’s a new article reference at the top of the column to the left.

But this one is about Ecuador, which I’m flying home from as I write this. A while ago my partner Ellen noticed that a place called Cuenca was getting a lot of press as the number one dream retirement location for Americans. We’re not looking for either a dream or for retirement, but we do wonder about Latin America and thought it’d be an adventure to check out this dream town in a country we knew little about. All the American media seemed to notice was that Mr. Wikileaks himself was holed up at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. With all the travel I do plenty of miles had piled up, so why not use them to visit a new place? When we mentioned Ecuador, everyone assumed we were heading for the Galapagos Islands. Nope, other way, the Andes.

The article that started the Cuenca migration from the U.S. appeared in 2009. It turns out there are now somewhere between five and seven thousand American ex-pats in the city of about 350,000. Take a look at the web. It's loaded with ads and blogs and YouTubes. We saw them everywhere. According to a newsletter called Knowledge@Wharton on the internet dated July 2012, ex-pat growth is part of a trend with no end in site. About 350,000 Americans receive Social Security at addresses outside the U.S. This wouldn’t include those who receive direct deposit at a U.S. bank but live elsewhere. More than three million baby boomers plan to retire overseas according to a Travel Market Report survey. Three years ago 39,000 people subscribed to International Living, a magazine for retirees that was the source of the original Cuenca story. As of the date of the Wharton article, it’s 80,000.

We saw many, spoke to a few, overheard others, and listened to Ecuadorians comment on the “Gringo invasion” as well. That’s what they call it, and apparently there’s a local sociology grad student working on it. A week’s immersion in the city was way too superficial, but here are some impressions. The ex-pats cluster in a few public locations but they don’t appear to have ghettoized in housing. Most that we saw were Anglos and, by appearance and demeanor, neither of the economic elite nor of the counterculture wing of the sixties generation. The rapid change in Cuenca didn’t feel like a conflict waiting to explode from anyone’s point of view that we heard. Of course as tourists ourselves we tended to run across Cuencans benefiting from, or students working part time who were studying, the tourist trade. They spoke of new capital flowing into the dollarized economy, and the Americans appeared happy with a quality of life higher than anything they could have had in the U.S. We heard a couple of American hustlers plotting ways to exploit the situation and a Cuencan college student described the inflation that was already putting many locals at a disadvantage. Stresses of the rapid growth are starting to appear.

Given all the hysteria around migration in the U.S., this was an interesting reversal on the usual story, the reason many human migrations happen, economics. The migrants, by and large, are in a situation that is already a cliché in the U.S. media. Their retirement money--pension and savings if any and social security--isn’t enough to live on in the U.S. In Cuenca they can live well and access affordable health care. A minimum wage in Cuenca is about 300 dollars a month. (Ecuador “dollarized” in 2000 so uses U.S. currency.) I asked a couple of Ecuadorans if they could live on that and they said sure, then pointing out that a retired immigrant with a couple of thousand a month could obviously live very well indeed.

This climbing curve, of Americans in economic distress migrating to obtain a comfortable standard of living with health care as part of the package, it has to be one of the great historical ironies of the times. First of all, the retiring baby boomers are, as President Reagan used to advocate, “voting with their feet.” The vote is against growing old in America. The solution is to join the global stream of economic migrants, this time in a reversal of the usual story, by locating in a poorer country where their standard of living, in decline in their home country, automatically goes up.

But the irony gets better. In the case of Cuenca, the expats have moved to a country that the U.S. demonizes. President Correa is called a “Chavista,” an ally of Venezuela president Hugo Chavez’s designs for a unified anti-U.S. dominated hemisphere, a new “Bolivarian” vision of a united socialist Latin America that has risen in various forms in Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina, among other places.

Which is why the ex-pats have access to reasonably priced health care. I’d bet many if not most of the U.S. immigrants would have condemned Correa and Ecuador before they read the International Living article on Cuenca and moved there. Ecuador is solving a problem for aging Americans. I wish I’d thought to ask a few of them about this canyon of a contradiction. The only ex-pat I got into serious conversations with was a jazz musician from New York who was an anarchist, and--between the lines in our mutual performance of shtick--he didn’t have any problem with it at all.

Instead, I asked Ecuadorians about Correa and read the newspapers while I was there. Ecuador, I learned superficially, has a history that I couldn’t even begin to summarize because I don’t think a simple summary would be possible. I’m a registered independent U.S. voter and I mean the “independent” part. But I’m also a problem solver, and from what I heard from the few Ecuadorians I talked with, Correa is more into solving problems than anything the U.S. politicians have dreamed of.

For example, once he took power, he called for a new constitution. The constitution guarantees rights to all kind of categories of people, for instance to the GLBT, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender. There they are in the national constitution, and in fact there was a GLBT film festival during the time we were in the country. The constitution also writes “nature” in as an actor as privileged as any human, giving it constitutional rights as well. My environmental heart soared like an eagle. Especially when I went hiking in El Cajas national preserve near the city (see picture).

Even my own interests in the use of human social science as a vehicle for inclusion of different points of view are written in. I had emailed a group at the University of Cuenca who ran interdisciplinary workshops and asked if there was anything going on during the time I would be there and if I could attend as a visitor. Sure, they wrote back, come to our interdisciplinary workshop on research. There is more to say about this workshop than I can do justice to here. The point for the moment: A colleague pointed out early on that the constitution—the constitution mind you—says that any proposed development with environmental/human consequences had to have human social investigation as part of the process, and that investigation is to gather and organize the points of view of all stakeholder populations on the proposed event. Tell you the truth, I couldn’t believe it and want to look at the original text one of these days. I do my work, in part, for its value in representing different perspectives on a problem and its solution. After decades of trying to convince organizations that they should include people they intend to organize in their planning, the constitutional mandate made me a Correa fan. Personally, I never care if a political figure claims to be left or right or center as long as they’re right in both a pragmatic and a moral sense.

The young cabbie who took us to the airport in Quito, right before I started work on this blog, matched my practicality. He talked in a straightforward way about how previous governments never delivered education and health care to his community. Now they did. From his point of view, and mine, it’s a question of which citizens the leaders of a nation/state take into account when they allocate resources and energy. The young cabbie, and the few other Ecuadorians I spoke with, told stories from their experience that said their lives were moving in the right direction, even as they criticized “politics,” whereas earlier they hadn’t been moving at all.

There are many more stories to tell from the week, but that’s enough for now. Ecuador, I admire it after my brief trip, partly because they are trying to solve the problems of all their people, including but far from only the issue of business growth, partly because they are providing the missing safety net for a large number of aging Americans. A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing to assert, but those two things were pretty obviously true.

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