The visit of Ecuador's President Oswaldo Hurtado Larrea to the United States for a round of official meetings this spring was of marginal interest to all but the few Americans who can place Ecuador on a map and whose livelihood depends upon that country's well-being. When told I spent some time there last year, friends invariably asked about the dangers of traveling in a country undergoing civil war, confusing Ecuador with the other Latin country beginning with ''E'' and ending with ''ador.''
In fact, Ecuador is quite peaceful, lacking the problems of insurgent guerrilla activity which its better-known neighbors, Colombia and Peru, are experiencing. Its attitude toward the rest of the hemisphere is sufficiently enlightened that it could host a hemisphere-wide conference on human rights in South America and have its participants welcomed by the nation's vice-president.
''Ecuador has a severe inferiority complex,'' a State Department officer explained to me before my trip. It was a comment easily dismissed as Foggy Bottom chauvinism, yet in meeting the people and traveling their land, I found, surprisingly, many Ecuadorians echoing that sentiment.
The country is the butt of nationalistic jokes by Colombia to the north. It is troubled along its eastern frontier by Peru. The source of more than half of the country's foreign exchange is petroleum pumped from oil fields by a US multinational, Texaco. During last summer's World Cup soccer matches in Spain, Ecuadorians cheered every goal, yet their own team failed to qualify for international competition. Even Ecuador's fashionable straw hats, one of its most admired exports, are misnamed for a country 800 miles to the north, Panama.
Torrential rains last fall caused crop failure and flooded entire villages, devastating an already stagnant economy, yet the problem was initially aided not by bank loans but by an international telethon, with viewers in Ecuador and the US donating money to save the country from destitution. And although huasipungo, institutionalized indentured servitude, ended 20 years ago, sometimes social progress in Ecuador seems to move only slightly faster than the giant sea turtles on its famed Galapagos Islands.
Relations between the US and Ecuador are good, and unlikely to change any time soon. The country fairly crawls with Peace Corps volunteers, and has since that program began. The US Agency for International Development has big projects in both countryside and cities. Most gringo missionaries are tolerated in coastal towns, Andean villages, and the Amazon jungle. Norteamericanos in Ecuador experience almost none of the animosity we have earned elsewhere.
The only official point of contention between Ecuador and the US was resolved last March when Washington lifted an embargo on Ecuadorian tuna fish. The only formal aid request President Hurtado made during his visit was for a line of credit to buy agricultural products so that Ecuador's $6 billion foreign debt will not balloon further, or at least not as quickly. On the East-West scorecard , Ecuador appears safely out of the Soviet sphere of influence.
Ecuador's democracy, now wobbling toward the end of its fourth year, has been shaken by a 60 percent currency devaluation in about a year's time. Neither the general strike and major demonstrations in March, provoked by price rises and an austerity program, nor massive floods have changed the character of the country. It is a low-profile nation whose international obscurity is interrupted only during mud slides, when its border war with Peru flares, when it hosts an OPEC (Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries) meeting, or when one of its magnificent volcanoes erupts.
Yet to a large extent, Ecuador's stability, like other nations just rising above the bottom of the third world, is determined by factors beyond its borders which it is powerless to influence. The ''debtors cartel,'' which Ecuador is promoting, is a plan to revise international debt repayment from broke Latin American nations. It only serves to emphasize Ecuador's untenable economic situation.
As Ecuador lurches toward industrialization, its inferiority, at least in the international community, seems due more to uncontrollable currents in the world's economies than to any flaw in its national psyche. President Hurtado's visit underscored that condition, even as it celebrated our friendship.