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Tardiness losing its charm in Ecuador

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 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 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.

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 side. "The meeting began on time."