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In Ecuador, Persons with Disabilities Fight for Dignity
by Margi NessThe Sunday began like most others in Ecuador. People were milling around the town plaza, greeting their neighbors. The indigenous population-groups of Indians with diverse cultures and languages-were out in record numbers. I followed them into the unusually crowded Cathedral. At 5’5”, I towered above the men and women with the long braids cascading down their backs as they continued to stream into the building. The Bishop’s animated speech held the crowd’s attention. I couldn’t understand much of what he was saying, but his speech was clearly causing excitement among his parishioners. Soon they were singing songs that felt more like a battle song than a church hymn.
“The Bishop’s inciting a riot,” I joked to Ted Linnert, a friend working for the Peace Corps in Ecuador. A national strike by bus, truck and transit driver had been happening off and on all week, making travel plans tentative.. We had heard rumors that there would be an attempt to oust the President, We had heard rumors that there would be an attempt to oust the President, but we doubted the peaceful indigenous people could pull it off and certainly didn’t think the Bishop would be leading the way. We continued with our day, walking around the picturesque city of Cuenca. It’s 400,000 inhabitants, living high in the Andes Mountains, make it the third largest city in Ecuador.
At 2:00 PM, the bustling streets suddenly fell silent. “Something big is happening,” I told Ted. “Really big.” I was reminded of the day President Kennedy was shot. People in Cuenca, as in my hometown on that horrible day in 1963, walked in silence, too stunned to speak. A few were crying. Many were holding one another. We walked in to a shop with a TV and asked what was happening. The shopkeeper, with tears in his eyes, told us that we were participating in history: there had just been a coup d’ etat. The President, Jamil Mahuad, had fled the Presidential Palace in Quito, the capital. The bloodless coup, comprised mainly of a surprisingly cohesive indigenous population, was over but no one knew what was going to happen. A junta – composed of an indigenous leader, a military chief, and a former president of the Supreme Court – were presented as the new leaders.
The hours that followed were chaotic. People peered down the streets toward the main square where the action seemed to be happening. We watched as a few of the younger people ripped up the sidewalk and threw the concrete chunks at the police and military. The officials responded with tear gas. We were gingerly pushed into nearby shops, helping us avoid the tear gas. We didn’t always make it. Finally, we made our way back to our hotel, just two blocks from the main square. From the balcony off my room, I watched the “rioters,” mostly teen-agers, burn tires in the street below. The military police continued to lob tear gas to disperse them. It became apparent that this was really a game. The “rioters” were not really trying to hurt anyone. The MP’s were doing the minimum possible to keep up their end of the game. The fact was that the military personnel shared the frustrations of the rioters. Everyone was in a desperate situation. Even the Bishop, I later learned, was disillusioned enough with the government to be a leader of the indigenous uprising in Cuenca.
Ecuador, about the size of Colorado, is on the northwestern coast of South America. I traveled there in anticipation of seeing some of the most beautiful and geographically varied scenery in the world, vast and diverse flora and fauna, and colorful indigenous cultures. I was not disappointed. What I did not anticipate finding, however, was the overwhelming feeling of despair that seemed to spew from Pichincha, an active volcano outside of Quito, and cover the entire country. In 1999, Ecuadorians experienced hyperinflation, a term economists use to describe inflation surpassing 100% per year; prices rose 60%, and tens of thousands lost their jobs. It is widely known that the government is corrupt from top to bottom. No wonder hopelessness fills the air. No wonder there was a coup. The people needed something to change. Their lives were spiraling downward. They needed to feel they could have an impact on something - anything. They succeeded in overthrowing their President. Yet, no one was rejoicing. Very few thought it would make any difference, but at least they had succeeded at something.
The success was short-lived. The day after the coup, the junta stepped down after representatives of the United States discussed the probable lack of U.S. aid if the constitutionally elected government did not remain intact. Vice President Gustavo Noboa became President, and the old guard maintained power.
In the days following the coup, the country quickly got back to normal, and I started to more fully grasp what that means. I left Cuenca for Gualaquiza, a town of 4,000 in the Amazon Basin. After a scenic but tiring 10 hour bus ride on a narrow, bumpy dirt road, the bus emerged from the misty cloud forest and dropped down into the rainforest. Gualaquiza is a colony, formed as part of the 1940’s land reform in which Ecuadorians were promised land. The rainforest was clear cut to make way for the colonists and to establish a strategic military base for Ecuador’s ongoing border dispute with Peru. In the 1950’s, the first non-indigenous people moved there. The Oriente, as Ecuador’s Amazon Basin area is called, is one of the least populated regions of the country and one of the most difficult to reach. According to residents of Gualaquiza, the Oriente is forgotten by the national government. Local taxes are essentially non-existent. There is a 12% national sales tax, but business records are poorly kept at best, and taxes may or may not be paid. Those that are paid are not returned to the Oriente. Most taxes line the pockets of elected officials and government employees. The miniscule amount that is returned to the citizens is mainly used in the large cities
Janet Corea, 35, a resident of Gualaquiza, contracted Polio when she was 2. There was no vaccine in Ecuador until 23 years ago. Ms. Corea walks with leg braces, though the braces do not fit well and walking is very difficult.
“There are no ramps, and not many sidewalks. Those that exist are uneven, cracked, and full of holes. It is very expensive to get help, and no one here has the expertise people with disabilities need,” Janet explained. “We get no help from the government. I believe that about one in five people in Ecuador has a disability,” she continued. “That means one person in every family. Alcoholism is a big problem here, causing many birth defects. Many people with disabilities don’t take part in the world because their families are embarrassed, especially if the person has a mental disability.” She went on to describe a 45 year old friend who is a paraplegic as the result of a car accident 10 years ago. He has been in his room since the accident, except when he is carried to the bathroom by a family member, because there are no wheelchairs.
Janet has been assisting people with disabilities for years. She handed me a proposal she had written. I saw that Janet was co-founder and President of FUNMIRAG, a Spanish acronym for the Foundation for the Handicapped in Southern Ecuador. The proposal states that FUNMIRAG was founded in cooperation with the National Office of Rehabilitation of the Handicapped. “But,” says Janet, “the National Office of Rehabilitation is based in Quito, about a 20 hour bus ride away. They have no office in the Oriente. No staff. It is really a phantom organization. There is no one to help us. No one at all.”
I asked her to whom she had given the well-written proposal. “No one. I have been looking for someone to give it to.” I was someone. She would try giving it to me and see what happened.
It is clear that Janet has worked selflessly in the formation of FUNMIRAG. The Foundation plans call for a comprehensive project to provide occupational rehabilitation, emotional and medical support, and accommodations for adults and children with physical disabilities in the southern provinces of Ecuador. The primary objective, according to the proposal, is “to provide a home for persons with disabilities where they will find affection, protection, development of self-esteem, and attention to basic living, nutritional and hygienic needs as well as special treatments, medicines and occupational workshops in order to convert them into useful members of society.”
“The handicapped are special human beings because they don’t have the physical abilities of the majority population. However they do possess sufficient sensibility to feel rejection when their society has not been educated to understand and support them properly. Unfortunately, in our country there does not exist centers of the kind the Project proposes. For this reason, FUNMIRAG, in a non-profit, secular, apolitical capacity, has undertaken the Project….”
The outlook for people with disabilities in Ecuador is bleak, especially in the Oriente. Because the recent coup essentially did not change the power structure, the old policies and the corrupt elected officials remain in place. Another coup is probable. Meanwhile, people continue to suffer. The only place people like Janet Corea have to turn is the occasional foreign visitor that passes through her community. Phone service in Gualaquiza is limited, let alone access to the Internet. It is not a town on the tourist circuit, so visitors like me are rare.
The main difference between Janet and me is our birthplace. We laugh, cry, love, get hungry and feel pain just the same. We are one people. I was given her proposal and I don’t know exactly what will come of it, but I hope I can help in some way. If you would like to help people with disabilities in Ecuador’s Oriente, or would like more information on FUNMIRAG, you may contact the author at: (303) 444-8721
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