An Era Ends in Ecuador: Forward or Back?

Photo by thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

Photo by thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

On April 2 Ecuador will choose a new president. 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, 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 the assassination of popular progressive President Jaime Roldos (apparently by the CIA) in 1981. 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.

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, 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.

Sensitive to the point of paranoia about any criticism of his policies, Correa quickly designated many media outlets in Ecuador as members of the “news mafia” and “enemies of the Citizen’s Revolution,” as he styled his agenda. 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 he spoke on current events for hours, in a populist, shoot-from-the-hip style, from different locations around the country, often berating critics by name, labeling them “terrorists” or “rock throwers” and causing some to fear for their safely. He revealed the identities of several social media critics, leading to their harassment.

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. Protesters who shouted insults at the Minister of the Interior were charged with “sabotage and terrorism.” 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, hectoring politician they no longer want to see or hear or hear about. Even comedian John Oliver ridiculed Correa’s overbearing style. 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, a devastating earthquake in April, 2016, killed more than 700 people and caused more than $3 billion damage, forcing Correa to ask the IMF for help and his tapped-out treasury to impose new taxes on Ecuadorians.

But Correa’s consolidation of state power went far beyond his contentious rhetoric. Early in his presidential tenure, Correa’s Alianza Pais party gained a majority of seats in the National Assembly. Correa’s judicial appointments solidified his total control of government. His 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. Correa welcomed Chinese investment to exploit Ecuador’s resources, sometimes in traditionally indigenous territories, leading to violent confrontation. At this moment 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 protestors 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.

Right now the polls are mixed. Some 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. Lasso’s entire platform is simply the negation of Correa’s policies. He has offered nothing else.

”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.

Ecuadorian voters have tended to favor leftist governments over the past forty years. But many suffering “Correa fatigue” 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, muddled Trump administration, can attest.








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James McEnteer’s most recent book is Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty DepartmentHe lives in Quito, Ecuador.

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