Change in Ecuador: 50 Shades of Left, Right & Center
Correa in action.
QUITO, ECUADOR — On April 2, Ecuador will choose a new president, and for the first time in a decade, Rafael Correa’s name will not be on the ballot. After ten years in office, Correa is stepping down from the presidency and, however temporarily, stepping away from politics.
The two candidates, Lenin Moreno and Guillermo Lasso, have radically different agendas. Moreno is Correa’s former vice president and designated successor. He would continue Correa’s center-left social programs for the poor and the infrastructure, despite the country’s ongoing economic crisis. Lasso, a banker, has pledged to reduce taxes, restrict immigration, cut spending and return the country to its pre-Correa, neo-liberal course.
Lasso and Moreno are the survivors of last month’s initial presidential election, which featured eight candidates from the far left to the far right. Ecuadorian law mandates that a candidate garner at least 40 percent of the vote and surpass his nearest opponent by at least 10 percent to win outright. After a tense three-day vote count, Moreno was granted 39.36 percent of the votes while Lasso took 28.09 percent. Both sides accused the other of fraud.
The choice, apparently clear-cut, is complicated by the personal nature of Ecuadorian politics. In this country of 16 million people, all politics is local. Above all, this presidential election is a referendum on the policies, personality and legacy of Rafael Correa.
It is hard to overestimate Correa’s initial achievements in office. Before his 2006 election, Ecuador had run through seven presidents in ten years; three of them were forced out of office by angry protests. Political turbulence became the norm after the end of a military dictatorship in 1978 and, in 1981, the assassination of President Jaime Roldos (apparently by the CIA). In 2000, under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, Ecuador abandoned its own currency and adopted the U.S. dollar as legal tender.
Correa entered the Ecuadorian presidency in 2007 in a different world. Powered by huge oil reserves, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was riding high, steering a leftist populist course for his country in defiance of U.S. demands — inspired by longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro, then still very much alive. Chavez traded oil to Cuba for medical help and literacy training for millions of Venezuelans and launched nationwide participatory democracy at the community level. Latin American governments in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Nicaragua and Bolivia joined this movement, to one extent or another, as did Rafael Correa’s Ecuador.
Correa quickly re-directed Ecuador’s resources away from debt service toward poverty reduction, raising the minimum wage and increasing the standard of living. He oversaw the writing of a new constitution in 2008, granting rights to Mother Earth, among other pledges. Buoyed by the high price of oil, Ecuador’s leading commercial resource, Correa was able to launch large public works projects, building schools, hospitals, highways and bridges.
Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Nicaragua and Bolivia joined this movement, as did Rafael Correa’s Ecuador.
Wary of U.S. interference, Correa refused to sign a free trade agreement with the U.S., or renew the U.S. lease on a military base in Ecuador, which expired in 2009. In 2011 Correa expelled U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges after Wikileaks made public a diplomatic cable in which Hodges accused the national police force of widespread corruption, with Correa’s complicity. Correa later flouted U.S. pressure to prosecute Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, offering him asylum in Ecuador’s London embassy, where Assange remains to this day, more than four years later. If elected president, Guillermo Lasso pledges to evict Assange within thirty days.
Thanks to his restoration of political stability and his many social programs, Correa was easily re-elected in 2009 and 2013. But even before the collapse of oil prices, the death of Chavez and the receding pink tide in various Latin American countries, problems arose with Correa’s style of governance. His brave, creative policies are overshadowed, to an unfortunate degree, by his authoritarian personality, tainting his many real achievements.
Sensitive to the point of paranoia about any criticism of his policies, Correa styled his agenda by quickly designating many media outlets in Ecuador as members of the “news mafia” and “enemies of the citizen’s revolution.” He sued several newspapers for libel, earning rebukes from the Inter American Press Association and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
He commandeered radio, television and print media to propagate his unfiltered views. Every Saturday, from different locations around the country, Correa spoke on current events for hours in a populist, shoot-from-the-hip style, often berating critics by name, labeling them “terrorists” or “rock throwers”, causing some to fear for their safety. He revealed the identities of several social media critics, leading to their harassment.
Xavier Bonilla, aka "Bonil," is the best-known editorial cartoonist in Ecuador. When he satirized a constitutional referendum in 2008 that gave adolescents the right to vote and hold office, President Rafael Correa called to tell him the cartoon made him laugh. But in December 2013, when Bonilla drew a cartoon about a government raid on a one of its critics, Correa labelled him an "Ink Assassin," fined Bonilla's newspaper $93,000 and forced it to run a "correction." Correa's humor gave way to paranoia.
This is the cartoon that got Xavier Bonilla scolded, censured and fined. (2013). First panel: "Christmas gift". Caption: "Police and prosecutors flatten the home of Fernando Villavicencio and take documentation of complaints of corruption."
In May 2015 Correa stopped his motorcade in downtown Quito when he saw a teenage boy giving him the finger. He confronted the boy, who was later sentenced to twenty hours of community service. Student protestors who shouted insults at the Minister of the Interior were charged with “sabotage and terrorism.” Other students who attended a protest rally were expelled from their highly-regarded public high school.
For many Ecuadorians now feeling “Correa fatigue,” it is this ranting, bullying politician they no longer want to see, hear, or hear about. Even comedian John Oliver ridiculed Correa’s overbearing authoritarian style (see video below). Correa wore out his public welcome, especially after oil prices dropped dramatically, forcing the curtailment of government programs, the withdrawal of institutional support for schools and hospitals, and the non-payment of many public employees.
Adding to Ecuador’s economic stress, in April 2016 a devastating earthquake killed more than 700 people and caused about $3 billion damage. Correa was forced to ask the IMF for help and his tapped-out treasury to impose new taxes on Ecuadorians.
Rafael Correa tearing up the press.
But Correa’s consolidation of state power went far beyond his usual contentious rhetoric. His Alianza Pais Party gained a majority of seats in the National Assembly as his judicial appointments solidified his total control of the government. Correa’s ministries issued top-down policy directives concocted by bureaucrats often ignorant of the disciplines — medicine, education, labor — they wanted to reform.
Indigenous groups who initially supported Correa turned against him when he appeared to betray his promise to honor their sacred lands. He welcomed Chinese investment to exploit Ecuador’s resources, sometimes in traditionally indigenous territories, leading to violent confrontation. Today about 8,000 Ecuadorian military troops — armed with tanks, helicopter gunships and other weaponry — occupy cloud forests on the eastern slopes of the Andes long inhabited by the Shuar people, in order to protect a mining operation.
In this rich, biodiverse ecosystem, the Chinese are building what will become the second-largest copper mine in the world, with estimated annual royalties of $1.2 billion for the Ecuadorian government. Mine construction will consume 41,769 hectares of rain forest and rural agricultural land traditionally belonging to the Shuar.
At this difficult economic moment for his country, with low oil prices, massive layoffs of public employees, armed confrontations with indigenous protesters and urgent reconstruction efforts needed for disaster recovery, Correa’s decision to withdraw from politics appears strategic. The next president of Ecuador will not have an easy time.
Guillermo Lasso and Lenin Moreno.
The race remains tight. Some polls show Lenin Moreno ahead; while others favor Guillermo Lasso. Moreno has pledged to continue support for his nation’s poorest people, while promising a less contentious, confrontational approach than that of his predecessor.
“I know how to listen. I’m reaching out to everyone,” is Moreno’s campaign mantra. He also acknowledges the need to “refresh the country’s international relations.” He may seek new alliances as the so-called ‘pink tide’ ebbs around him. But Moreno cannot criticize his autocratic mentor too much. Correa still enjoys a respectable forty percent approval rating after an eventful decade in power.
Ecuador must decide whether to continue its path of self-determination with Lenin Moreno, despite the legislative coup in Brazil, the U.S.-backed, neo-liberal retreat of Argentina and the turmoil in Venezuela. Or to go with the regressive flow, back into the IMF-directed. corporate world of Guillermo Lasso, an oligarchic banker with ties to off-shore tax havens in Panama. Lasso's Trumpian agenda would restrict immigration, reduce taxes for the wealthy and cut support for the poor.
Cartoon by Jeff Danziger, New York Times Syndicate.
Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona warned his Ecuadorian friends not to follow his own country’s example. Argentine President Mauricio Macri has eliminated or privatized many social programs, to the detriment of many people and the enrichment of a few.
Ecuador would be the last hold out (as Venezuela is faltering and Bolivians voted to limit the presidential term of Evo Morales) of the so-called "pink tide" that has — under U.S. pressure and guidance — been forced to back down in Latin America. Ecuadorian voters have tended to favor leftist governments over the past forty years, but many suffering from “Correa fatigue” and who want change think Lasso would bring the most dramatic transformations. Of course, voting for unspecified “change” is not necessarily a winning strategy, as a stunned U.S. electorate — now dealing with the brash and muddled Trump administration — can attest.
John Oliver on Rafael Correa.
UPDATE — APRIL 2, 2017 ELECTION RESULTS: Lenin Moreno wins.
JAMES MCENTEER is an American journalist and writer now living in Quito, Ecuador. His most recent book is Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty Department.