In Ecuador, students wishing to enroll at foreign universities must spend a fortune sending their registration papers abroad. And there can be consequences for not having a postal service.

QUITO : WHAT to do in a country with a backlog of i million letters and parcels?

Silvia Meneses was excited when she ordered some curtains and other items on Wish, a website. That was five years ago. Her parcel is yet to arrive.

The experience of Ms. Meneses, who runs a sandwich shop in Quito, is a typical one in Ecuador. For years, Correos del Ecuador, the national postal service, was slow and unreliable. During the pandemic, it closed.

Ecuador became one of only a few countries not to have a postal service.

Ecuadorians used to get post, and a fair bit of it. A whiskey-barrel-turned postbox on the Galapagos island dates to the 1700s, as a way for sailors to exchange post [ these days tourists use it ]. What is now the office of the Ecuadorian vice-president was once the post office's headquarters. Ms. Meneses recalls the joys of receiving a letter.

But the postal service never reached all of Ecuador, with its impenetrable jungle and breath-stealing mountains. Many homes do not have addresses, and not everyone could afford a PO Box.

Those who could saw a service in decline. Because of steady budget cuts, fraud and exorbitant taxes on parcels, by 2019 Correos captured only 8% of the Ecuadorian postal market [ the rest went to private companies ].

Its lacklustre performance gave Lenin Moreno, then the president, an excuse to shut it down in May 2020.

A service still exists on paper. Mr. Moreno forgot that Ecuador is a member of the Universal Postal Union, a UN body, and is bound by its convention to facilitate the sending of international post. So in February 2021, just before leaving office, he signed a decree creating a new company.

It currently has 84 employees and 24 vehicles, says its manager, Veronica Alcivar [ Correos had 422 vehicles ]. It could be expanded to 250 workers, but that seems unlikely. Instead it has contracted a Colombian firm to deliver a backlog of over i million letters and parcels.

Ecuadorians have other workarounds. Unable to receive deliveries from Amazon, an e-commerce giant, they turn to human ''mules'' to courier goods on planes from the United States.

''Christmas is our busiest time of year,'' says one civil servant who also runs a successful mule business. He wishes to remain anonymous for tax reasons.

Documents are trickier. Students wishing to enroll at foreign universities must spend a fortune sending their registration papers abroad. And there can be consequences to not having a postal service.

It acts as a ''backstop if other systems fail'', delivering medicines, welfare benefits or ballot papers, says Richard John, a historian.

In the centre of Quito, echoes of another way of life remain. Blanca Guaraca, a street vendor, flips through postcards that she sells to tourists. She can recommend a post office where your correspondent can post one.

It is now a bookshop. When a service is rarely used, it is hard to know when it's gone.

The World Students Society thanks The Economist.


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