Call to all Cuenca gringos: Time for a hard, honest look in the mirror

Mar 8, 2017 | 0 comments

By Ernie Millard

When traveling to Ecuador tourists are usually satisfied with their superficial experiences with the people and their destinations. However, when relocating, and becoming a resident here, the discrepancy between the exquisite scenery and landscapes, and the brutal living conditions, and poverty of their local surrounding neighbors becomes a stark reality. New residents quickly discover their former lifestyle focused on consumption and leisure patterns does not fit. Obvious linguistic, racial, cultural, and socio-economic disparities very quickly become problematic.

As the most educated, well-traveled, and adventurous generation in history, a growing number of retirement-aged Americans, Europeans, and Canadians are voluntarily surrendering their rooted identities, and physical ties to a stable home and community for a new beginning in a truly foreign and far away place.

Expats meeting with U.S. embassy officials.

Initially, this population group provided a tremendous boost to world economic growth. However, these folks now no longer contribute to the economy with  direct production; they have significantly reduced their spending; significantly increased their dependence on others — their children, and government for entitlements and health care costs. This indisputable demographic wave has had profound economic consequences for their new country — Ecuador. As newly transplanted folks we have brought and placed significant and unrealistic expectations, causing strains on Ecuador’s infrastructure systems, and with aging retirees with declining health, on their health care systems.

Within this tidal wave of retiring baby boomers, global economic inequality has created a smaller trend known as “amenity migration,” which can be defined as people living in a place, and altering it, without ever engaging in the new culture, or even considering how their choices affect people who already live there. Characterized by retirees from the developed “North” moving to the developing “South” in search of the preferred amenities of climate, tropical landscapes, lower living costs, and a gentler pace of life.

We are repeating previous colonial practices by visioning the new habitat as an empty place that migrants can inhabit, and alter at will, without having to concern themselves about the desires, aspirations or needs of those already living there. It is the northern perception of power and wealth that continues to exploit a system that takes advantage of local poverty. “I’m making a living on the U.S. economy and living on the Ecuadorian economy. It’s a great formula,” says one migrant. Do we foreigners who choose to retire in other countries realize the negative economic, social, and environmental impacts of our presence? Do we care?

The municipality of Cuenca, Ecuador’s colonial jewel, has chosen to take a pro-active role in assisting and integrating their foreign residents. A survey of 700 foreign residents was undertaken and the results is currently being analyzed. This past week, in a meeting with Cuenca city officials, it has again been reinforced that there is growing concern, suspicion, and a backlash of resentment among Ecuadorians toward the gringos carrying  an “unconscious privileged entitlement” where they seem to be above the law, and separate themselves from local life’s grind against poverty. This bothers me a lot and I do not want to be included in this “branding.” Over the last nine years, as new residents in Ecuador, we have worked very hard to integrate into our new culture. Honestly, we have never understood the desire to move to a foreign country, bringing all your worldly possessions, and surrounding yourself with people, language, and culture that you left behind. You miss out entirely on the new adventure!

Although our gringo population numbers are declining, the increasing resentment among Ecuadorians stems from the following identified concerns:

i.) Chronically ill, aging, and declining health gringos availing themselves of, and abusing the inadequately resourced medical care systems, and  increasing pressures from health and dental tourism. After many years of concerned discussions, the new Ley Orgánica de Movilidad Humana addresses this issue and now requires all foreign visitors and immigrants to have their own medical insurance coverage.

ii.) Gringos banding together in linguistic isolation, lording their privileged entitlement and wealth over the locals, and assimilation with their new community is often superficial. Their interaction with locals is limited to required services, transactional exchanges for menial labor services, groceries, or fruit and vegetables etc.

iii.) Gringos with large homes with extra bedrooms, rental apartments, or informal bed and breakfast establishments catering to guests without complying with municipal regulations, licensing, and evading taxes, competing unfairly in with localr hospitality industry establishments. With the success of internet sites such as Airbnb, VRBO, Vacationrentals, Hometogo this is a worldwide issue for the hospitality industry.

iv.)  Gringos establishing hobbies, trades services, smuggling goods, or operating other businesses to earn extra income without complying with municipal regulations, licensing, and evading taxes, again, competing unfairly with local service providers.

v.)  Gringos providing informal tours — mercado, day excursions, country orientation, or real estate tours, etc. — without appropriate credentials and evading tax laws, competing with local tour providers and travel agencies.

vi.) Unlicensed gringos selling real estate and evading tax laws.

vii.) Gringo developments not complying with municipal regulations, licensing, and evading tax laws, directly enhancing their wealth by exploiting local poverty and foreigner’s ignorance.

viii.) Bewilderment as to why gringos leave their families, support networks, language and familiar culture behind.

ix.) Tercera edad gringos availing themselves “righteously” of the IVA rebate system which was established to “soften” life’s basic expenses for those retired Ecuadorians who have religiously contributed taxes for their entire working lives. For those luxury items gringos acquire and request a tax rebate — there has been a tightening of restrictions, along with active discussions about eliminating foreigners eligibility to collect any rebate as they have never contributed taxes.

x.) “Trapped, economic refugee” gringos who are obsessed with prices, resist adaptation, and continue to stay here in spite of their growing misery. Anyone whom they have contact with is made aware of how unhappy they are.

As current or future foreign residents we should realize that levels of resentment towards us are continuing to grow. Due to all of the above reasons we are increasingly seen as ignorant, arrogant, and culturally disrespectful — “ugly gringos”. Richard Ingle, Dr Lee Dubs, Deke Castleman, David Morrill and Liam Higgins, have written recent articles on this website documenting similar concerns.

To ensure we foreigners remain welcome in this country, I ask my fellow gringos to please look in the mirror. If you fall into one of these groups mentioned above, perhaps naively unaware, even if your revenue activity is a “hobby” please make sure you are aware of your business requirements and obligations to ensure your compliance. Think about your impact on others in the local community. Just as if you are caught speeding in an automobile on a public highway — ignorance of the speed limit and of the law is no excuse! If you are a regular patron of a “gringo owned” businesses please help us by ensuring they are aware and compliant with their obligations. If they are blatant in continuing their non-compliance, it is time to take a stand and withdraw your support of their business.

Please, we need to collectively ensure that we eliminate this perception that gringos are only here to “milk public services” without paying for them and are “entitled” or even worse, “white collar criminals”.

Let’s qualify as valued immigrants, be proud to be here, pay our tax obligations, and respect their laws. Leading by example with honesty and integrity, integrating with our new culture and providing creative solutions where possible. There are several excellent examples:  some gringo expats living here alone have taken the initiative and established their own support group / network to assist each other. They have prepared in advance for events such as illness or death. Several cultural and language exchanges are available, and many Ecuadorian seniors are most interested in our active lives, and previous travel and life experiences.


Ernie Millard is a seasoned professional with over 28 years experience in Canadian post secondary education. Along with his wife, he has lived in Ecuador for nine years both on the coast and in Cuenca, and enjoys traveling throughout Ecuador and Latin America. Their challenges here have included a variety of projects providing synergy in education; student exchange programs; community tourism; healthcare; rebuilding family homes destroyed after the earthquake; and helping people rediscover and enrich their lives with purpose, integrity and compassion, embracing global and cultural diversity, and harmony with nature. It has taken a while, but he now clearly realize that it’s not how you spend your money that counts, IT’S HOW YOU SPEND YOUR LIFE!


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