Drawing on investigations in local archives and over one hundred hours of interviews, this study explores the relationship between Ecuadorian populist candidates and the mass of suburban slum dwellers in Guayaquil in the period 1952-78. Focusing on presidential elections, Menéndez-Carrión considers how urban political machines used favors to “conquer” the votes of the suburban poor—half the city’s population—and discusses who they voted for, why, and what impact this had on election outcomes.
A translation and condensation of the author’s dissertation, this study challenges older views on the supposed emotional appeal of populists. Menéndez-Carrión flatly rejects the idea that “charismatic” and voluble populists built support by seducing credulous country-born innocents, recent arrivals to the city. To Menéndez-Carrión, the suburban poor were not “politically immature,” “naive,” or “ignorant” voters unwisely casting ballots for opportunists that ignored their needs. Neither apathetic nor radical, the suburban poor behaved pragmatically, she maintains.
Guayaquil slum dwellers, Menéndez-Carrión shows, were more likely than other Ecuadorians to vote for populist candidates. Responding rationally to their circumstances, slum residents sought to attach themselves to patrons who could help them secure landfill, paving, water spigots, schools, loans, jobs, or help with the city bureaucracy. In return, patrons received the services and esteem of their clients—the patrons got to look, act, and feel like somebody important. Neighborhood bosses served as the link to the urban machine, which in turn could be linked to populist presidential candidates.
Menéndez-Carrión offers worthwhile discussions of family strategies for survival, city services, and the spread of suburban slums, and presents good figures on Guayaquil’s population growth, unemployment, literacy, and rates of political participation. Especially strong is Menéndez-Carrión’s work in identifying and analyzing the voting patterns of marginalized districts.
However, the author provides only a sketchy and inaccurate discussion of the economic context and often sidesteps key analytical issues, such as the fate of patron-client linkages during the two periods of military government (1963-67, 1972-78). More troubling is her depiction of the poor as passive and responsive, only coming to life if shrewdly manipulated by the active and clever. “The entire process [of] how, when, and how much the mass base participates is not determined by them. . . ,” Menéndez-Carrión thinks (p. 102).
This is a book that makes great demands on the reader’s patience. Simple points take pages to cover, as the author piles up discursive quotations, minute pieces of data, and hopelessly complex tables. The notes are similarly excessive (those to chapter 7 stretch out over 27 densely packed pages) and used chiefly to quarrel, often in blunt language, with nearly everyone who has written about Ecuador’s recent political history. The running methodological debates, which spill over and run out into the text, can be tedious—both heavily laden with social science jargon (such as “sectoral disarticulation”) and impossibly abstract.
Behind the stilted language, social science cant, charts, graphs, tables, and all those numbers, hide some worthwhile observations. These, however, only reward a careful second reading. Unfortunately, this will probably exceed the interest and tolerance of even the diligent.