From Mexico to Argentina, the countries of Hispanic America (Portuguese-speaking Brazil had a different experience) followed similar patterns after independence. In almost every case, the oligarchy that had brought about the break with Spain would split into two: liberals, who were anticlerical and looked to the United States for inspiration (often enough receiving American funding in return), and conservatives, who favoured retaining the key role of the Church in national life, and often looked to the monarchies of Europe for role models, if not funding.
Other issues separated them, but these varied from country to country: in one, conservatives might push for centralisation and liberals local autonomy; in another country it might be the reverse. At times elections determined who would hold the presidency – but often enough it was a coup or a revolution that decided.
Until 1861, that is how things had been for the Republic of Ecuador. In that year, in the aftermath of insurrection and Peruvian invasion, the country’s General Assembly made the leader of the country’s Conservative Party, Senator Gabriel Garcia Moreno (1821-1875), president – with a mandate to do whatever he needed to do to bring the country back from the brink.
A descendant of Spanish nobility, Garcia Moreno had had an international education – as a part of which he found himself witnessing the European revolutions of 1848. When he returned to his country, he was resolved that she should regain her traditional values and beliefs, while taking advantage of modern science and industry.
He had been elected to the Senate in 1857, resolving to abolish the tribute to the government that Indian villages were forced to pay. But emerging as leader of the opposition to both the Peruvians and the insurrections, he began his presidency with an empty treasury and endless debt. He managed in the 14 ensuing years not only to reverse both problems, but to found universities and hospitals, triple the number of primary schools, and build highways and railroads. He also reintroduced the Jesuits, officially consecrated the country to the Sacred Heart, and was the only head of state officially to condemn the seizure of the Papal States in 1870.
The Liberals hated Garcia for his religious measures, and were jealous of his modernising. When he was handily re-elected in 1875, he was aware that he might be assassinated – and so he was.