Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, Ecuador was controlled by the Inca empire. Francisco Pizarro's subordinate, Benalcázar, entered the area in 1533. Not finding the wealth of the mythical El Dorado, he and other conquistadors, notably Gonzalo Pizarro and Orellana, moved restlessly on and the region became a colonial backwater. Given an audiencia in 1563 and established politically as the presidency of Quito, it was at various times subject to Peru and to New Granada. After an abortive independence movement in 1809, the region remained under Spanish control. It was liberated by Antonio José de Sucre in the battle of Pichincha (1822) and was joined by Simón Bolívar to Greater Colombia.
With the dissolution of that union in 1830, Ecuador, geographically isolated, became a separate state (four times its present size) under a constitution promulgated by its first president, Juan José Flores. Ecuador unsuccessfully attempted to annex Popayán prov. from Colombia by war in 1832 and occupied the Galápagos Islands that year. Boundary disputes led to frequent invasions by Peruvians in the 19th and 20th cent. The entire eastern frontier, known as Oriente, was in dispute. (In 1942, Ecuador signed a treaty ceding a large area to Peru, but in 1960 it renounced the treaty.)
Bitter internecine struggles between Conservatives and Liberals marked the political history of Ecuador in the 19th cent. The Conservatives, led by Flores and García Moreno (1821–75), supported entrenched privileges and the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church; the Liberals, led by Rocafuerte (1783–1847) and Alfaro (1867–1912) and championed by the writer Montalvo (1832–89), sought social reforms.
There have been a bewildering number of changes in government during the 20th cent. In 1925 the army replaced the coastal banking interests, dominant since 1916, as the ultimate source of power. Military juntas supported various rival factions, and between 1931 and 1940, 12 presidents were in office. José María Velasco Ibarra became president (for the second time) by a coup in 1944. He was ousted in 1947, and the next year Galo Plaza Lasso was chosen in free elections. During Plaza's regime there was unprecedented political reform. Velasco Ibarra was elected again in 1952 and sponsored improvements in roads and schools.
The first Conservative to rule in 60 years, Camilo Ponce Enríquez, followed (1956–60), but Velasco Ibarra was elected again in 1960. He was forced to resign the following year. His legal successor, Julio Arosemena Monroy, was deposed by a junta in 1963. Agitation for a return to civilian government led the military to remove the junta in 1966. A constitutional assembly installed Otto Arosemena Gómez as provisional president and drafted the country's 17th constitution. Velasco Ibarra was elected for the fifth time in 1968. Two years later, faced with economic problems and protests by leftist students, he assumed absolute power. Velasco promised to hold elections in June, 1972. However, the military deposed him in Feb., 1972, and canceled the elections.
Relations with the United States deteriorated in the early 1970s after Ecuador claimed that its territorial waters extended 200 mi (322 km) out to sea. Several U.S. fishing boats were seized by Ecuadorians, and U.S. aid to the country was suspended. In the same period Ecuador became Latin America's second largest oil producer. After Velasco's ouster, the military governed Ecuador until 1979, when a new constitution came into force and Jaime Roldós Aguilera was elected president. Following his death in 1981, he was succeeded by Osvaldo Hurtado Larrea. Hurtado faced many economic and political problems, including inflation, a large international debt, and a troubled oil industry, but his austerity programs failed to revive the economy.
León Febres Cordero Rivadeneira, who replaced Hurtado in 1984, was kidnapped in 1987 by a guerrilla group but was released in exchange for a former coup leader. Rodrigo Borja Cevallos was elected president in 1988, and in 1992 he was replaced by Sixto Durán Ballén. In 1990 the indigenous peoples organized a series of boycotts and demonstrations, known as "the Uprising," and in 1992 they were given title to a large area of rain forest in the eastern part of the country. That same year Ballén privatized many state-owned enterprises. In 1994 Ecuador reached agreement with creditor banks on a landmark foreign-debt rescheduling plan. Ecuador again clashed with Peru in a border war in 1995; in 1998 the countries signed an agreement finalizing their borders and giving Ecuador access to the Amazon River.
Despite some achievements, Ballén's government was compromised by several developments, including a severe energy crisis and criminal corruption charges against the vice president. New presidential elections, held in mid-1996, resulted in a victory for Abdalá Bucaram, an often flamboyant populist. After only six months in office, he was dismissed for mental incapacity by the congress, which chose its leader, Fábian Alarcón, as interim president, but Vice President Rosalía Arteaga declared herself Bucaram's legitimate successor. An agreement was reached granting Arteaga the position, but she abruptly resigned and Alarcón succeeded her as interim president for 18 months.
Jamil Mahuad Witt, the mayor of Quito, was elected in a presidential runoff in 1998, as the country went into an economic crisis stemming from a drop in oil prices, high inflation, and nearly $3 billion in damages from El Niño. The sucre, the national currency, plunged in 1999, bringing strikes and more economic turmoil, and Mahuad declared a series of states of emergency. In Jan., 2000, dissident military officers and thousands of Ecuadorans of indigenous descent attempted to oust Mahuad and establish a junta, Armed forces chief of staff Gen. Carlos Mendoza intervened and engineered the accession of Vice President Gustavo Noboa Bejarano to the presidency. In Mar., 2000, the congress approved legislation that made the U.S. dollar the national currency beginning in 2001, a move intended to stabilize the economy; it originally had been proposed by Mahuad.
In 2002 the presidential election campaign ended with a runoff victory by Lucio Gutiérrez Borbúa of the leftist January 21st Partriotic Society party. Gutiérrez, a former army colonel, was a leader of the dissident military forces that sparked Mahuad's removal from the presidency in 2000. The government, which had been elected on a promise of increasing social spending, adopted austerity measures to win a new loan from the International Monetary Fund. The move alienated many who had backed Gutiérrez, and made his government dependent on uncertain coalitions in the congress.
A bid to impeach the president (Nov., 2004) failed, and he subsequently won enactment of a reorganization of the supreme court, which he accused of favoring the opposition. That move, however, sparked protests and demonstrations (and counterdemonstrations) and led to a political crisis in early 2005. In April increasing street protests and the president's endorsement of the use of force to quell them led the congress to remove the president. Vice President Alfredo Palacio was sworn in as his successor, and Gutiérrez, who denounced his removal as unconstitutional, went into exile.
In Aug., 2005, protesters in NE Ecuador sparked a national crisis by disrupting the nation's oil industry. They called for more of the revenues to be invested in the Amazonian regions that produce the oil, and won concessions from the government and oil companies. Gutiérrez returned to Ecuador in Oct., 2005, in a bid to retake office, but he was arrested; he was released only in Mar., 2006, after the charges of endangering national security were dismissed.
Palacio, who lacked allies in congress and headed a government suffering from scandal and defections, also was frustrated with his inability to push political reforms through Ecuador's congress. In Oct., 2005, he proposed asking voters to approve holding a constitutional assembly instead, but abandoned the idea (Dec., 2005) after it was rejected by the nation's electoral tribunal. Meanwhile, in November, a new supreme court was finally sworn in. In Feb.–Mar., 2006, the country experienced a new series of demonstrations, by various groups calling for local investment of oil revenues, full-time jobs for oil contract workers, and an end to negotiations on a free-trade pact with the United States. The protests, which disrupted the economy and were sometimes violent, led the government to declare a state of emergency several times during the two months. In the first round of the presidential election in Oct., 2006, no candidate won a majority, forcing a runoff in November. Álvaro Noboa, the country's wealthiest person and a conservative, placed first with 27% of the vote; the runner-up, Rafael Correa, a leftist economist, secured 23%. In the runoff, however, Correa won 57% of the vote.
Correa sought a referendum to establish a national assembly for constitutional reform, which the congress approved in Feb., 2007. The question of the powers of the assembly set off a power struggle between the president (supported by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal), who favored unlimited powers, and the congress, which had approved the assembly with limited powers. A narrow congressional majority voted to remove the tribunal judges aligned with the president, and those judges then voted to remove 57 members of the congress; both moves were of uncertain constitutionality. Correa, buoyed by his popularity and supported by sometimes violent demonstrators, managed to retain the upper hand; the congress lacked a quorum until March, when sufficient substitute members were appointed.
In April, voters approved electing a national assembly to rewrite the constitution, and it was elected in September. Also in April, the consitutional tribunal first refused to hear the congress members' challenge concerning their dismissal and then called for them to be reinstated, but the congress then dismissed the members of the tribunal, and Correa ordered the police to prevent the dismissed members from returning to the congress. In Nov., 2007, the national assembly, dominated by Correa allies, suspended the congress, but a majority of that body subsequently defied that action and met outside the legislature. In July, 2008, the assembly adopted a new constitution that increased the president's powers, permitted a president to serve two consecutive terms, and strengthened the government's control over the economy. It was approved in a Sept., 2008, referendum.
A Colombian raid on rebels encamped in Ecuador in Mar., 2008, led to several days of tensions between Colombia and Ecuador, which mobilized troops to the Colombia border and broke diplomatic relations. Colombia said computer files seized in the raid had evidence of monetary support for Correa from the rebels. Colombia subsequently apologized for the raid, which the Organization of American states called a violation of Ecuadorian sovereignty and the OAS charter. Relations between Ecuador and Colombia, however, continued to be strained, and in Apr., 2010, Ecuador issued an arrest warrant in connection with the raid for Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian defense minister at the time; Santos was elected Colombia's president in June, 2010. The raid also led to the resignation of the leaders of Ecuador's armed forces after it was learned that Ecuadoran intelligence services had shared information about the rebels with Colombia but not alerted the presidency to it. Full relations with Colombia were finally reestablished in Dec., 2010.
In Nov., 2008, a government audit of Ecuador's debt said that roughly 40% had been illegally contracted and recommended not paying it. In December Ecuador stopped paying interest on much of that debt; by June, 2009, however, the government had repurchased 90% of the $3.2 billion in contested bonds for about a third of its face value. The government's actions subsequently made it difficult for it to borrow internationally. In elections (Apr., 2009) held under the new constitution, Correa was reelected, and the PAIS Alliance, his party, and its allies won 73 seats in the National Assembly.
Correa promised increased socialism in his second term, and in July, 2010, legislation ended oil and gas production contracts with private companies, forcing them to manage wells on a fee basis. In Oct., 2010, members of the police and military staged protests against the loss of bonuses and other benefits as part of austerity measures (required in part because of the government's limited ability to borrow), occupying barracks and blocking roads and runways. When Correa confronted police at the Quito barracks, he was teargassed and had to be hospitalized; he later was rescued from the hospital, which had been surrounded by police, by a special forces raid.
In May, 2011, Correa won voter approval for a number of political changes, including increased presidential power over the media and judiciary, but his margin of victory was narrower than had been expected. In 2011 and 2012 Correa won two libel cases against journalist critics; the nature of the cases and how they were prosecuted, the size of the judgments, and the prison sentences imposed in one of the cases led to international criticism by free-press advocates. He subsequently abandoned the cases and issued pardons to those involved. In Feb., 2013, Correa was easily elected to a third term, and his party won a majority in the assembly. In June, the National Assembly passed legislation that restricted press freedoms in an attempt to end coverage that the government regarded as unfair.