Ecuador's elite, in the late 1980s, included Sierra
latifundistas (large landowners), Costa agro-exporters,
financiers, and industrialists. Commercial and industrial interests
overlapped with those of agriculture, as families in finance and
industry often maintained at least a token interest in agriculture.
Indeed, the purchase of land with the profits of commerce had long
been considered a critical step in improving a family's standing.
In addition to this overlap, there were strong intragroup ties
among the elite; kinship and marriage contributed to cohesion.
Newly rich families tried to turn their economic success into
social capital by marrying into older, established families.
Historically, the basis of class in Ecuador lay in the control
of land and the labor of those who lived on it. The Spanish
conquistadors had found the region devoid of valuable minerals and
the ready wealth mining provided, so the combination of land and
Indians welded together in vast haciendas formed the basis of the
colonial economy. The few who held land constituted a rural
oligarchy. The rest of society depended on this pivotal group, in
varying degrees, for livelihood, political participation, and
social identity. Hacienda owners spent much of their time in their
urban residences; cities existed principally to serve their wants.
The small, ill-defined middle levels of urban professionals found
employment serving the commercial and administrative needs of the
hacienda. Artisans likewise produced mainly for hacendados.
The hacienda with its resident labor force was the center of
the Sierra elite family's influence. The landowner's power within
his domain was nearly absolute. Ideally, the hacendado exercised
this power beneficently, to protect his followers and dependents.
Whatever his inclination, everything from private morality to
public religious observances fell within his purview. He settled
land disputes among his resident peons, arranged marriages, and
The Costa elite's lifestyle, values, and economic interests
differed from its Sierra counterpart. Trade grew on the coast in
response to the impetus of export agriculture. As a result, the
elite on the coast had ties to other Latin American seaports and
links with world commerce.
The cleavage between the two elite groups, in evidence at
independence, continued to play a pivotal role in Ecuadorian
politics in the 1980s
(see Return to Democratic Rule, 1979-84
, ch. 1;
, ch. 4). Governments parceled out political
offices between the two groups, and region of origin was a critical
factor in an individual's political career. Economic developments
since the 1950s reinforced the dichotomies between the Costa and
Sierra. The banana boom of the 1950s and 1960s revived the Costa
cacao elite and funneled money to Guayaquil; in contrast, the oil
boom of the 1970s benefited Quito.
Agrarian organization provided the model for other social
institutions and the exercise of authority in general. Social rank
and power, in the elite view, were a natural part of the social
order. Individuals were ranked on the basis of birth, race, wealth,
breeding, and education. The elite (and middle class) often
described itself as la gente buena (the good people) or
la gente decente (the respectable people), contending that
it had sufficient breeding, intelligence, and culture to rule
others. The subordination of workers, peasants, servants, and all
Indians was an essential part of this scheme. In the elite view,
gains achieved by subordinates came not as their natural right but
through the beneficence of their betters.
Land reform legislation in the 1960s and 1970s left elite
hegemony in agriculture and landholding largely unscathed. For one
thing, Costa and Sierra landholders mounted an intense effort to
oppose those elements of agricultural reform that threatened their
diverse interests. For another, the laws were designed to benefit
resident agricultural laborers, but on most of the coast and on the
more advanced haciendas of the northern and central Sierra,
landowners had already begun switching to wage labor, so there were
few peons and sharecroppers to receive expropriated land. Instead,
the legislation merely freed the owners from their customary
obligations to resident laborers. Land reform eliminated the
paternal obligations landowners had previously assigned toward
The landed elite benefited in a number of others ways as well.
The price paid in compensation for expropriated private land was
often inflated well above market value. Well-connected landlords
usually fared better in the courts than their less-privileged
tenants. Those peasants who received land rarely became selfsupporting and had to supplement their subsistence plots with
seasonal wage labor elsewhere. Large landowners gained a supply of
temporary wage laborers with limited political ability to make
demands beyond a single season's work.
Data as of 1989