In the late 1990s, with their country mired in a deep economic crisis, two million Ecuadorians - from a total current population of 15 million - packed their bags and left. Some of them were university graduates who failed to get their diplomas recognized by Spanish education authorities. As a result, they ended up working as waiters, dishwashers, cooks and construction workers.
Now, the Ecuadorian government of Rafael Correa wants these qualified citizens to go back home to a job more in line with their schooling. The goal is to lay the groundwork for a knowledge-based economy that is less dependent on oil production. That is why 772 graduates out of a community of 262,000 expats registered as living in Spain (using official 2011 figures) are sitting the first part of an examination for an Ecuadorian government program known as Plan Retorno Educación (or, the Education Return Plan).
Passing applicants will become grade school and high school teachers with a salary of 616 euros a month, compared with the average wage in Ecuador of 263 euros. There are 10,000 teaching positions up for grabs, and the Ecuadorian state says that successful applicants will be earning 20 percent above average in recognition of the "intercultural enrichment" gained from living in another country.
Galo Chiguano, a 55-year-old mathematician, and his friend José Izurrieta (he has a Basque great-grandfather), a 53-year-old industrial engineer, have been studying hard for the exam for the last two months. Chiguano already worked as a teacher back home, but the crisis pushed him to come to Spain 13 years ago. Although he did take the necessary steps to get his diploma accepted by Spanish education authorities, he now works as an armed security guard; before the Spanish crisis hit, he was a substitute teacher at a private academy. Since he has no partner and his daughter is all grown up, leaving is no problem for him.
Things are more complicated for Izurrieta, who arrived in Spain 15 years ago and has spent the last two of those years "almost homeless," because he cannot find a job. If he passes the test, José will go back to Ecuador and leave behind his wife, his daughter and his mortgage. "We have 10 years left to pay, and if we leave we lose the house. It's not worth renting it out because prices have gone down," he says. The family is paying a monthly mortgage of 880 euros, less than what he would make in Ecuador if he passed the exam.
This engineer would like to be a math teacher and start his own business. "I would like to open a vocational training school to teach trades," he says. "But you need money for that, to buy the tools and the machinery, and I don't have it," explains Izurrieta, who also completed a master's degree in foreign trade and marketing from UNED, the distance university. "Practically no university graduate got his degree ratified. It's complicated to deal with legal requirements, classes and bureaucracy at the same time. If I was working, how could I find the time to sign up for the equivalent here of the [Ecuadorian] courses that they would not recognize as valid?"
"Not just anyone is going to pass. We seek excellence," warns the Ecuadorian ambassador to Spain, Aminta Buenaño. The examination comprises a specific knowledge test, a linguistic section and a psychometric test. Candidates who pass all three with a grade of 70 percent or more will go on to an interview to demonstrate personal merit. For now, the examinations are only taking place in Spain. In fact, there is a chance that Spanish teachers will end up covering some of the demand for the 10,000 positions.
Ambassador Buenaño figures that life in Ecuador is four times cheaper than in Spain, making the offer "dignified, serious and with a future."
"Ecuadorians make up the largest Spanish-speaking foreign community in Spain, and the crisis has defined three modes of survival," she adds. "Move to the United States or to a different EU country; return to Ecuador and deal with the crisis honorably; or remain in Spain and try to be part of the solution."
Last year, 46,000 registered Ecuadorians moved back home. Around 100,000 are unemployed and still in Spain, and only a quarter of these are collecting monthly unemployment checks of around 500 euros.
"The decade between 1996 and 2006 was catastrophic for Ecuador. We suffered the 1999 crisis, which caused a massive exodus," explains Pablo Cevallos, deputy education minister for Ecuador, during a visit to Spain. "The state lost control of public education, of the agenda, of prices... And in the midst of that deep crisis - public sector teachers were permanently on strike - private education prospered in the big cities."
To this dire situation, Ecuador added a lack of resources - really basic material such as maps or dictionaries - as well as entire parts of the country without schools, leaving children there to their fate. "Besides that, teachers were demoralized, earning very little, being insufficiently trained, and too authoritarian," he says.
Cevallos thinks that things started to change when his party, Alianza País, took power. "The education budget tripled from one billion euros," he says. "But that is not enough. These resources have to be used efficiently."
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has defined his administration as "the government of migrants," and said he feels the exodus of fellow Ecuadorian as "an open wound" that needs to be healed. Besides the education program, the country has launched a similar project to find qualified health professionals. And because demand is higher than what Ecuador has to offer, 63 Spaniards have already applied for a position.