Ecuador spots hint of recovery in economy that heated up too fast

Ecuador ''simply grew at a speed faster than it should have,'' says auto dealer Bela Botar, explaining his adopted country's current economic difficulties.

With $6.2 billion owed to banks and lending institutions abroad, Ecuador's problems may appear dwarfed by those of Brazil and Mexico (each with some $90 billion in foreign debt).

Yet for Ecuador and its 6.8 million people, the current debt - coupled with a general business slowdown - has put a halt to the nation's economic growth, which in the 1970s propelled perhaps 800,000 Ecuadoreans into the middle class.

''We were galloping along too fast,'' Mr. Botar repeats for emphasis, ''and when the slowdown came, we were not ready for it.''

That slowdown, beginning in 1981, has included a business recession, inflation that this year is running higher than 60 percent, and an unemployment figure that nudges 10 percent.

Mr. Botar, who came here 34 years ago from his native Hungary, is in a variety of vehicle-related businesses: He owns a major Chevrolet dealership in Quito and is founder of Omnibus BB, a bus assembly plant on the northern edge of Quito.

Auto sales are down sharply, and he is having trouble getting dollars to bring in automobiles. But his assembly business has fared much better. After all , buses are needed in the mushrooming cities of Ecuador - Quito with 900,000 people, Guayaquil with 1.2 million.

The government, which holds the purse strings on dollars needed for imports, is inclined to grant them to essential businesses like Mr. Botar's bus-assembly plant, where they are used to acquire imported bus chassis. Last year, he imported 80 chassis and spare parts.

But his auto dealership, one of 60 here, has felt the pinch in many ways. He cannot get dollars to import new vehicles. Moreover, on automobiles he sold three or four years ago - when the economy was ''galloping along nicely,'' as he puts it - the purchasers took out loans with him in Ecuadorean sucres.

Since then, inflation has devalued the sucre by as much as 40 percent. The loans cost the purchasers less. But Mr. Botar has had to absorb a loss, because the sucres he receives have less purchasing power. He also doesn't forget that he imported the vehicles with dollars, not sucres, when the sucre had more value.

But he is something of an optimist. He says he believes the Ecuadorean economy is beginning to pull out of its slump.

So do many others. Vice-President Leon Roldos Aguilera, for example, says the inflation rate is manageable. The past two or three months, he adds, have registered cost-of-living increases ''at a much slower rhythm than before.''

He concludes that ''We are not in the same traumatic situation of other Latin American countries in which inflation becomes unmanageable.''

It may be small consolation to Ecuadoreans struggling with the country's cost-of-living increases this year that most economic observers agree. The inflation rate is slowing, although it is highest still in foodstuffs.

The economy in general is beginning to pick up. The unemployment rate dropped one-tenth of 1 percent in August. And exports of shrimp and other products have taken a sudden spurt.

The shrimp industry is an interesting new factor in the economy. It ''came out of nowhere,'' as one banker says, noting that it did not exist two or three years ago. In the first six months of 1983, it earned Ecuador $97 million, about one-twelfth of export earnings for all 12 months of 1982.

But oil remains the dominant factor in the export economy. Here, too, after several sluggish years, Ecuador is beginning to experience an increase in production and sales. Moreover, new exploration by foreign oil companies is expected to yield a variety of new fields. ''It is very promising,'' says a foreign oil official.

Additionally, the foreign-debt picture ''is improving,'' says President Osvaldo Hurtado Larrea, an economist who is now in the last year of his presidency. ''Renegotiation is helping, but so is the general upturn in the economy.''

That renegotiation is underway - and will probably terminate in a deferral of about $2 billion of the $6.2 billion debt. There is guarded hope in government and banking circles that with increased exports Ecuador will be able to make all payments in the new schedule and also step up imports slightly.

That, of course, would please Mr. Botar - especially if it allows him to import automobiles. It is also likely to help his bus-assembly business. In either case, it would assure employment for several hundred Ecuadoreans who are part of that middle class that grew so fast in the 1970s - and which needs to grow again if people in the marginal fringes of society (at least 60 percent of all Ecuadoreans) are to enjoy social mobility.

When Mr. Botar first came to Ecuador more than a generation ago, however, Ecuadoreans were either rich or poor - mostly the latter. There wasn't a middle class. Today it numbers more than 2 million people - largely the result of economic changes in the past 15 years.

''The need now is to sustain that,'' Mr. Botar says, ''and bring more people along.

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