Latin elections are such vibrant theater, unlike our plastic-coated, high-tech soap operas, I thought I might catch the presidential election in Ecuador this year. Besides, there was an off-again, on-again war with Peru to give an edge to the trip. Not long into the journey I got all the edge I would need for the summer. The first leg of my Continental flight from Houston to Panama was interrupted by the captain who tactlessly began, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve got some bad news.” Before I left, the Valujet crash was still on the national mind. Halfway to Panama, the crew had just discovered that the oxygen equipment was not functioning properly and that we could not make it on over the Andes into Quito, which is just under 10,000 feet. Thus another night in Houston.

Approaching Quito the next night thousands of twinkling city lights confirmed what the lady next to me explained, that the city was long and narrow, set between two ranges of mountains. The South American Explorers Club had booked me into an inexpensive place called the El Loro Verde (the Green Parrot). The cantina across the street provided gratuitously a salsa beat until the wee hours, and there were seven eruptions of what sounded like gunfire, but could have been fireworks. Nearly every business and apartment house has an armed guard. I moved the next day to a quiet neighborhood and took a room in a house where it turned out mostly American college students of various ages lived.

The first primary had already taken place and the candidates had been whittled down to Jaime Nebot of the Partido Social Cristiano and Abdalá Bucaram of the Partido Roldosista Ecuatoriano. Nebot had come out on top and most of the pundits and pollsters were predicting a Nebot win. This meant the voters of the small conservative party and those of the several leftist parties had to choose between the two. And I mean had to choose, for voting is compulsory in Ecuador. If you do not get your receipt for voting, there are many things you cannot do thereafter, like get a passport, municipal permits, etc. One could, however, leave the ballot blank, “bianco,” or vote “nulo,” “no one.” The percentage of nulos went as high as 20 percent in one province, with a national average of 11 percent “nulos” and one percent “blancos.”

A couple of days before the second primary vote on July 7, I visited the American ambassador’s residence for the 4th of July picnic (held actually on the 5th). Ambassador Romero and his staff were decked out in Western clothes and a cowboy band called “Texas” provided the music. The picnic was open to all American citizens living in the country who had the price of admission (4,000 sucres, or about $1.33). There were pie eating contests, climbing-the-greased pole contests, and even some line-dancing Texas style. Besides the traditional hot dogs and hamburgers, we had American gyros and falafel. Nothing was free so the taxpayers back home did not have to pick up the tab. “Republicans Abroad” even had a booth. The few businessmen I was able to talk with seemed to think a Bucaram victory would be a disaster. The ugly word “nationalization,” of everything from banks and insurance companies to oil, was uttered.

Out on the street, nobody seemed to know what Abdalá Bucaram would do. Nebot was more of a known quantity. It was felt, I gather, that he would be a continuation of the Sixto government. There had been an extended effort under Sixto to control inflation, which had been 60 percent. It was brought to 25 percent in 1995 and was predicted to be 26 percent in 1996. This kind of austerity did not permit the social programs that people thought they ought to get, and Bucaram, from the opposition, filled this vacuum. He out-promised Nebot.

My contact in Quito, Fernando Sanchez, suggested we take a “walking poll.” He felt the predictions of a Nebot victory were premature. We walked the streets of the city and simply asked. First we ran into some beggars. “Who are you voting for?” “Abdalá.” “Why?” “He’s going to give us housing.” On another street, a taxi driver: “Nebot.” Interestingly, one candidate was known by his last name, the other by his Brst. Fernando explained to me later that Abdalá would allow provincial governors and mayors to act against the drivers’ interest. A middle-class couple: “It’s a good question. Don’t know. Probably nulo.” One military man said he should not answer the question, and an Otavalo Indian in his distinctive blue poncho and immaculate white pants said he was leaning toward Abdalá. Though the city of Quito is not typical of the country at large, the score ended up: Abdalá 2; Nebot 1; nulo 1; cannot answer 1.

I was told that Abdalá had promised 150,000 new homes if he was elected. Modest homes, to be sure, but new homes. How? Government subsidy. It might make American home buyers feel a lot better about their interest rates to know that home mortgage interest in Ecuador is between 40 and 55 percent. Should the government borrow the money to subsidize housing partially (if anyone will lend it to them), it is inevitable that the anticipated 26 percent inflation for 1996 will jump through the roof. This is what is passing for “populism” in Ecuador.

The second major aspect of the campaign, like the first, may remind Chronicles readers of the ’92 campaign in the United States. Abdalá does not play the saxophone, but he can sing and dance. I have seen him sing and dance on television. Like a “man of the people,” he does both about like the people do, which is not very well. But that’s the secret of being just one of the people. He out good-ol-boyed Nebot, or rather Nebot did not know how to good-ol-boy. Next go round he needs to take an Arkansas seminar in “Shuckins.”

Similarities go further. Abdalá had made, as one politician noted, imprudent remarks about the military (which is not permitted) and spent six years in exile in Panama. While there he was found with a kilo or so of the magic white powder in his car, which he said had been planted by his enemies in Ecuador. Earlier he was absolved by Congress for malfeasance in office as mayor of Guayaquil, but his sister, while mayor, stole money from the city and has since been residing in exile in Panama herself. Just family traditions.

As near as I can tell, in Ecuador a wall without graffiti is like a day without sunshine; walls and most days had lots of both. One masterpiece: “Abdalá miente par cado una de sua espimllas en su cara” (“Abdalá lies for every one of the pimples on his face”), which is quite a lot. All of which led to his upset victory over Nebot. Nebot carried the provinces of the two major cities, Quito and Guayaquil, but lost the other 19 provinces.

South America must seem ripe for takeover attempts. Abdalá is of Lebanese descent, and upon his victory his village of Guach El Hajar in north Lebanon broke out in celebration, guns and all. Which has led one wit to write about South America’s “three kings from the Orient.” Fujimori, president of Peru, is of Japanese descent, and Gados Saul Menem descends from Syria.

Immediately following Abdalá’s victory, the markets in New York reflected the fear of what he might do, and dropped. Shortly after this, Abdalá went to Panama for rest and recuperation and was photographed with his exiled sister, Elsa. Famous and infamous around Ecuador is a woman by the name of Mama Luecha. She is a tough gangsterette who ran the local markets in her town. Finally she was imprisoned. A graffito in Quito reflected the new change in a couplet: Mama Luecha esta presa / Elsa regresa (Mama Luecha is captured, Elsa returns). Will Elsa return to Ecuador, I asked a pundit? If Abdalá can pack the Supreme Court.

What does Abdalá’s victory presage for Ecuador? From those I talked to, no significant change. In an interview with Rene Mauge, a presidential candidate in a previous election and a university professor, lie told me that in his opinion there was no real difference in Nebot and Abdalá Buearam. He had been Abdalá’s teacher. As to the promise of housing, some of it could be done, he thought— he had written a long article explaining how. He remarked that Abdalá had a great potential for histrionics. Elsewhere I had heard that when Abdalá spoke before a large group of businessmen in Quito, his speech was calm and reasonable. Apparently his public performances are largely acts fitted to his audiences, Charlie Chaplin mustache and all (his opponents would say Hitlerian). It is Ecuadorian law that 30 percent of the budget should go to education, which has so far not happened.

To the question about whether the law would now be fulfilled. Mange said it would be very, very difficult. At the most, 18 percent, he thought. To my question, “Who started the border war between Ecuador and Peru,” Maugé said it was difficult to tell. I was surprised to learn that the Indians were playing a big role in the fighting, although the ones on the Ecuadorian side have not been traditional enemies of the ones in Peru. The Peruvian army did not realize, Mange said, how much resistance there would be. For people in Lima, it was rather a remote disturbance, but for Ecuador, which had already lost much of its land to Peru (land that it still claims), the struggle was a very important matter, one of national honor.

Fernando Sanchez, my aide-de-camp, insisted that I should go to the café Madrilon in the oldest part of Quito, near the Presidential Palace and the Cathedral, if I wanted to get a sense of what Abdalá’s government might presage. A cross-section of people, especially retired bankers, lawyers, and doctors, sit around tables in the rather plain, high-ceilinged café, and discuss the great matters of the day. The couple of times I visited, I also met an electrician and a well-known boxer there. Mr. Sevilla-Suarez, a retired banker, and others, thought there was no chance of any nationalization of industries, and that there would be no shift to the left. Most of the habitués thought the government would be a continuation of Sixto. One thing they had apprehensions about was the war. Sevilla-Suarez said he hoped Clinton would bring about a resolution: “He should order it.” I asked, “Can he?” and was answered, “Why not?” All the candidates feel they must come to the Madrikm, they said. Political problems have been resolved right here in the café. So influential is the group, that when Sixto’s vice president wanted to close it down to get rid of the locals (which he failed to do) the group announced that if the café were closed down it would move to the Palace for coffee.

Enrique Ayala Mora, a socialist and perhaps the premier historian in Ecuador, gave me a quick overview of recent Ecuadorian political history. Significant events were the change in the party system after 1947, which determined that the parties were no longer run by the government but by a tribunal, and the 1978 constitution, which for the first time was not dictated but voted on by the people. Ayala observed that one of the main problems for Ecuador is that the government does not collect 40 to 50 percent of the taxes. Salaried workers have to pay, but big business no. The corruption is acute.

What is needed for Ecuador to change course? Almost everyone agreed that the taxes have to be collected and the people educated. Ayala said it is not just a matter of money, but of political will. Ecuadorians do not need to be taught free enterprise.

Later I visited the village of Sasquisilí, south of Quito, on market day and found pure free trading in farm products, clothes, tools, and electronics, as well as a picturesque animal auction. What is needed is universal schooling, especially in the trades and technical fields. Plus capital, which is difficult to come by. With a population of about 11.5 million, half the people do not have regular work and 75 percent are poor, according to one source. Not only will foreigners, especially foreign businessmen, be watching Abdalá Bucaram’s government, but more important, so will the millions of Ecuador’s poor and unemployed.

These problems notwithstanding, the people are more cheerful, their behavior more upbeat, than what 1 often find in ex-Soviet countries. Here the churches have not been shut down and thousands of religious murdered. Certainly the weather is better, especially in the sierra. About Ecuador’s thriving cultural life—especially Ecuadorian artists who paint like angels and a couple of nuns who may be—more next month.