By Matthew Hayes
Plaza San Francisco’s renovation plans were given the go-ahead from city hall this month, but major details remain to be worked out with the vendors who have occupied most of the square for the last 60 years.
While aesthetic improvements to the square seem desirable and inevitable, popular resistance to the displacement of vendors calls into question the modernization project of city officials, and the place that foreign residents and tourists play in it.
Last month, Plaza San Francisco was all over Cuenca’s media, as the city and vendors play a high stakes game of chicken with $6.8 million funding from the Banco del Estado on the line.
It was announced by several local media sources that vendors had dropped their opposition to the new redesign of the plaza. This is false.
Vendors I talked with as part of my research in Plaza San Francisco are definitely not opposed to improvement of the space, but big questions remain about whether ‘fixed stalls’ will really be fixed, about the size of the stalls, and about compensation for vendors who fear their business will be significantly reduced for up to a year or more while the renovations take place.
North Americans and Europeans who visit or relocate to Cuenca can clearly see the possibilities for improvement in Plaza San Francisco. According to the World Bank and UNESCO consultants, the square will be a lynchpin of urban renewal and a centre of tourist activity supporting local craft industries.
However, the cost will be born by working Cuencanos, many with incomes well below the ‘economic refugees’ who have relocated from North America. Plaza San Francisco is a microcosm of global inequalities, and draws attention to the inherited advantages of those of us born into social positions that have historically benefited from exploitation of non-European workers in former European colonies.
Cuenca has become a destination for North Americans because of its cultural offerings, and its ‘colonial-style’ architecture. This cultural wealth, however, has come at the expense of other cultures, which have been marginalized. The built architecture of Cuenca is the product of one of two activities: either manufacturing exports (quinine and panama hats) that exploited people in rural areas of Azuay; or from large haciendas, especially sugar cane producers in the temperate valleys of Paute and Yunguilla, which also exploited rural workers.
Rural workers, or campesinos, in Ecuador worked in relations of dependence and without pay until the late 60s or early 70s, right around the time current American retirees may have bought their first house.
Plaza San Francisco has long been the interface between the rural and urban worlds of southern Ecuador — a place where poor rural workers have come to supplement their incomes by selling to urban middle classes. While permanent stalls are relatively more recent, they represent the urbanization of a rural cast of peasant workers, many of them indigenous or indigenous-mestizo.
The potential to increase the value of San Francisco and surrounding areas is what has led the Bank of International Development — a division of the World Bank — and the Ecuadorian central government to provide funds for municipal intervention in the square.
These interventions are intended to increase economic activity and boost growth, but as in all such projects, the benefits fall very unevenly.
Plaza San Francisco provides a local example of how tourism and development projects affect actual people who are being ‘developed.’
Vendors fear that the renovation, in its current form will negatively affect their business, as has the relocation of vendors from Plaza 9 de Octubre, another World Bank-backed intervention that was ostensibly designed to help vendors and itinerant workers.
The displacement of the popular mercado also reinforces the racial hierarchy of the current global division of labour. North Americans in Cuenca do not support racial hierarchies, however, displacing the popular market will also lead to a phenotypical whitening of Plaza San Francisco as it becomes a transnational social space oriented towards the tastes and imaginaries of North American and European tourists and lifestyle migrants.
This is not the result of individual malice, but rather the structural effect of reclaiming spaces for the enjoyment of individuals who are located in historically privileged global social positions — positions we all inherit, and that have nothing to do with our current society’s beliefs or our own efforts. Most North Americans alive today have inherited a better hand than the vendors and shoppers of Plaza San Francisco, and increasing the tourist value of the space means, in this case, catering to those who have inherited better hands.
What then, are we to do, if we care about social justice in the community that we have come to live in?
It is not as though there are no alternatives to the current social cleansing of Plaza San Francisco, or of El Centro more generally (what will replace the 200 shops closed during Tranvía construction?).
Plaza San Francisco could just as easily be renovated and remodeled with the goal of improving the business opportunities of the small businesses that already occupy the plaza.
Cleanliness, appearance and security have been neglected by the city for two decades. For instance, there has been no public investment to improve toilette facilities (repairs are made by the stall keepers) or to facilitate access to them for poor day labourers looking for a job at the Plaza’s east end (stall keepers charge 15 cents).
North American residents in Cuenca could also care about the evolving popular traditions and social relations of the informal, open-air Andean mercado popular, a space useful to lower income Ecuadorians. In a context in which real estate markets are increasingly transnationalized, and in which Cuenca’s city council remains fixated on boosting the city as a heritage and tourism centre, any improvement — such as the tranvía, or pedestrian spaces downtown — has the potential to displace lower class residents.
This is a problem that has been acknowledged by the city and the World Bank who have funded municipal interventions in El Centro. Yet, their focus on increasing the tourism value of El Centro by removing vendors from plazas and harassing itinerant workers — to say nothing of the lack of sustained anti-poverty programs or other redistributive efforts — militates against their otherwise good intentions.
Collectively, it is possible for the North American community to draw attention to some of the problems of gentrification in Cuenca — many residents here were themselves victims of the process in the United States and Canada before they moved — and to show solidarity with social movements, like the vendors of Plaza San Francisco, who are defending their right to work and their right to stay put.
North American migrants to Ecuador, as well as tourists, can also demonstrate solidarity by getting to know the spaces of Ecuador as they are, and from various social positions, rather than projecting colonial-style desires onto the city.
These desires inevitably reproduce the social relations of the hacienda, which are completely at odds with values of the post-war liberal democracies from which European and North American tourists and migrants come.
Matthew Hayes is Assistant Professor of Sociology at St. Thomas University in Canada.