After years of whiling away wasted hours, Ecuadoran businesses and civic groups have launched a campaign to force people accustomed to habitually missing appointments and deadlines to start showing up on time.
"Symptoms: Rarely meets obligations on time, wastes people's time, leaves things to the last minute, no respect for others," reads a poster that has been appearing around the country, dealing with chronic lateness syndrome as if it were a disease.
"Treatment: Inject yourself each morning with a dose of responsibility, respect and discipline. Recommendation: Plan, organize activities and repair your watches."
Across a continent in which tardiness is often the norm, Ecuadorans have emerged as the most self-critical of the bunch. They've admitted their problem, and at least some of them want to change.
The poster appears in bank headquarters, airline offices, other workplaces and youth clubs. "Patient: Some Ecuadorans," the poster says, below a mock X-ray of a man with an alarm clock buzzing where his brain should be.
It's the most visible part of a national campaign for punctuality, an original civic effort to combat Latin America's most enduring cultural cliche. Inspired by Ecuador's younger generation, the effort kicked off this month with financial and moral support from a number of leading corporations that have lost countless work hours over the years because of lateness.
The campaign is part of a wave of scolding public service messages appearing across the Andean region intended to teach the most basic values of civility and citizenship. It is organized and funded by the private sector in the hope that a self-help effort will be more persuasive than government lecturing. But one of its chief inspirations is President Lucio Gutierrez, a former army colonel who could be the poster boy for tardiness.
The most flagrantly late are public functionaries and military officials, Ecuadorans agree, and their president has been steeped in both cultures.
"He was 20 minutes late yesterday, but usually it's two hours or more," said Monica Hernandez, executive vice president of Banco Solidario, referring to Gutierrez's meeting with the Ecuadoran bankers' association the previous day. Hernandez, a major supporter of the punctuality campaign, added, "The president is learning."
As much as anything, its organizers say, the campaign is about taking the elasticity out of time and restoring meaning to the word "appointment." The chief spokesman is Jefferson Perez, Ecuador's Olympic gold medal-winning racewalker, who appears on posters next to the slogan: "A second makes a difference."
In trying to change behavior, however, there is also an element of punishment involved. Doorknob hangers, in the style of hotel "Do Not Disturb" signs, are being passed out to participating companies and organizations. "Come in: You're on time," reads the green side. "Do not enter," reads the red flip side. "The meeting began on time."
The door hangers are being enforced at institutions ranging from leading banks to private schools, where tardy parents have been locked out of parent-teacher conferences since the campaign began. Ecuador's national airline, considered by people here somewhat laid back when it comes to schedules, recently signed up for the tough-love program.
"There is this great informality about time -- things start late and end extremely late," said Cesar Montufar, director of Citizen Participation, the civic organization spearheading the campaign. "Democracy depends on respect, and this is very much part of that. This is about complying with our duties and responsibilities."
The idea emerged over the summer when Montufar and some of his staff members traveled to the southern city of Loja to meet with a youth club affiliated with the organization. They were running behind schedule and were greeted less than warmly by the teenagers, who had been cooling their heels.
"So why are you late?" Montufar recalled being asked as he fumbled over a variety of excuses. He said the youths' message to him was, "Well, it's really not okay."
Since then, the organization has received about $10,000 in donations to launch the punctuality campaign. Additional support is arriving as in-kind services, such as the graphic design and printing of the posters. Montufar said he intends to spend another $5,000 on marketing before the campaign concludes at the end of the year.
Alberto Cardenas, a former welfare minister and a member of Congress, hosted an event late one recent afternoon typical of the kind that triggers what Ecuadorans call "the domino effect" -- a chain reaction of late starts that end up shuffling entire schedules.
Cardenas, now vice president of Trust Insurance Co., invited 400 of Ecuador's top legal minds to a sales event showcasing a new insurance policy that would substitute for bail bonds. But at 5:30 p.m., the scheduled starting time, only three people had arrived and Cardenas was fidgeting at the door.
Sometime later, a distinguished-looking man in a dark pinstripe suit approached Cardenas, who embraced him outside the mostly empty room. Cardenas lifted a neatly pressed shirt cuff to reveal a watch and whispered, "The head of the Supreme Court -- a half-hour late."
The event finally started, but stragglers kept arriving.
"Everything becomes distorted," Cardenas said. "You never really know when something might start on time. But as a rule, anyone who shows up on the dot suffers."
There is much work ahead, judging by Quito's social landscape.
At dinners set for 8 p.m., guests assemble closer to 10:30, leading to extended, boozy pre-dinner chatter, post-midnight desserts and late starts the next morning. Ecuadorans joke, kind of, that the only things that start on time are Mass and the movies.
"I swear to you that two years ago, at the church near my house, a couple showed up for their own wedding 20 minutes late," said Diego Villasis, a systems engineer, chatting as he waited for an appointment to start one recent morning at Banco Solidario. "And the priest refused to marry them."