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Lenin Moreno, who was elected Ecuador’s president in April of this year, ran as a devoted loyalist to former President Rafael Correa. Here is a video of Moreno leading a crowd in cheers of “Rafael! Rafael!” at a campaign rally this year. At another campaign rally (video here) Moreno responded defiantly to attacks on him for being a Correa loyalist by literally screaming
“Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes! I was part of the Citizen’s Revolution. I rode with Correa. I was there when the most substantial changes were made to this country. Of course that is in the past. Things have been done well under leadership that has been tenacious, firm, intelligent, diligent, and at the service of the poor – that of our friend, comrade and leader Rafael Correa Delgado”.
Rafael Correa’s government achieved massive poverty reduction, a huge drop in crime, and greatly improved public infrastructure. The key to this success was a firm rejection of the neoliberal policy menu. It’s hardly surprising that Moreno and others would attach themselves to a popular political project and pledge their support, but the achievements required courageous leadership. It meant confronting the fierce opposition of Ecuador’s traditional elite and its private media.
Very soon after the votes were counted in April, Moreno turned on Correa completely and began trying to give Ecuador’s traditional elites everything they were unable to get during Correa’s ten years in office. A big part of what they want is an all-out assault on the achievements of Correa’s government. They want those years sullied and discredited as years of excessive public spending that resulted in debt and corruption. That’s a crucial first step for returning Ecuador to neoliberalism. Moreno has tried to deliver for the people he ran against with breathtaking speed and cynicism. Recently it was revealed that Moreno even held a secret meeting in early-May with Trump envoy Paul Manafort.
By turning on Correa, Moreno quickly won over the private media and (much like Mauricio Macri in Argentina) immediately had public and private media pushing the same agenda. However, at least in Macri’s case it was basically the agenda on which he had campaigned.
In violation of article 104 of Ecuador’s constitution, which says Ecuador’s Constitutional Court must approve any referendum questions put before the public, Moreno has submitted seven questions to the electoral council which has scheduled a vote for the fourth of February. Weeks ago, Moreno publicly “demanded” that the court quickly approve all the questions. Correa would have been lambasted far and wide for making such a “demand” of the courts but Moreno, allied with the private media barons whom Correa had always combatted, has been given a pass. Moreno has now gone even further and asked that two judges on the Constitutional Court be investigated and possibly sanctioned for not doing as he demanded.
Three of the proposals that will be put to voters are by far the most important.
One proposal (if passed) would re-impose term limits for elected officials and is obviously aimed at preventing Correa from running again. Needless to say, Moreno did not champion term limits as a candidate (his opponents did!) while Moreno was heaping praise on Correa. Note to leftists: elites generally like term limits. It is easy to find cowards and hypocrites who do the bidding of the rich, and much harder to find leaders who won’t. Presidential term limits in the United States were formalized in retaliation against the progressive achievements of FDR’s four terms. Unelected power brokers pose as democrats by pushing term limits while actually removing a potential threat to their illegitimate authority.
Another proposal (if passed) would abolish a land speculation tax that Ecuador’s elite hysterically opposed. Moreno has postured as an anti-corruption crusader, but by pushing the repeal of this tax (incidentally, as a candidate Moreno praised the tax) he is working to entrench corruption. His feeble excuse is that the tax has made the construction industry fearful and that repealing the tax will stimulate Ecuador’s economy. The tax is aimed the super-rich who profit from land speculation. For example, if you made a 7% per year profit selling a $400,000 property (that would almost double the price of the property in 10 years) you would not pay the tax. The tax is on extraordinary profits that often result from insider knowledge of where public works will be constructed. If you made a 20% per year profit on the same property (selling it at over six times its original price in 10 years) then the speculation tax would be over 1 million dollars. You would be left with a profit of “only” $800,000. In a rich country like the United States, what percentage of the public worries about “only” pocketing $800,000 on the sale of property, never mind a poor country like Ecuador? As for stimulating the economy, the devastation caused by property bubbles around the world in 2008/9 showed that land speculation is the last way anyone should try to do that. The power of the private media in Ecuador is so strong that even with Correa in power and using his platform in the public media to fight for this tax, he had an uphill battle. He withdrew it in 2015 in order to spend about a year constantly rebutting lies about it that were spread by the media before it was passed – a tax that only a tiny fraction of the population would ever have to worry about paying. Moreno now has private and public media pushing a dangerous giveaway to elite speculators.
Additionally, for people who accept an “anti-extractivist” critique of Correa’s government, Ecuador’s economy will not be diversified away from basic resource extraction without redistributive measures like the land speculation tax. I’ve written before explaining my harsh assessment of some organizations that have made this “anti-extractivist” critique.
A third proposal would cut short the constitutionally established terms of a committee (the CPCCS) that oversees the selection processes for of the attorney general, electoral council, comptroller general and various other authorities. A “transitory” CPCCS would be appointed. Whatever you think of the existing structure of the CPCCS (and frankly I am not a fan) it is written into the constitution and summarily firing all its existing members and handing its far-reaching powers to a “transitory” authority effectively picked by the President should require the election of a constituent assembly. Under the constitution (articles 441-444) changes to the basic structure of the constitution cannot be made by a referendum but only by electing a constituent assembly. The Constitutional Court is supposed to rule on whether a change must be made through a constituent assembly.
Moreno’s legal pretext for forcing through the referendum without a Constitutional Court ruling is that a twenty-day time limit for a ruling had expired. Article 105 of the Organic Law of Jurisdictional Guarantees and Constitutional Control says that the Constitutional Court must approve or reject referendum questions within twenty days of receiving them or its silence can be interpreted as approval of the questions. Moreno’s supporters have pointed out that Correa made use of that law to call a local referendum in 2011 to settle an intense boundary dispute between two provinces. The Constitutional Court did not rule within twenty days after receiving the questions so Correa had the electoral authorities organize the vote. Local residents voted on which province they wanted to officially reside in. It was not a national level referendum and it made no changes to the constitution. For those reasons alone, it’s a ridiculous way to justify what Moreno has done. Less than 0.3% of Ecuador’s voters participated in that 2011 referendum on the boundary dispute.
Moreover, in 2015, article 9 of another law that regulates how the Constitutional Court works was amended to allow the twenty day period to be extended for the Constitutional Court to evaluate additional information. On November 6, a judge on the Constitutional Court explicitly cited article 9 of this law and noted that it suspended the twenty day count in order to call public hearings in which they would hear arguments related to Moreno’s proposed referendum questions. Moreno made no objection until weeks later – lending weight to speculation that Moreno learned the ruling would probably go against him on at least one of the key referendum questions. With the public and private media’s help, Moreno simply by-passed the court. The court’s silence since then on the weighty matter it was investigating certainly makes it appear intimidated.
Speaking of judges who appear intimidated by Moreno and the media, Moreno’s running mate, Jorge Glas (also VP during Correa’s last four years in office) has just been convicted to six years in prison for criminal conspiracy. The conviction is being appealed. Glas had supposedly conspired to get bribes from the scandal-plagued Brazilian firm Odebrecht. Glas oversaw Ecuador’s extensive public works throughout Correa’s time in office. The flimsy case against Glas relies heavily on the allegations of an Odebrecht official whom Ecuador’s attorney general shamelessly declined to prosecute. Hard evidence is essentially non-existent. Glas was also put in preventative detention on the dubious grounds that he represented a flight risk. Glas asked the National Assembly to clear the way for his trial and about the only way he has been able to counter the mass media campaign against him has been through his willingness to stand trial. Correa’s government threw Odebrecht out of Ecuador for several years over a contract dispute. Glas was the driving force behind that decision. The Brazilian government withdrew its ambassador from Ecuador over it.
Very recently, a top advisor to Moreno, Eduardo Mangas, resigned after a recording leaked in which he said that Moreno’s anti-corruption crusade – against Glas in particular – was aimed at disarming the right (i.e. that it’s politically motivated). Mangas was addressing members of Correa’s now bitterly divided party (Alianza Paiz) trying to rationalize Moreno’s about face after the election. Mangas claimed that Glas was imposed on Moreno as a running mate by Correa who (brace yourself for this) exploited Moreno’s deep loyalty to him. Mangas predictably said that Moreno only came to believe the allegations against Glas were true after the election. Moreno was not obliged to run at all, much less run as a Correa loyalist or accept Glas as his running mate. Moreno was perfectly free to resign from Correa’s government, which he was part of at the highest levels for ten years, and run as an opponent which is what he became immediately after the election.
What are the key lessons?
Correa (like other leftist presidents in the region) used the power of the presidency to successfully counter the private media, but opportunities were missed to develop a mass media independent of both the government and the rich. Throughout this piece I’ve stressed that Moreno immediately brought public and private media on his side to push the agenda of the rich. That basically describes the typical situation in capitalist counties that have a significant public media (Canada and the UK for example). A solution to this problem, suggested by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, is allowing each voting age person control over an equal amount of government money (vouchers) that he or she can direct to any non-advertising, non-profit media outlet of their choice.
Term limits should never have been in Ecuador’s constitution, but no leader can last forever. No political party, in a democracy, can win executive power indefinitely. It is also not always easy to see through determined imposters and opportunists. Betrayals by political leaders will happen. Betrayals, however, can be deterred and their destructive impact minimized in political parties that deeply empower their ordinary members. Correa’s emphasis was heavy on macroeconomics and other policy details, not on developing that kind of political party. The example of Venezuela shows how devastating macroeconomic errors can be for a left wing government, but Ecuador is on its way to becoming another kind of cautionary tale.
Joe Emersberger is a Canadian engineer with Ecuadorian roots who writes primarily for Telesur English and Znet.