Ground Zero-Zero-Zero: A Report From Ecuador
I'd taken time out from the state of siege in the capital to take the twins on a quick holiday further up the Andes (or down, I don't know which).
Anyway, the Ciudad Centro del Mundo--City at the Center of the World--had loudspeakers on poles scratching out some Inca-cum-New Age Muzak.
It cost a dollar and a half US to stand on the planet's belly button. That's a buck fifty in the local currency, too: Ecuador's been "dollarized," which is why everyone is flat broke and in a bad mood and why Quechua women in bowler hats were screaming into the cameras, "TODO FUERA! TODO FUERA !"--Everybody out!--in front of the Presidential Palace.
They didn't like their president last week--the ladies in the bowler hats (about a hundred thousand of them) chased him to Brazil--and they don't like the new one either. Or ANYONE. They want EVERYONE out. No more US dollarized governments that promise them water pipes and electricity and vaccinations for the kids.
They had no water, except what they could carry in jugs up the hill, and thirty dollar electric bills, when the few with jobs make $153 a month, and no shots for the kids--and they were all in a bad mood about it.
I wanted to tell them they are rich--this nation, once a member of OPEC--sits on 2 billion barrels of oil and probably a lot more. However, according to the World Bank documents in my briefcase marked, "FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY," Ecuador is required to pay 70% of its new oil money to foreign bondholders.
Who ARE these guys who hold the mortgage on this once-upon-a-time Inca Empire? Inside the presidential palace, where we could barely hear the ladies telling him to get the hell out, the President told me, quietly, after the cameras were off, "We don't KNOW who they are [these guys who own the country] and THAT'S TERRIBLE."
What's terrible is that everyone DOES know who they are--it's understood, a UN official told me, the bonds are held by the old oligarchs who stripped the nation's banks of their cash and re-planted themselves and Ecuador's cash in Miami; and now they hold the nation ransom by manipulating its debt securities. And of course, there's the millions Ecuador has to pay a US power company (a payment which was imposed by the US only after the company hired Henry Kissinger).
Anyway, the indigenous women in pastel shawls and dark trilbies wanted NO ONE as president, not 'Sucio Lucio' (Dirty Lucio Gutierrez) who fled last week nor the nice Dr. Palacio, cardiologist and now accidental president. In office two days and he's already in hot water with George Bush for saying some of Ecuador's own oil money maybe should go for vaccinations before the Miami gang gets paid.
But the ladies don't want the good doctor, either. "TODOS FUERA!"
"You want NO president at all?" I asked in my atrocious Spanish.
"PODER POPULAR! PODER POULAR!" POWER TO THE PEOPLE.
OK, I said, looking at The People milling around the city square, some looking frighteningly earnest, some drunk, all angry except for the blasé soldiers rolling their eyes and shifting their automatic weapons.
I had the confidential World Bank docs under my arm to show them, but unlike Americans, these Indians and tattered Mestizos already know all about the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and "restructuring" and "hard currency reserves" and the dreaded "austerity" which means no water, high electric bills and no shots for the kids.
Anyway, to The People, No One would be better than Someone because Someone, always "un rico" (a rich guy), sold them out.
The UN man told me, "They're $5 million short for vaccines--yet Ecuador spent $5 million on sponsoring the Miss Universe contest."
But I didn't share this North American's puritanical pragmatism. If your nation and your bank account are dropping quickly to zero, a little T & A encased in a bit of glitter can't be such a bad idea--Ecuador's idea of "one for the road," an awkward economic quickie before entering the austerity nunnery.
At the equator, there was a tombstone-like hunk of stone reading, "Latitude 0' 0" 0'"." Ground zero zero zero. The Big Nothing.
Ignoring the happy music, the unhappy children of the Great Inca squatted next to boxes of gum for sale and huddled their babies against the gray drizzle.
I found a bathroom and forgot to check if, indeed, the water swirled down the hole the wrong way.
The twins didn't want to get out of the car and whined like ungrateful idiot banshees. But the hell if I was going to fly them halfway down the globe without taking the obligatory photo of the kids straddling the Northern and Southern Hemispheres--marked conveniently for gringo tourists by a pathetic yellow line in the sidewalk.
But the twins shrieked horribly and neither my completely unbelievable threats nor promises of huge bribes (ice cream) could budge them.
They wanted to stay in the car and listen to the tape of Harry Potter in his magical world.
And I couldn't agree with them more.
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This story was published on May 3, 2005.
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