The First Century of the Republic
Before the year 1830 drew to a close, both Marshal Sucre and Simón Bolívar would be dead; the former, murdered (on orders from a jealous General Flores, according to some historians), and the latter, from tuberculosis. Heartbroken at the dissolution of Gran Colombia, Bolívar is quoted as saying shortly before his death, "America is ungovernable. Those who have served the revolution have plowed the sea." These words would seem prophetic during the chaotic first thirty years in the life of the Republic of Ecuador.
Initial Confusion, 1830-60
Independence did not occasion a revolutionary liberation of the masses of Ecuadorian peasants. On the contrary, as bad as the peasants' situation was, it probably worsened with the loss of the Spanish royal officials who had protected the indigenous population against the abuses of the local criollos. This criollo elite, which had spearheaded the struggle for independence, was to be its principal beneficiary. The early battle to define the political parameters of the new state was fought, to a great extent, among the various sectors--Ecuadorians and foreigners, military personnel and civilians--of this elite.
Flores was of the foreign military variety. Born in Venezuela, he had fought in the wars for independence with Bolívar, who had appointed him governor of Ecuador during its association with Gran Colombia. Although of humble origins with little formal education, Flores married into the Quiteño elite, gaining acceptance, initially at least, within the local criollo upper class. As a leader, however, he appeared primarily interested in maintaining his power. Military expenditures, from the independence wars and from an unsuccessful campaign to wrest Cauca Province from Colombia in 1832, kept the state treasury empty while other matters were left unattended.
In 1833 four intellectuals who had begun publishing El Quiteño Libre to denounce the "pillaging of the national treasury by foreigners" were killed by the authorities at a time when Flores was absent from Quito. Although not directly responsible for the killings, Flores inevitably became associated with them, and criticism of his regime grew. In 1834 opponents staged a rebellion in an effort to place José Vicente Rocafuerte y Rodríguez de Bejarano, a member of the Guayaquil aristocracy who had recently returned from fourteen years abroad, into the presidency. The rebels effort failed; Flores then coopted his opponent and sponsored Rocafuerte as a presidential candidate. For four years following this Machiavellian political move--in effect the nation's first coup d'état--Flores continued to wield considerable power from behind the scenes as commander of the military.
President Rocafuerte's most lasting contribution was to begin development of a public school system. Although he had previously condemned Flores's violations of civil liberties, Rocafuerte argued that "the backwardness of Ecuador makes enlightened despotism necessary." At the end of his term in 1839, Rocafuerte returned to his native Guayaquil as provincial governor, while in Quito Flores was again inaugurated into the presidency. After four years in office, Flores summoned a constitutional convention that wrote a new constitution, dubbed "the Charter of Slavery" by his opponents, and elected him to a new eight-year term of office.
After 1843 the opposition to Flores often manifested itself in unpleasant ways: in reference to the dark skin of Flores and his fellow Venezuelan and Colombian soldiers, Rocafuerte (by now exiled in Lima) wrote that "the white oppressors of the peninsula were less oppressive than the Negro vandals who have replaced them." A young student named Gabriel García Moreno--later to become the most infamous of all of Ecuador's nineteenth century dictators--tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Flores. Discontent had become nationwide by 1845, when an insurrection in Guayaquil forced Flores from the country. Because their movement triumphed in March (marzo), the anti-Flores coalition members became known as marcistas. They were an extremely heterogeneous lot that included liberal intellectuals, conservative clergymen, and representatives from Guayaquil's successful business community.
The next fifteen years constituted one of the most turbulent periods in Ecuador's century and a half as a nation. The marcistas fought among themselves almost ceaselessly and also had to struggle against Flores's repeated attempts from exile to overthrow the government. The first marcista president was a businessman, Vicente Ramón Roca, who served a full four-year term of office. The most significant figure of the era, however, was General José María Urbina, who first came to power in 1851 through a coup d'état, remained in the presidency until 1856, and then continued to dominate the political scene until 1860. During this decade and the one that followed, Urbina and his archrival, García Moreno, would define the dichotomy--between Liberals from Guayaquil and Conservatives from Quito--that remained the major sphere of political struggle in Ecuador in the 1980s.
Liberalism under Urbina took on anticlerical, ethnic, and regional dimensions. In 1852 he accused a group of Jesuit priests-- admitted by his predecessor, Diego Noboa, only a year earlier--of political meddling and expelled them. Urbina freed the nation's slaves exactly one week after his coup of 1851, and six years later, his successor and life-long friend, General Francisco Robles, finally put an end to three centuries of required annual payments of tribute by the Indian population. Henceforth, liberalism associated itself with bettering the position of Ecuador's non-white population. Urbina's and Robles's favoring of the Guayaquil business classes over the Quito landowners reinforced the regional aspect of the political dichotomy.
Opposition against Robles intensified after his signing, in 1857, of an unpopular contract aimed at alleviating the burdensome foreign debt. By 1859--known by Ecuadorian historians as the Terrible Year--the nation was on the brink of anarchy. Local caudillos had declared several regions autonomous of the central government. One of these caudillos, Guayaquil's Guillermo Franco, signed the Treaty of Mapasingue ceding the southern provinces of Ecuador to an occupying Peruvian army led by General Ramón Castilla. This action was outrageous enough to unite some previously disparate elements. García Moreno, putting aside both his project to place Ecuador under a French protectorate and his differences with General Flores, got together with the former dictator to put down the various local rebellions and force out the Peruvians. This effort opened the last chapter of Flores's long career and marked the entrance to power of García Moreno.
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