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South America, Ecuador

Ecuador, republic in northwestern South America, bounded by Colombia on the north, by Peru on the east and south, and by the Pacific Ocean on the west. The country also includes the Galapagos Islands (Colon Archipelago) in the Pacific, about 965 km (about 600 mi) west of the mainland. Ecuador straddles the equator (Ecuador is the Spanish word for “equator”) and has an area of 272,045 sq km (105,037 sq mi). Quito is the country's capital.

Ecuador has a diverse population composed of people of European, Native American, and African descent. The majority are mestizos, individuals of mixed European and Native American ancestry. Most of the Native Americans live in poverty in the highlands region, where a small elite of European descent controls most of the land and wealth.

Ecuador was a Spanish colony until 1822, when independence forces won a decisive victory over Spain. Ecuador has had a democratically elected government since 1979, but historically the government has alternated between civilian rule and military dictatorship. Most political conflicts involved squabbles among groups within the upper classes who controlled the nation's wealth.

Agriculture dominated the economy of Ecuador until the 1970s, when the discovery of petroleum deposits brought added income to the nation. Although the money generated by the oil industry produced a decade of prosperity, it eventually caused a chaotic dislocation of the economy. The influx of cash resulted in price increases for many goods. In addition, because Ecuador had a limited manufacturing base, people spent the new oil money on consumer products imported from abroad, thus increasing Ecuador's foreign debt.

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