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Deconstructing a Washington Post Editorial on Ecuador

The Washington Post editorial board (2/5/2018) says that the results of a February 4 referendum show that Ecuador bucks the authoritarian trend

Well I’m glad somebody in the western media finally weighed in from that perspective.

I’m kidding of course. As I noted in a piece I wrote for FAIR, there has been no other perspective offered by the corporate media. I guess “Uniformity is Press Freedom” as Orwell might have joked.

Below I’ll respond to a few excerpts from the Post editorial:

His [Correa’s] idea was to install a follower for four years and then return to power, as Mr. Putin once did.

I can’t really refute this because I don’t have the Post’s mind reading abilities. Correa often stated on his weekly TV show during his last months in office that, even if he decided to retire permanently from politics, he wanted Ecuador’s elite, who despise him, to have the threat of his possible return to politics hanging over their heads. He argued that it would deter them from trying to return Ecuador to the political and economic disaster of the 1990s – a disaster caused by neoliberal economic policies that corporate media promote, so you are unlikely to have ever heard of it.

Then, on Sunday, came a much-deserved comeuppance: Ecuadoran voters, prompted by Mr. Correa’s own successor, voted overwhelmingly to restore a two-term presidential limit, thus blocking the planned second act. It was a victory for democracy not just in Ecuador but also in a region where numerous rulers have sought to entrench themselves in power.

The Post never mentioned the referendum question that Correa campaigned hardest against and which had nothing to do with term limits. Question 3 was a very deceptively worded proposal (with crucial details buried in an annex) that will allow a body handpicked by Moreno the power to fire and replace 150 different state authorities: judges, prosecutors, regulators, auditors. By 2019, the body will be replaced by an elected one that does not have the same sweeping powers. What a victory for democracy.

As for term limits, Mexico had 70 years of one party rule while it regularly swapped out its presidents after one term.  And can anyone persuasively seriously argue that the US presidency or US democracy in general, improved as a result of presidential term limits which were introduced in response to the progressive achievements under FDR?  Numerous parliamentary democracies (Canada, the UK, Germany etc..) have no term limits – other than what voters impose at the ballot box – on the Prime Minister or on the ruling party.  It’s impossible to see how they are less democratic than the US or Mexico as a result.

Term limits remove a potential “threat” that democracy should pose towards private power: elected politicians willing to enact policies are supported by the majority even if rejected by the elite. Moreover, the people who most effectively “entrench themselves in power” (like say Jeff Bezos who owns the WAPO) are generally not elected.

Mr. Correa, who was first elected in 2007, embraced a somewhat milder version of Mr. Chávez’s left-wing populism.

Correa was first elected in October 2006 and first took office in 2007.

With the help of high prices for Ecuador’s oil exports, he reduced poverty while launching assaults on media freedom, private business and the courts.

So much to untangle in one sentence:

“with the help of high prices for Ecuador’s oil exports”

There were two major oil price drops while Correa was in office. One due to the 2008/9 global recession and then there was another: the deep and sustained oil price collapse since the last quarter of 2014. At their highest point during Correa’s time in office, inflation-adjusted oil revenues per capita, accounting for costs of extraction, were lower than they were during much of the 1970s and 1980s. His government was also hit with other external shocks to the economy: one of many was a fall in remittances from Ecuadorians aboard due to the global recession and weak recovery from it. One legacy of the neoliberal 80s and 90s is that remittances from Ecuadorians who fled their country during those years became extremely important to Ecuador’s economy.

“…assaults on media freedom, private business and the courts” [my emphasis]

Moreno publicly demanded that Ecuador’s Constitution Court approve all his referendum questions. A leaked meeting of the court’s judges revealed that some feared for the safety as a result of the vitriol Moreno had incited against them with his demand. Moreno then skirted the constitutional requirement that the court rule on the validity of the questions. The court already had a report over 300 pages long written which made extremely important edits to two of the referendum questions. See the piece I wrote for FAIR form more details.

Correa could never get away with an abuse of power like this because private media outlets (Ecuavisa, TeleAmazonas, El Comercio, El Universo and many others) would have denounced it. International media like the Post would also have been outraged.  Moreno has pulled it off by pandering to the elites that the private media serve.

When oil prices fell, Mr. Correa followed Mr. Chávez in borrowing huge sums from China, promising future oil deliveries in exchange. Ecuador now owes Beijing the equivalent of three years of its production.

Many of those agreements were signed well before the oil price collapse of 2014. Advanced sales, given the notorious unpredictability of oil prices, are perfectly rational – and so is borrowing from China, a country holding about $3 trillion USD in reserves and that does not have the USA’s track record of sponsoring military coups in Latin America – nor of imposing policy strings on its loans that lead to disaster as does the IMF.

The caudillo clearly expected that his successor, Lenín Moreno, would follow his lead.

Usually, when western journalists want to smear a democratically elected politician, the nebulous ”strongman” label is deployed. The Post editors seem to have felt like showing some multicultural flare, so “caudillo” it is.

Instead, to his credit, Mr. Moreno has moved to clean up the mess he inherited. He reached out to the media and businesses and let citizens know for the first time how much had been borrowed from China.

The fraudulent campaign Moreno ran as presidential candidate is spun by the Post, and the entire western corporate media, as Moreno nobly defying the “caudillo”. Moreno was Correa’s vice president for six years, then a special envoy to the UN for four – and Vice president of Correa’s (former) political party Alianza Pais for ten years.  Moreno used his deep, longstanding ties to Correa’s government to credibly promise voters that he would continue the same polices. He then adopted right wing policies after the votes were counted and claimed to suddenly discover that everyone around him all those years was corrupt – exempting himself and those who followed along with his right turn. For now, Ecuador’s big private media (and the international media) have played along with this self-serving story and ignored Moreno’s electoral deceit just like they ignored him bullying of the Constitutional Court and trampling the constitution.

When Mr. Correa’s vice president was implicated in a corruption scandal, Mr. Moreno made no attempt to shield him.

Jorge Glas asked the National Assembly to lift his immunity so he could go to trial. The case against him was very thin. Glas was not accused of taking bribes himself but of helping an uncle of his get rich through vague “illicit association”. The case depended heavily on the testimony of an official from the Brazilian multinational Odebretch who confessed to taking bribes. Ecuador’s attorney general declined to prosecute the Odebretch official. The conviction of Jorge Glas has been key to convincing Ecuador’s right, crucially the private media, to support Moreno. An acquittal of Glas would have been devastating to Moreno’s political maneuvers. The short term political benefits of throwing Glas under the bus, and Moreno’s proven disregard for judicial independence, are reasons to suspect the conviction was politically motivated.

Odebretch is also not a company with which Correa’s government, or Jorge Glas, had a smooth and cozy relationship. Far from it. Cornea’s government expelled it from Ecuador for several years over a contract dispute. Ecuador’s private media was dismayed at the treatment dished out to the company. Brazil forcefully took the company’s side and withdrew its ambassador from Ecuador over it. Glas, who oversaw the extensive public works during Correa’s administration, was key to the decisions to expel Odebretch which was not allowed to return until it satisfied Ecuador’s demands in that dispute.

Mr. Moreno is a moderate leftist who happens to believe in democracy. That has made him popular: His approval rating has soared, while Mr. Correa has been pelted with eggs during his recent public appearances.

Some of us look to data rather than at what a few dozen violent people do.  Correa received over 36% of the vote nationally on the three questions he campaigned against (questions 2, 3 and 6). That’s only four points less than what is required for a first round win in Ecuador’s presidential elections.  It’s also only three points less than what Moreno received in the first round of the 2017 presidential election.

Correa’s referendum campaign relied almost entirely on small regional outlets, like the one that was attacked while he was being interviewed – an assault on press freedom that failed to disturb the Post.  As soon as he took office, Moreno ensured that public media no longer provided any counterweight to the big private media that always demonized Correa.

Below is the province by province “no” vote in the February 4 referendum on question 2, 3 and 6 which was urged by Correa. Alongside those results are Moreno’s province by province vote in the first round of Ecuador’s presidential election in 2017.

The numbers suggest Correa kept his core electoral base almost entirely in tact despite Moreno’s betrayal and the national media’s now unchallenged vilification of Correa’s ten years in office. In other words, Moreno now appears dependent on an electoral base “borrowed” – as one critic put it – from numerous politicians who will be extremely tempted to oust him aside the moment they believe they no longer need him.

Moreno now owes political leaders across the spectrum whose rampant opportunism gave Ecuador seven presidents in ten years following 1996. Predictions should rarely be made. Perhaps Moreno finishes out his term without having his new “allies” turn on him, and then on each other. However, history tells us that Ecuador could easily return to a period of destructive political instability as neoliberalsim is once again imposed through media manipulation.

More articles by:

Joe Emersberger is a writer based in Canada whose work has appeared in Telesur English, ZNet and CounterPunch.

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