Ecuador lures back its diaspora with social spending and opportunity

Since taking office in 2007, President Correa has reached out to Ecuadoreans living abroad, offering scholarships and relocation benefits

AP/Dolores Ochoa
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa waits for the arrival of a visiting dignitary at the entrance of the government palace in Quito, Ecuador, Nov. 10, 2014.

Last April, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa took his weekly radio show "Enlace Cuidadano" on the road to the Italian city of Genoa. He wasn't there for the salami.

Instead he implored Genoa's Ecuadorean expatriate population - the largest in Italy - to come home. "Our government of the Citizens’ Revolution, is your government, the government of migrants," he emphatically told them.

There are almost 100,000 Ecuadoreans residing in Italy, and Spain and the United States are home to nearly 500,000 Ecuadoreans each. But pushed by the ongoing economic weakness in Europe and unemployment in the US, and pulled by booming social spending in Ecuador, a growing number of migrants are returning to their home country.

Since taking office in 2007, Mr. Correa has reached out fervently to Ecuadoreans living abroad. Those living in the diaspora can now vote in presidential and national assembly elections.

A key part of Correa's pitch is Plan Bienvenido a Casa: Por un Regreso Voluntario, Digno y Sostenible or, "Welcome Home: For a Voluntary, Dignified and Sustainable Return." Return migrants can repatriate their belongings duty-free, qualify for business loans from the state, and receive employment assistance during the first few months back.

“Ecuador has been experiencing growing rates of return migration for about five years now,” says Gioconda Herrera, a sociologist focused on international migration at Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales Sede Ecuador. “The 2008 economic crisis affected the two countries where most Ecuadoreans live abroad. Many people have since come back looking for stable work. But deportations have also increased this trend.”

Ms. Herrera says most migrants left the country in the 1980s and ‘90s, during a period of high inflation and a banking crisis that wiped out many families’ savings. Middle-class students and professionals from the two largest cities, Quito and Guayaquil, left for Europe and the US seeking work or advanced degrees. But working-class Ecuadoreans from rural counties in the north and south also left during this period, often with the help of smugglers who would charge them thousands of dollars to take them illegally across the US-Mexico border. Stricter immigration enforcement over the past five years has meant more deportations of undocumented Ecuadoreans from the US.

Deportations have fluctuated between 2,000 and 3,000 a year since 2008, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, DC think tank.

'Here to stay'

Leonor Jurado, is part of a new generation of professional Ecuadoreans who have come home. She spent almost 17 years living in Missouri, where she earned a master’s degree in Fine Arts.

“I would read the news about all the positive social changes going on in Ecuador under Correa, and about the need for professionals to teach at the university level,” says Ms. Jurado. “By 2012 I was feeling disillusioned with the economic situation in the US, and I realized that finding a stable job as a college professor was an almost impossible mission.”

Earlier this year, Jurado packed her belongings and moved back to Quito. It took her less than two months to find a teaching job at Universidad de las Américas, one of Ecuador’s top private universities.

“I have a well-paid, stable job now,” she says on the eve of the six-month anniversary of her return. “I’m still processing a lot of the changes in my daily life, but I’m here to stay now.”

Regardless of their circumstances abroad, Correa has encouraged the diaspora to return home. His so-called “Citizens’ Revolution” emphasizes the value of human capital; of the skills and education that many Ecuadoreans may have acquired abroad that could be of use to the country’s top industries, like agriculture, oil exploitation, government, and educational institutions.

"Without human talent Ecuador won't advance," Correa said in a 2012 speech aggressively promoting his program that encourages return migration and promotes scholarships for Ecuadoreans abroad. "We lack the minimum critical mass of top-flight professionals needed to spur the country's development.”

Correa’s invested in brain gain, paying as much as $250,000 per each undergraduate and graduate student’s education, so long as they pass a qualifying exam to get an advanced degree abroad and pledge to come work at home. In the past two years, an average of 2,000 Ecuadoreans have benefitted from this program, which requires them to return upon graduation to work for a government or academic institution for at least two years.

Jurado says that now that she's in Quito, she hears of other young and professionals who are coming back in search of good jobs. 

“Ecuador is amid a process of a lot of growth and modernization,” she says. “Many young people here are living on credit and on excessive consumption, like they do in the States. Still, I believe that in Ecuador, I'll have a better quality of life.”

– Reporting from Ecuador was made possible by a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.

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