A Conversation with Jamil Mahuad Witt

Jamil Mahuad Witt was born in Loja, a city in southern Ecuador. He received a doctorate in jurisprudence from the Catholic University of Quito, as well as a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He has been a professor at the Catholic University of Quito, and worked in Ecuadorian banking. He served two terms in Ecuador's Congress, was Minister of Labor and Human Resources, and has been President of the Popular Democratic Party. He became mayor of Quito in 1992.

Jane Slate Siena: Why did you want to become Mayor of Quito?

Mayor Jamil Mahuad Witt: This question requires a somewhat complex answer. First, I have spent much of my professional career searching for ways to help my country solve its most intractable problems. Like other Latin American countries, Ecuador continues to experience rapid urbanization. As a result, many of the problems of poverty and disenfranchisement are increasingly concentrated in its cities.

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Second, although I was not born in Quito, I am one of its hundreds of thousands of adopted children. This has been my home since I came to study, and I have grown to love this city. Quito has both history and tradition as well as modern thriving business. There is breathtaking natural and architectural beauty. The people combine an inner strength and pride with a beautiful humility. For me, Quito is the jewel of South America.

Third, I enjoy public service. The work is not easy. In fact, I work harder than I ever did in the private sector. But the work is stimulating, exciting and, most importantly, significant. The people with whom I work are intelligent and committed. The issues which fill my calendar are the most interesting and diverse with which I have ever dealt.

What are your major goals for the city?

I have various goals, but let me describe the four most important. As Quito has grown, transportation has become perhaps its number one problem. We have launched an ambitious program of public transportation that includes the development of a trolley bus system.

A second goal is to improve basic services. Rapid rural-to-urban migration creates constant pressures on all city functions, but we are acting vigorously to extend and improve potable water and sewerage services throughout Quito. This action represents our desire to spend the majority of our time and resources in helping the poorest segments of our city.

Another central goal is to conserve and revitalize the historical center of Quito, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. We have focused much attention on this objective through the municipal government's Fondo de Salvamento which carries out rehabilitation projects on historical buildings and monuments.

A fourth goal is administrative reform. We are determined to achieve an honest, efficient, and productive city government.

What is your perspective concerning the role of cultural heritage in the revitalization of Quito?

Any culture must find a way to maintain its own sense of identity in the midst of the mind-numbing amount of products and television programs which fill the modern world. If not, that culture is destined to lose the values which will prevent them from using their modern technology in unwise (or even evil) ways. We in Quito must base our goals and desires for the future in values derived from our history, heritage, and religion. An understanding of the cultural heritage provides the wisdom necessary to advance.

What practical steps are you taking to preserve the historic fabric of your city?

Preserving the historic fabric involves many tasks. Of course, the physical rehabilitation of the historical buildings is central to this work. Rehabilitation includes environmental protection and land-use planning, so as to protect the buildings from the damage that modern technologies can do.

Equally important, though, is raising the consciousness of citizens and tourists of the value of our past. Beautifully preserved buildings about which there is no knowledge or which are not placed in a cultural-historical context lose much of their value. Our Department of Education and Culture has many programs, including Quito's August Month of the Arts (to which all readers of this magazine are invited to come), as well as history and culture lessons for children.

The city government also supports traditional Andean music and artisanry. We are beginning to develop a new Museum of the History of Quito, which will include the pre-Conquest period of indigenous cultures as well as more modern history.

After eighteen months in office, what have you learned so far?

What have I not learned? This period has been the most learning-intensive experience in my life. As mayor of a large capital city, you must be an expert on finance, administration, culture, transportation, sewerage, drinking water, the environment, education, community development . . . this list could go on and on.

I have learned much about leadership in large organizations. There are differences in opinions and perspectives. The challenge is to find a way to hear and respect these differences, to encourage negotiation, but to make decisions and move forward.

Your own love of the city is reflected in your decision to live in the historic city center. Have you succeeded in "setting an example?"

Yes. People are coming back to this beautiful part of the city. The vice-presidency has decided to move its offices to the historical center. The private sector is returning as businesses are once again investing. Private homes are being rehabilitated. Museums are being developed. Tourists are coming in ever-increasing numbers. We have begun the process.

What is your vision of what Quito will be like when you leave office in August 1996?

I hope to see a Quito in which the people are better served in terms of their basic necessities; in which the citizens feel both the history and the future of Quito; in which transportation functions well; in which the air and water in the city are clean; in which more tourists come to share with us the natural and architectural beauty of Quito; and in which investors see Quito as a city to place their resources. Such a Quito would be an even more beautiful place than it is today.

Jane Slate Siena is Head of Institutional Relations for the Getty Conservation Institue and Managing Editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.