Musing on Marxism – Guayaquil, Ecuador, 1989

Ecuador’s seaport of Guayaquil made the news recently when armed youths burst into a television studio during a live broadcast, threatening everyone with pistols, shotguns and dynamite. Looking back on a visit to Guayaquil thirty-five years earlier, I may have some appreciation of motives, although I certainly don’t  condone the crime.

In the Spring of 1989, ships of the 4th Canadian Destroyer Squadron steamed from their home port of Esquimalt for a two-month cruise to San Francisco and San Diego in California; Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta in Mexico; Puerto Caldera in Costa Rica; and Guayaquil in Ecuador. This would give trainee junior officers experience with the challenges of a long deployment, and extended periods at sea to practice their professional skills. There was also a diplomatic role, known in the trade as “showing the flag”. Hosting local and national dignitaries, conducting social events on board and opening the ships to the public are all ways of introducing Canada to the world. On a training cruise like this, they also give young officers experience in taking responsibility for their ship in a foreign port, as well as polishing their diplomatic skills.

As Executive Officer of  HMCS Saskatchewan, I was well aware that Ecuador had been going through a difficult time; plagued by high unemployment, high inflation, recession, and unsettled politics. The crew knew it too, having sponsored an Ecuadorian child for the previous ten years. Happily, she lived in Guayaquil and was now a shy teen, so one of the highlights of the visit was welcoming her aboard to meet her honorary Canadian “foster parents”.

Hosting Ms Andrade

We also got glimpses of the kind of banal corruption that poverty can beget. When the ships were open to the public, long, well-ordered queues waited patiently. But, near closing time,  crowds faced with not getting aboard threatened to overwhelm the brow staff. It turned out that although the ships were freely open to everyone,  unscrupulous local officials at the port gate had been selling tickets instead of regulating numbers. Yet another learning opportunity for the young officers in charge that day.

Revelation in the Back Streets
On a walk one afternoon I found myself in the tough slums which we had been warned to avoid.  With more curiosity than common sense I continued through those gritty streets and did some soul-searching.  “Okay smart guy” I thought. “If you had been born and raised here, with little education and knowing no other life than this, what would you do to fix this?”  It came as a bit of a shock to realize that my best option would be to become a Marxist revolutionary. Naturally I didn’t risk my security clearance by sharing that thought when I got back.

Guayaquil, Thirty-five Years On
A lot has happened in Ecuador since then. A peace treaty in neighbouring Colombia between government and FARC rebels in 2016 has opened drug smuggling routes to transnational cartels and foreign gangs. Guayaquil is a significant transit point for cocaine bound for the US and Europe. Prisons supposed to keep notorious gangsters out of circulation are controlled more by prisoners than the guards. The January assault on the television station was triggered by a decision to move a drug lord to a less comfortable prison. He escaped with the collusion of compliant guards, having predicted three years earlier that such an attempt would prompt a “sudden death” scenario in which “there will be riots at all prisons”. Contemporary Marxists see the situation in Ecuador as evidence that gangs are “part of the framework of the rotten capitalist system in Ecuador.”

I still have no sympathy for Marxism, but if I were a disenfranchised youth knowing nothing but the slums of Guayaquil I might well see it as a better alternative than rule by violent gangs. One lesson I take from Ecuador’s story is that hard-right, dogmatic anti-Communism can do more harm than good if it isn’t accompanied by addressing the social and economic reasons that make it attractive. The same applies to today’s “Wars on Drugs”.

A Canadian Perspective
Having grown up in affluent, secure Canada I didn’t have any particular political position 35 years ago. If forced to adopt a label I suppose it would have been “Red Tory“. That’s an extinct Canadian political species from an era when Conservatives were still Progressive. It balanced commitment to fiscal conservatism and personal responsibility with a recognition that government has a responsibility to the poor and disadvantaged. After all, it’s pointless to expect someone to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps if they have no boots.

A Guayaquil slum taught me not to be quick to judge without fully understanding the reality of others. Nor should any of us be complacent about the growing financial inequalities, homelessness and disillusion with our democratic system right here in Canada. Trumpism south of our border and copycat “Freedom Convoys” here should be sounding a warning that anarchy and thuggery are not as alien to our way of life as we might like to think.

As my Father observed, based on five years as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, the veneer of civilization is very thin.


Photos: Scanned from the Canadian Forces “Sentinel”, Volume 25, Number 6,  1989