By Joanna Bender
U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador Todd Chapman is in Cuenca this week to meet with local officials and expats. It was his second visit to the city, and, on Monday afternoon, he sat down with a group of media representatives to share some of his observations about Ecuador and expats after eight months on the job.
“I’ve just spent 51 days traveling to 20 different cities in Ecuador,” said Chapman. “It’s been a great experience to understand and witness the breadth and depth of this country and its culture. Ecuador has many natural advantages, and there are many opportunities for long-term growth.”
Chapman has visited with several government officials since March — his first visit to Cuenca — and has traveled with many of them around Ecuador and to the United States. They have had conversations about commerce and agree that there are several areas where Ecuador can flourish. Some in which Chapman sees the greatest potential for Ecuador’s growth are agriculture, tourism, mining, and energy, which includes electricity and hydrocarbons.
Another area of growth that Ecuador is pursuing is English education. Chapman recently met with the Ministry of Education, which has made it mandatory for children ages six and older to learn English.
“Ecuador needs more English teachers,” Chapman said. “The Ministry told me they would like retired school teachers, but they would welcome anyone who was willing to get together with students and just talk with them. That alone is very useful.”
Chapman also noted that this commitment to speaking English by the Ministry coincides nicely with community programs underway by the Municipality of Cuenca that connect expats with Ecuadorians to swap English and Spanish skills, as well with volunteer efforts among expats that often include teaching English.
“Having lived over half my life overseas, I can report that expats who are engaged in community are happiest,” Chapman said. “And here in Cuenca, the local government is strongly committed to interacting with expats. It’s important to nurture that quality of engagement with local officials and university representatives, especially for newcomers to Ecuador.”
Chapman is also confident that the number of expats who live in Ecuador will only continue to grow. In conversations with local authorities, he has heard much talk about the expat retiree population but has witnessed first-hand the growing diversity of expats.
“Most of the talk is still about retirees,” Chapman said, “but there is great growth in other groups, especially younger expats whose work is mobile. They have Internet-based jobs and can choose to live anywhere they want, and they’re choosing Ecuador.”
Although the number is hard to pin down, Chapman said that his office uses an estimate of 86,000 expats in Ecuador; this figure includes Ecuadorians who were born in the U.S. and have returned to Ecuador. The Municipality of Cuenca estimates that 10,000 expats are in Cuenca, although a recent university survey puts that number closer to 5000. Whatever the exact numbers are, there seems to be agreement that the number of expats is growing, so embassy services must keep up with demand.
Chapman reported that the new program known as “Passback” is being used successfully by many expats to renew their passports. Launched in August, “Passback” was an idea that surfaced during the town meeting from Chapman’s March visit to Cuenca. The program allows expats to save themselves a trip to Guayaquil or Quito by simply paying courier service DHL $15 to have the company deliver their renewed passports to Cuenca.
“We’ve been very pleased that ‘Passback’ has taken off,” Chapman said. “Most people who take advantage of the system are in the Cuenca area, and it works well with our other service of being in Cuenca twice a year to receive passport applications. If people time it right, they can apply for passports here, get them back here and avoid a trip.”
Other items that have cropped up on Chapman’s radar are the rising costs of visas, the continuance of import taxes, and the fact that a new president will be on both sides of the table come next spring.
Chapman reported that the U.S. government had officially expressed concern about the rising cost of visas, especially for students. Prices for Intercambio (exchange) visas had jumped from $100 to $450, severely limiting the ability of students to travel and work in Ecuador. The country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs assured Chapman they are working on reducing the price.
As far as import taxes, the ambassador stated that Ecuador’s current safeguard import tariff, which covers a variety of goods, is scheduled to be reduced by 5%, from 40% to 35% in late October. It will then be eliminated starting next April and should be gone completely by end of June.
“We have been concerned about the import tax,” Chapman said. “It was enacted originally to preserve and improve Ecuador’s balance of trade. Now it’s resulted in a great reduction of U.S. exports to Ecuador because the prices are so elevated. This is something that is being handled in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and we are actively engaged in.”
And how about the impact of the upcoming presidential elections?
“We understand that next May, we’re going to have a different president in Ecuador,” Chapman said, “and that’s a situation we haven’t had for several years. We want to be as productive and helpful and encouraging as we can. The U.S. historically has had a prosperous and collegial relationship with Ecuador, and we are optimistic about the direction. I’ll have a new president, a new leader myself, so we’re both going to have a lot of opportunities.”