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Osvaldo Hurtado's Portrait of a Nation: Culture and Progress in Ecuador

Camilo Ucrós By Camilo Ucrós Published on December 22, 2016

Latin America’s historical narrative is rooted in the tension between a western-progressive approach and a left that is still guided by the ideas of Dependency Theory: the idea that the global capitalist system needs core countries to feed from peripheral countries to maintain their living standards, while perpetuating poverty in already poor countries. Both sides have contributed to shedding light on our common past, though the left, particularly throughout the 20th century, has enjoyed more popularity due to its narrative of a history of exploitation and manipulation, the legacy of former colonial rule.

Authors such as Eduardo Galeano, despite his self-confessed lack of rigor, or the more prepared Eduardo Gudynas, focus their message heavily on the extraction and plundering of the continent’s natural resources by the North Americans and Europeans. Though this is an important realization and an undeniable truth of our past, the left has tended to dwell on the external forces that have shaped the continent, sometimes minimizing the agency of Latin Americans in the shaping of their own history. One of the main messages from this side has been a sort of call for awareness and revolution to free the continent from the chains of colonial rule, evident in the numerous Marxist revolutionary movements of the previous century.

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On the other side, the right has imported a Hegelian worldview that emphasizes the objective of development and progress in the region, frequently designed as mirrors of the present realities of the “developed world.” The right has also tended to be represented by the Latin American economic elite, therefore its messengers and their messages tend to generate resistance in their readers. Despite such drawbacks, they also provide insights into the realities of the continent. In Ecuador specifically, the book Las costumbres de los ecuatorianos (Portrait of a Nation: Culture and Progress in Ecuador) by historian and former president of the country Osvaldo Hurtado argues that one main cause for the underdevelopment of the country is the continuity of cultural behavior that Ecuadorians inherited from their forefathers.

Through the accounts of Europeans and North Americans visiting Quito and Guayaquil from colonial times to the present, he recounts the shocking events the visitors encountered, which they deemed different enough to be worthy of record. Throughout the narrative there are recurrent themes including: how race and social class have been inextricably connected, the lack of a rule of law (which incentivizes cheating and laziness), how the catholic religion has been an obstacle to a creative spirit, the lack of trust between Ecuadorians, a natural environment that is too bountiful and makes basic survival easy, a paternal system that emphasizes individuality over community, poor communications and infrastructure, and the maliciousness and deceit of the Ecuadorian towards his fellow inhabitants.

This book has received a mixed critical response. While some were taken aback by Hurtado’s ideological stance, many others were offended by the tone of the book, i.e. that Ecuadorians are lazy, disorganized, deceiving, and comfortable. While it seems that Hurtado is at times uncompromising and perhaps too hard on his compatriots, the examples he draws of day-to-day life are well known by many, leaving today’s work for tomorrow, speaking in indefinite terms to avoid compromise, the así mismo es (“that is the way it is, and there is no point in trying to change it”) the culture of the vivo (being well regarded for taking the chances that come along, whether by legal means or by cheating), or the negative connotations of race are things that everyone can relate to on a personal or observational level.

In the 20th and 21st century, this has prompted the development of tensions between tradition and modernization, giving rise to a series of paradoxes. For example, while most people identify themselves as mestizo (77% of the population according to a 2001), in daily life people tend to forget this ascription and reinforce their whiteness, hiding their indigenous heritage as a sign of social status.

This in turn has been an obstacle to the creation of a national identity. Another paradox is that, while people wish for a fairer presence of the rule of law in their lives, 81% according to an investigation cited in the book, people will also systematically break the rules and rely on their connections to avoid paying taxes or ignore traffic laws. According to the same investigation, 73% lacked or had incomplete knowledge of their legal obligations.

The careful reader should be aware that the narrative of the culture of a group of people will tend towards generalizations, and that there are differences and tensions within a society as well.

The real discomfort this book causes many readers is that it forces them to look inwards and take responsibility for their own actions and histories. It is always more comfortable (and more popular) to look outwards and blame the external forces shaping Latin America’s reality than to offer agency to the characters that represent it.

On the other hand, Hurtado’s unyielding account has a very positive connotation, which he expresses in the preface. It suggests that by offering an honest interpretation of the country’s past he can read the symptoms of a society and make it clear that the culture of a people is something that changes over time, and that the project of the country and its people might as well be that, change the culture. In the process of recognizing the agency of Latin American and Ecuadorian individuals, it recognizes that even though changing a culture is a drawn out process, it also rejects the idea that the past irremediably conditions the future. 

History teacher based in Ecuador. Enjoys literature, discovering new music and the stories history tells. Follow on twitter @camucros