Take a stretch of Pacific Coast halfway between the North and South Poles, edge it with tropical rain forest, add in mile-high plateaus intersected by deep , river valleys and crisscrossed by 18,000-foot Andean mountains, including some of the world's highest volcanoes, touch it with forest-clad mountains, Amazonian jungle, and the headwaters of the Amazon - and you have Ecuador.

Or almost. You also have to add some of the world's most colorful people. At least 40 percent of Ecuador's 6.5 million people are pure Indian, descendants of the vast Inca empire that ruled from southern Colombia to northern Chile in pre-Hispanic times. Another 40 percent are mestizos, people of mixed Indian-European descent. The remainder are a mix of European, black, and Asian.

In many ways, this land that takes its name from the equator that it straddles, is two nations, two peoples. Half the population lives in the coastal region west of the Andes, the other half in the Andean sierra - their lifestyles , their roles vigorously different.

Many are virtually outside the mainstream economy, which in the past was centered largely on bananas and Panama hats. Recently Ecuador has experienced a modest economic boom, chiefly due to the discovery of oil and industrialization. But the country has been hard hit this month with torrential rains, which have turned the coastal plain into a muddy disaster area. This will undoubtedly adversely affect the economy this year. Oil income, too, is proving fickle, as it is for other oil-producing nations. Like other Latin American countires, Ecuador is saddled with a huge foreign debt ($8 billion), mortgaging the nation's future.

Among South American lands, Ecuador is second smallest. It makes up in color and vigor, however, what it may lack in size. But bigger neighbors like Colombia and Peru have chipped away at Ecuadorean territory over the years - and a serious border dispute ruffles relations between Ecuador and Peru. They appeared on the verge of war two years ago.

Neither needed the conflict. And Ecuador in the two years has focused on strengthening its fragile democracy in hopes of overcoming the legacy of a history in which government usually was run haplessly by the military or desultorily by civilians. This scenario dates back to the l9th century when pro-church conservatives and anti-church (but nonetheless Roman Catholic) liberals kept the nation in turmoil. Military rule came and went, especially after l895.

No legitimately elected president served out his term until Galo Plaza Lasso was elected in 1948. His term started a l5-year era of relative political stability and constitutional rule, sparking democratic yearnings in Ecuadoreans.

But it was not to last. A military junta seized power in 1963 and Ecuador slipped back into the more typical political patterns of instability - from which it is only now beginning to emerge. Civilian, democratic rule is again in place, and there is widespread hope that this new democratic era will last.

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