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Cuenca High Life
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Ecuador’s National Assembly has agreed to look into the legal management of the Coopera money laundering and embezzlement case. Coopera, a Cuenca-based financial cooperative, was closed by the government a year ago and its top officials were arrested.

Larriva Oswaldo Alvarado, president of the National Assembly’s Commission on Tax and Economic Issues says many questions remain unanswered about the case and that there has been a lack of “transparency” in legal proceedings. Alvarado has appointed a sub-committee that includes Cuenca assemblywoman Ximena Peña to examine the case.

Peña complains that her Cuenca constituents have received inadequate information from the court as well as government investigators and says the case has progressed too slowly.

“Our interest is in determining that the court operates transparently and efficiently,” Alvarado said, adding that he was not suggesting that there were specific irregularities. “The court is independent and autonomous but, by law, it is subject to oversight by the National Assembly.”

Alvardo says the subcommittee will question the Azuay Judicial Council, the court handling the Coopera case, not only about the legal schedule and process, but also about why management problems at the cooperative were detected sooner. “We are concerned about those harmed in this case and need to have a full accounting of what happened.”

The Coopera failure was one of Ecuador's largest financial debacles since the country's banking melt-down of 1999 and 2000. The closure affected more than 100,000 investors, including about 300 North American expats. Although most investors have been repaid by government regulators, those who have not are owed almost half of all deposits on coop books at the time of the closure.

Coopera’s general manager, chief financial officer, and auditor were arrested on charges of money laundering, with embezzlement charges added three months later. Federal and local law enforcement said that the three had been involved, with other Coopera investors, in sending money through Venezuelan banks in a multi-million-dollar laundering scheme. In August and September, six more Coopera employees and Board of Director members were arrested for a variety of financial crimes.

Meanwhile, Cuenca’s Cantonal Council has voted to revoke an award given to Coopera in 2009 for exemplary community service. Councilwoman Juanita Bersosa said it is only fitting that the Benigno Malo Medal be taken back, given the closure of the cooperative and the arrest of its managers.

This medal was presented four years ago by President Rafael Correa to Coopera manager Rodrigo Aucay.  Aucay is currently jailed in Azogues, awaiting trial.

Photo caption: President Rafael Correa with Coopera general manager Rodrigo Aucay during a campaign event. Aucay is currently in jail awating trial.


Ecuador's economy grew 4.5% in 2013, well above the official target of 4.05% but below the 5.1% growth registered in 2012.

In its quarterly report, the country's central bank said that last year's growth was driven by non-oil sectors, especially construction, which continued to be the growth engine of the Ecuadorean economy.

Non-oil sector activity expanded 4.9% last year, while oil activity increased by 1.4%.

In the fourth quarter of 2013, Ecuador's gross domestic product rose 5.6% from a year earlier and 1.2% from the third quarter.

Since President Rafael Correa's took office in 2007, much of Ecuador's economic growth has been based on public spending, driven by high oil prices and increased tax collections. The economy has grown on average by about 5% a year.

"The economic stability has not translated into a structural shift for higher investment and the private sector only represents 25% of the strategic oil sector," investment bank Jefferies said in a recent report.

Additionally, the bank said, there has been a notable deterioration in the fiscal performance with the need to finance the consolidated public sector deficit at 4% of GDP in 2013. There has been a deceleration in revenues that hasn't coincided with a slowdown in spending, Jefferies added.

In 2014, Ecuador expects growth of 4.5% to 5.1%. However, many economists believe the government's outlook is too optimistic because of a slowdown in the construction sector, the planned shutdown of Refineria Esmeraldas, Ecuador's biggest refinery, in the fourth quarter for an overhaul, and a restriction in local production caused by import substitution policies started by the government.

Alberto Acosta, an economist with private consulting firm Grupo Spurrier, expects growth of about 4% for 2014.

"It is likely that the government won't reach all the new financing that it needs and this year it will have fewer resources for public spending. Additionally, private sector construction has been affected by new restrictive rules on developement, which will have a negative influence on growth," said Acosta.

Contract for new oil refinery expected soon

Ecuador said on Wednesday it expects to sign a contract in June for the construction of a refinery known as the Refineria del Pacifico Eloy Alfaro, which will be the largest single infrastructure project in the country’s history.

Brazilian company Odebrecht is currently preparing the site where the refinery will be built. Ecuador’s Minister of Strategic Sectors, Rafael Poveda, said that the work is 85% complete and will be ready by June, at which point a builder for the refinery will be chosen.

The refinery is a joint project between state-owned Petroecuador and its Venezuelan counterpart, Petroleos de Venezuela, or PdVSA. China National Petroleum Corp., China’s largest oil and gas producer, is expected to become a partner in the project.

Ecuador has been negotiating with China National Petroleum and the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China since 2011 to raise financing for the project, which was announced in 2007.

Currently Petroecuador has a 51% stake in the project and PdVSA has 49%. Last June China National Petroleum Corp, or CNPC, signed a framework agreement with Ecuador to take a 30% share in the project, with Petroecuador maintaining its 51% and PdVSA having a 19% stake.

University students propose an expat tax

A political science club at Universidad Técnica del Norte (UTN) in Ibarra says it plans to take its campaign for an expat tax to Ecuador’s National Assembly.

Club president Javier Lara says that foreigners are often a burden on local resources and should help pay their way. “Foreign residents in Ecuador, especially in Imaburra Province, have had a negative impact on the local infrastructure. Most of them are elderly and require more services than younger, healthier residents,” he said. “They are also making it more difficult for Ecuadorians to afford to buy agricultural property that is needed to support their families. This has become a major problem in communities such as Cotacachi where a large number of foreigners have settled.”

Lara says he is in touch with several members of the National Assembly who support his efforts. “We are very encouraged about our efforts and are working with university student groups in other Latin American countries to achieve the same result.”  

A new study shows that 69% of homes in Cuenca are owned by their occupants. It is the highest rate of home ownership in Ecuador, according to the Ecuador Ministry of Economic and Social Inclusion.

The study, which is intended to provide information to government planners, also showed that 86% of residential dwellings are houses; that 62% of homes are owned outright with no mortgage; that 60% of all dwellings have between 100 and 200 meters of living space; and that the average mortgage is $338 a month, while renters pay an average of $390 a month.

One surprise from the survey, according to the ministry, is that only 3% of Cuencanos take advantage o national Social Security mortgage financing. The Bank of the Ecuadorian Institute of Social Security (BIESS) offers mortgages to all its members at below market interest rates. BIESS offers mortgages of as much as $125,000 for terms of up to 25 years.

The study showed that 51% of households in Cuenca’s urban areas had Internet service but only 19% in rural parts of the canton did.

According to the Cuenca Chamber of Construction, the areas with the highest rates of residential construction are Av. Ordonez Lasso, Misicata, Challuabamba, Hospital del Rio, Ricaurte, El Valle and Monay.

Heavy rains cause damage, fill rivers

Heavy rain Friday night and early Saturday morning caused extenstive flooding damage in the Bellavista and Sayausí neighborhoods of Cuenca.

In Bellavista, several retaining walls collapsed causing flooding in at least 20 homes. In Sayausí there was flooding of a number of household gardens as well as in the interiors of several homes.

The city public works office said that dozens of drains were clogged by debris around town, causing temporary street flooding, especially on the north and west sides of the city. The Yanuncay and Tomebamba Rivers were near flood stage in several areas, particularly around Tres Puentes and the Jefferson Perez Coliseum.

The national meteorology office said that it expected seasonal rains to continue in Cuenca and the southern Andean region of Ecuador through April. April is Cuenca’s wettest month, with average rainfall of more than three inches.

Latin American author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1982, died Thursday. He was 87. Garcia Marquez, the master of a style known as magic realism, was and remains Latin America's best-known writer.

His novels were filled with miraculous and enchanting events and characters; love and madness; wars, politics, dreams and death. And everything he had written, Garcia Marquez once said, he knew or heard before he was 8 years old.

A Writer Shaped By His Beginnings
Garcia Marquez was born in 1927 in the Colombian coast town of Aracataca, which experienced a boom after a U.S. fruit company arrived. In a 1984 interview with (U.S.) National Public Radio, he said his writing was forever shaped by the grandparents who raised him as a young child:

"There was a real dichotomy in me because, on one hand ... there was the world of my grandfather; a world of stark reality, of civil wars he told me about, since he had been a colonel in the last civil war. And then, on the other hand, there was the world of my grandmother, which was full of fantasy, completely outside of reality."

Garcia Marquez's grandfather, grandmother, their stories and their town became the raw material for his most famous work.

"One Hundred Years of Solitude is a towering book of enormous influence worldwide. And it is also as close as one could get to a perfect book," says Ilan Stavans, who wrote a biography of the author's early years, including the time Garcia Marquez spent as a newspaper journalist.

"He was a nobody," Stavans says. "He was really an unknown journalist and author of short stories, just beginning to make his career. He was, at that point, coming close to 40, and the fame and celebrity and this standing that he has as a literary giant of the 20th century really all coalesced in that particular moment when the book was published."

It was a unique moment in time, and One Hundred Years of Solitude struck a chord, says Gerald Martin, another Garcia Marquez biographer.

"You had to be in the 1960s. You had to be in the world of the Beatles and Third World revolution, psychedelia, lots of things, to understand now what impact the first page of that book had," Martin says. "It seemed to be a kind of writing that everybody had been waiting for. They didn't know they were waiting for it till it came. It was just one of those zeitgeist things."

Here's a taste of the book's first lines:

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time, Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point."

Martin says, "The first two lines, the first time you read them, you just felt, 'I've read this before. Where does this come from?' which is what [Garcia Marquez] felt when he first ... thought up the first line of the book."

Writing 'The Reality Of Latin America'

Garcia Marquez was part of a Latin American literature boom in the 1960s and '70s, along with Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes and Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, with whom Garcia Marquez differed sharply in his political beliefs. The Colombian got his leftist leanings from his grandfather, and they shaped his writing.

"I write mostly about the reality I know, about the reality of Latin America," Garcia Marquez said. "Any interpretation of this reality in literature must be political. I cannot escape my own ideology when I interpret reality in my books; it's inseparable."

His 10 novels include The Autumn of the Patriarch, about a Latin American dictator, but they also include a love story about two elderly people married to other people, Love in the Time of Cholera, which was made into a film in 2007.

'He Gives A Voice To Latin America'
Garcia Marquez titled his 1982 Nobel Prize acceptance speech "The Solitude of Latin America."

In it, he spoke about Latin America's wars, military coups, dictatorships and ethnocide:

"We, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of ... a new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth."

Chilean novelist Ariel Dorfman says the speech was one of the author's most important messages to the world.

"Garcia Marquez is speaking about all the people who are marginal to history, who have not had a voice," Dorfman says. "He gives a voice to all those who died. He gives a voice to all those who are not born yet. He gives a voice to Latin America."

Credit: National Public Radio;; Photo caption: Garcia Marquez in 1980.

Latin America is the world's most violent region, accounting for nearly one in three global homicides, according to data from a new study by the United Nations.

Latin America racked up some 134,519 homicides in 2012, about 31% of the total for that year, according to a tally by The Wall Street Journal of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime's Global Study on Homicide, its first since 2011. Yet the region's 574 million people comprise just 8% of the global population, according to U.N. figures.
As a whole, Latin America's per capita homicide rate is 23.4 per 100,000 people, nearly double the rate in Africa, which is sometimes mistakenly believed to be the most violent continent. Venezuela is the only country in the region with a consistently rising homicide rate since 1994, the report said.

There are some countries making dramatic improvements in murder rates as well as crime reduction in general, Ecuador being a notable example.

"Latin America as a region has the highest rate of criminal violence in the world," said Angela Me, the chief of research at the UNODC. "Yet parts of the region, like Chile and Argentina, have far lower homicide rates. The problem really is northern South America and Central America," including Mexico, she added.

The study tallied 440,000 homicides around the world during 2012, using mostly reports from law enforcement in member states. In some parts of Africa, the agency relied on estimates from the World Health Organization.

A combination of factors is to blame, said Alejandro Hope, a security expert at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a think tank: weak law enforcement institutions, a vibrant illegal narcotics trade that led to a growth in organized crime, a culture of violence, economic inequality, and the region's chaotic urbanization of the past three decades, which created rings of slums around mega cities.
Brazil, the host for this year's World Cup soccer tournament, has more overall homicides than any country, at 50,108, accounting for one in 10 globally, followed by India, with 43,355 murders in 2012.

Brazil's Justice Ministry, asked about the numbers, said it has four priority programs in boosting public safety, and pointed to success stories like police pacification units in the slums, or favelas, of Rio de Janeiro.

Parts of Brazil, including São Paulo, are indeed far safer than the country's violent northeast, where crime is rising fast.

Just four Latin American nations—Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia—accounted for nearly 107,000 homicides in 2012, nearly one in every four global killings.

Of the top 10 nations ranked by per capita homicide rate, and excluding tiny nations with fewer than 100 killings a year, Latin America has the top five nations and seven of the top 10, according to The Wall Street Journal's ranking of the data. The only three non-Latin American countries in the top 10 were Lesotho, Swaziland and South Africa.

Honduras is the world's most dangerous country outside a war zone, with 90.4 homicides per 100,000, compared with a global average rate of 6. Second is Venezuela, with 53.7 homicides per 100,000 people, up from 47.8 in 2011.
Afghanistan, by contrast, had a homicide rate of 6.5 per 100,000 in 2012, and probably a similar rate of deaths due to the country's conflict, said Ms. Me.

Southern Africa, which makes up just Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland, can still claim the title as the world's most violent subregion. But even there, violent crime is on the decline. South Africa's rate has fallen from 64.9 in 1995 to 31 in 2012, for instance. Latin America, meanwhile, shows a slight increase in crime per capita since 1995, with a big exceptions being Ecuador and Colombia.

Although Colombia’s murder rate remains high, it has been dropping consistently over the past five years. Ecuador appears poised to drop below 10 murders per 100,000 in 2014, which will give it a rate among the lowest in the region. According its Ministry of the Interior, Ecuador has greatly enlarged its police forces, which has helped reduce crime.

The Americas as a continent now tops Africa in terms of homicide rate. The Americas has 16.3 homicides per 100,000 people, followed by Africa with 12.5. The last UNODC survey showed a homicide rate of 15.5 for the Americas compared with Africa at 17.4 per 100,000.

Ms. Me said the most surprising thing to her in the data was the persistence of criminal violence in the Americas over time. The U.N. group looked at data since 1955 and found the Americas, including the U.S., had at least five times higher homicide rates than Europe and parts of Asia.

"Europe was only 10 years from a violent war, so how is it that even back in 1955 the Americas were so much more violent?" Ms. Me said.

The U.S. homicide rate is 4.7 per 100,000—well above every other industrialized country.
The Americas also had the highest rate of guns as the cause of homicide—with 66% of the homicides caused by guns versus 28% in Africa and Asia and 13% in Europe.

However, not all Latin America is a hotbed of violent crime. Southern South America—Chile, Argentina and Uruguay—have crime rates roughly similar to the U.S. There is far less organized crime and better policing in those nations compared to the rest of the region, Mr. Hope said.

Credit: The Wall Street Journal,; Graphic credit: The Wall Street Journal

The number of tourists visiting Cuenca has risen 276% since 2008, the highest rate of growth in Ecuador.

Patricio Miller, president of the Azuay Chamber of Tourism, says the increase is due in large part to strong promotional campaigns by several government agencies. He also says that international media coverage of Cuenca has put the city in the spotlight, making it one of the most attractive destinations in Ecuador.

The Ministry of Tourism has sponsored tourism exhibits at the world’s top tourism fairs, he says, including the World Travel Market in London, Fitur in Madrid, as well as fairs in Berlin, Brazil and Costa Rica.

According to the Cuenca Municipal Tourism Foundation, since 2008 the number of tourists visiting Cuenca has grown from 300,000 to 830,000 annually. In 2013, 220,000 of those tourists were foreigners. Miller said the increase was especially dramatic among Europeans, especially Germans and citizens of Scandinavian countries.

The Azuay Association of Hoteliers reports that more than 20 new hotels have opened in the last year, bringing the number of hotel rooms to more than 7,000 in the city. They say that three larger hotels that are currently under construction will add more capacity as well as fill the need for five-star accommodations.

Transit agency may regulate taxi fares nationally

Although taxi owners unions in several cities, including Cuenca, are pressing for a fare increase, the National Transit Agency (ANT) says that technical studies are needed to determine a nationwide fare schedule.

Deputy director of the National Transit Agency (ANT), Gustavo Hinojosa, says that his agency has not approved new rates for any city and that it won’t until studies are completed.

Taxi unions reacted to Hinojosa, saying that they had been told that new fare schedules would be approved once meters are in operation in the nation’s taxis. Last week was the deadline for meter use throughout the country with the excpetion of Cuenca, were meters will be required by May 31.

Jorge Calderon, president of the National Federation of Transport Taxi Operators (Fedotaxi) insists that studies have already been completed and that there is no need for a delay in raising fares. ”We were under the impression that we had an agreement with ANT on the issue and there is no reason to delay implementation of new rates. The current schedule was developed 11 years ago and it’s time to adjust it for inflation.’

President dedicates new education university

President Rafael Correa helped dedicate the new National University of Education (UNAE) in Azoguez on Monday. The university, which opened with 24 students in March, is intended to improve teacher education in Ecuador from the elementary to the university level. UNAE is one of four national universities that the government calls “millennium institutions.”

According to Correa and Ecuador Minister of Education Augusto Espinosa, the university will have 2,000 students by September and will include an international faculty.

According to Espinosa, UNAE is intended to bring Ecuador’s educational system up to international standards. “This institution will lead the way to making our education programs not just the best in Latin America but also competitive with all programs around the world.”

By Alyson Penn

"Tell me, what is your favorite brand of watches? Your favorite brand of chocolate? Your favorite brand of champagne?"

"Now, what is your favorite brand of roses?"

It is with these questions that Alejandro Henao piqued my interest when introducing me to Sisaluna, his direct-order Ecuadorian rose company, which officially launches in the U.S. April 23. Expecting my stunted response, he goes on to explain that there simply are no branded roses. At least, until now.

"What we want is to make our clients proud to buy our Sisaluna roses," Henao said. "So tomorrow, when somebody gives you roses, they’re not giving you roses, they’re give you Sisaluna roses, right? There’s a whole concept, but we want to back it up with a social commitment and responsibility."

One year ago, Henao and his business partner, Luis Armendaris, came up with the idea of starting their own farm-direct, socially and economically responsible rose company in their hometown of Quito, Ecuador. Looking to partner with a Ecuadorian charity, the friends collaborated with People Helping People Ecuador (PHP), an American-based organization that is dedicated to the welfare of people of the Andean region.

"We’ve been asked before to attach our names to things and we’ve always said 'no,'" said Bonnie Lunt, director of PHP Ecuador. "What I said to them was that I needed to see the plantation. I was really grateful when I saw it and it was green, and they didn’t use harsh chemicals or children. This plantation was like a breath of fresh air for us. It’s a win-win for all of us."

Sisaluna plans to become the first e-commerce flower firm that is "seriously committed" to its surrounding communities, with part of its proceeds going directly to PHP, which has built schools and health-care centers in the region. Additionally, Henao says the company's farms comply with all the local and international regulations regarding chemicals and labor — there are no child workers and 72% of employees are single moms.

Sisaluna prides itself on a top-quality product. Henao explained that Ecuador's diverse ecology and location in the Andes at 10,000-feet above sea level allows for a superior rose — the world's best.

The company also cuts its roses later in their lives than many Ecuadorian rose growers who cater to the American market, which means they last anywhere from 10 to 15 days, compared to an average of 4 to 6 days for flowers that are cut earlier.

It's known as the Russian style of growing and cutting roses. "The Russians love roses," said Lunt. "Americans believe the rose has to be cut early and at the bud stage. But if you wait until the rose is opened a little bit further, the rose is stronger and it lasts longer."

But immaculate care and quality doesn't exactly come cheap. Sisaluna sells its roses in bundles of 50 for $150, including 5-6 day shipping (they are only available by direct order on Sisaluna's website, and delivered by UPS).

That may seem steep compared to two-dozen-for-$10 deals at the corner bodegas of New York City, but compared to other direct-order businesses like 1-800-Flowers which charges more than $200 for two dozen of their "best" roses — it doesn't seem so unreasonable after all. This is, in part, because Sisaluna cuts out the middle man, selling directly to consumers.

And those bodega flowers never last more than a day or two.

Sisaluna goes to serious lengths to ensure its quality. "The security at these plantations is intense; you have to be screened really carefully," said Lunt. "Also, a lot of these plantations have secret hybrid roses that they’re processing. They’re very careful not to let anybody near those buildings because they’re terrified of any kind of germs or diseases. Just one bad bacteria can wipe out a whole plantation, and that’s happened before."

The company's commitment to abide by child labor laws is also a major step. In 2012, The Atlantic reported that around one in a dozen stems sold in the U.S. were cut by child laborers in Ecuador, which supplies the bulk of America's long-stem roses. The Atlantic also cited a 2000 report claiming that 80% of the workers in Ecuador's flower industry were children.
"We want to break that label that the floral culture industry has — that they use pesticides, that they go against the environment, that they hire kids, that they don’t pay for incomes," said Henao.

Henao said he eventually hopes to revolutionize the whole culture surrounding roses. While he initially expects surges in orders around Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, he predicted the demand would eventually stabilize as flower fans re-order year-round. He forecasts that the compay will sell around 700 boxes, or 35,000 roses, a month.

"Sisalunas are roses that enhance your world, your life, and make you happy and proud that you’re buying the best roses in the world," says Haneo."That’s our slogan."

Credit: Photo caption: Distinctive packaging is a highlight of the Sisaluna brand.

Editor's note: Cuenca's Easter soup, fanesca, is considered by many to be the best in Latin America and it is a tradition among Cuencanos to have at least one bowl of it during Holy Week. It is considered so good, in fact, that it was the cover story for New Yorker magazine in 2005. Although it has traditionally been served only during Holy Week, many mercado food courts vendors and and restaurants have been dishing it up since last weekend. After this week, though, it's wait till next year.

It’s a busy time of year for Juan Diaz at Cuenca’s 10 de Agosto Mercado on Calle Larga. Although he usually helps his wife, Rosa, manage the family vegetable stall, in the weeks before Easter he is busy assembling the ingredients for fanesca, the traditional Ecuadorian soup served during Holy Week.”

“I have more than 30 customers and they depend on me to find everything they need,” says Diaz, who visits other vendors in the market, collecting the needed items. “It takes hours to find all of the ingredients so I do it for them and save them the time.”

Among the ingredients Diaz collects and puts in paper sacks, each bearing the hand-written name of a customer, are bacalao seco, or salted cod, used for the soup base, beans, peas and a variety of grains, including lupine, fava, lima beans, quinoa, lintels and corn. He also collects, to individual order, a variety of other ingredients including squash, pumpkin, potatoes, plantains and eggs. Most of customers, he says, buy their own herbs and spices.

Diaz emphasizes the point that a true fanesca must contain 12 grains, representing the 12 apostles of Christ. “We can never forget the meaning of the soup and that is about the Holy Week and Easter,” he says.

As important as finding all the ingredients, it is the preparation of fanesca that determines its true measure. Although it can be made in as little as 24 hours, conissoures say the best takes days. The cod must be soaked several times in milk or water over a two or three day period. The grains are often soaked and pre-cooked and some require husking. The process is a labor of love passed down through generations, and each family has its own tradition of preparation.

In Cuenca, as in most of Ecuador, fanesca is served as a family meal on Good Friday, in the early afternoon. It is the main course and is often accompanied by mashed potatoes, salad and dessert. Fanesca easily rivals the Christmas Eve dinner as the most important meal of the year.
Who makes the best fanesca?

Although arguments have raged for years about which part of Ecuador has the best fanesca, Cuencana Rosa Vintimilla, author of “Fanesca de Fanescas,” says the idea of a competition is pointless. “There is no such thing as an authentic fanesca,” says Vintimilla. “There are many recipes and most of them, if they are prepared properly, are very good. Ingredients and tastes vary from one part of the country to the other so all fanescas have their unique qualities.”

She also points out that opinions about fanesca are generally a family matter. “Each family has its own fanesca and the tradition has been passed down from mother to daughter for many years,” says Vintimilla. “If you ask me who made the best fanesca, I will always tell you that it was my grandmother.”

Cuenca’s fanesca attracted international attention in 2005 when it was featured prominently in a New Yorker article by Calvin Trillin, associate editor for the magazine and columnist for the New York Times and the Nation. Trillin, who has visited Cuenca on several occasions, wrote a personal memoir about his quest for Cuenca’s best fanesca during a visit where he brushed up on his Spanish. The literary equivalent of television food celebrity Anthony Bourdain, and the author of many books and articles on food around the world, Trillin adopted a keen interest not only in eating the famous soup but understanding its origins.

He wrote: “My first trip to one of Cuenca’s markets made it obvious that I was about as close to the source of fanesca’s ingredients as I could get without living in the middle of a bean patch. All the vegetables and spices required—corn, for instance, and fava beans and a couple of kinds of squash—grow in the area, and some of them apparently don’t make it as far as Guayaquil, which is only thirty minutes away by air. That may be because the distribution system seems to consist largely of indigenous women who come to the market from the countryside, many of them in the bright-colored flared skirts and high-crowned Panama hats that can make even a small woman of some years look rather, well, zippy.”

Where to find fanesca

For those who are not Cuenca natives, restaurants are the logical fanesca option during Holy Week. Although some serve fanesca the entire week, most offer it only after Wednesday. Where to go? Rosa Vintimilla recommends Villa Rosa, El Jardin and La Maiz in El Centro, and Rancho Chileana near the airport on Av. España.

For a more colorful and authentic option, consider eating your soup in the food court of one of the city´s ten indigenous mercados. Several vendors at the 10 de Agosto market, where Juan Diaz gathers ingredients for Cuenca families, are known for serving up a top-notch brew.

Ultimately, Diaz agrees with Vintimilla that the quality of the soup is in the mouth of the beholder. “I do my job to find the things that go into the soup. Then, it is up to the cooks to make it good.”

Photo captions: Rosa Vintimilla's authoritative text on fanesca (available in local bookstores), and the 2005 New Yorker cover.

Ecuador Environmentalists say they have collected enough signatures to force a referendum on the question of whether the Yasuní National Park in the Amazon should be opened to further oil exploration.

They ay 755,147 people had signed the petition for a national vote, well above the 585,000 required by Ecuadorian law.

Since late February, referendum supporters, or Yasunidos, as they are called, have been out in force collecting signitures. Although they covered the entire country, they concentrated on the large cities of Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca.

President Rafael Correa has promised that any oil earnings from the park would be used for poverty alleviation and that oil production will cause minimal environmental damage.

But critics say one of the world's most biodiverse areas could be severely damaged.

"With these signatures we are certain that the popular consultation vote will go ahead," Carla Espin, a Yasunidos told reporters in Quito.

The signatures, which came from as far away as Australia, Mexico and Europe, still need to be validated by the Ecuadorian electoral authorities. Government officials say there are questions about whether the wording of the petition will be acceptable as well as about the legitimacy of the signatures collected.

It would then be up to the Constitutional Court to authorize a referendum on the issue.

Limited oil exploitation has been taking place in parts of Yasuní, which covers nearly 10,000 sq km (3,860 sq miles), since the 1970s.

But last year President Rafael Correa abandoned a conservation plan that would have seen rich nations pay Ecuador not to drill in previously untouched parts of the park.

Correa said the initiative had attracted only a fraction of the $3.6 billion it had aimed to raise, leaving Ecuador with no choice but go ahead with drilling. Oil is the country's main export.

There were protests in Quito against his decision.

The park supports a huge variety of wildlife, including unique species of birds, monkeys and amphibians.

It is also home to the Huaorani and other indigenous people who had virtually no contact with the outside world until recent decades.
Yasuni oilfields hold an estimated 846 million barrels of crude, 20 percent of Ecuador's reserves.

Credit: BBC News,; Photo captions: Yasuni and area map

Cuenca’s Foundation Holidays kicked off officially Thursday night with a parade on Av. Loja. Police estimate that about 10,000 turned out for the event.

The holidays mark the 457th anniversary of Cuenca’s founding by the Spanish. In November, there’s an even larger celebration as the city commemorates the date when the Spanish were kicked out of town. “In Cuenca, we take any occasion for a party,” said Fernando Ortiz, member of the committee that stages the foundation celebrtion.

The event has been in full swing in some sections of town since Thursday morning as another parade snaked its way through the historic district, near the cathedral, and crafts and food vendors set up booths in city plazas and along the Rio Tomebamba. A third parade, this one of high school student bands and dancers, steps off today at 10 a.m. from Parque San Blas, heading up Calle Simon Bolivar to Parque Calderon.

Historians have issued their annual statement pointing out that Cuenca was actually established long before 1557. “We should never forget that our real ancestors, the Cañari, established a settlement in the valley more than 1,500 years ago,” says retired history professor Juan Gonzalez. “In fact, there were large groups living in this area as long ago as 4,000 years." Cuenca was called Guapondeleg when it was the center of the Cañari nation.  The Incas, in their 75-year reign in the city, called it Tomebamba.

Dozens of city parks, plazas and markets are presenting live entertainment, food and crafts through Sunday, April 12.

The municipal tourism office estimates that 30,000 visitors are in town for the festivities.

Photo caption: Spectators lined Calle Simon Bolivar Thursday morning to watch one of several parades in the historic district.

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