PSAC leaderboard

Ecuador’s election could be a turning point for Latin America

An analysis of the Citizens’ Revolution, Ecuador’s conservative counterattack, and Canada’s role

Latin America and the CaribbeanSocialism

Renowned radical economist and Ecuadorian presidential candidate Andrés Arauz. The country’s highly anticipated runoff election is slated to take place on April 11. Photo from Twitter.

Nobody likes Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno, and he’s fine with that. When he was elected in 2017 as the successor to Rafael Correa (2007-2017), voters expected a continuation of the policies of his predecessor, whose economic initiatives resulted in significant poverty reduction, infrastructure development, and increased access to healthcare and education.

What they got was betrayal. Moreno took a hard right turn, cutting thousands of public sector jobs and withdrawing from the leftist-oriented Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) while returning to the structural adjustment model promoted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Moreno also allowed the return of the US military presence kicked out by Correa, and has consistently targeted his and Washington’s enemies for persecution.

Moreno’s actions cost him: by the presidential election’s first round in February 2021, he was sitting at a single-digit approval rating. Ultimately, he received about 1.5 percent of the vote.

The abovementioned actions only scratch the surface of the arbitrary and oppressive actions that destroyed Moreno’s credibility in Ecuador, but former Minister of Foreign Affairs Guillaume Long believes that he never intended to be popular.

“Fully aware of his transitional role,” Long writes, “Moreno’s goal was never really to have a strong party of his own. His aim was to make the biggest political force in Ecuador [the Citizens’ Revolution] party-less. This he achieved.”

Because Moreno so drastically altered the political program of Alianza PAIS (the party of the Citizen’s Revolution), supporters of Correa continuously attempted to find a new host for their movement. After the government-controlled electoral authorities blocked their attempts to register a new party and suspended the Fuerza Compromiso Social when they attempted to join, the Correistas were able to run a candidate named Andrés Arauz with the Movimiento Centro Democrático as part of the UNES, or “Union for Hope,” left-wing coalition.

Arauz earned the plurality of votes in the February election—32.7 percent, while the second and third-place candidates both received approximately 19 percent—as well as endorsements from former Bolivian president Evo Morales and former Uruguayan leader José Mujica.

In the April 11 runoff election, Ecuadorians will choose between two wildly different candidates, one who promises to return the country to Correa-era policies, and another who will turn Ecuador into a solid ally of American, Canadian, and Western capital.

The man Arauz will face in the runoff is Guillermo Lasso, a well-known conservative banker who previously served as the neoliberal governor of Guayas and economy minister during a 1999 crisis that greatly worsened Ecuador’s debt to the IMF. While Lasso is not as widely reviled as Moreno, he represents the interests which Moreno embraced at the expense of his party’s working class base.

In order to fully appreciate the conditions that produced the Citizens’ Revolution, and the present risks of returning to that system of externally imposed debt bondage, one needs some brief historical context.

Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno, in office since May 2017, speaks at the World Summit on the Information Society Forum. Photo by Patrick Woods/Flickr.

Ecuador before Correa

Ecuador’s latest period of military rule ran from 1972-1979 and coincided with the petroleum boom of the early part of the 1970s. Profits declined as the decade went on, and it was during this period that the military government began to rely heavily on foreign loans to finance its industrial development rather than attempting to increase domestic revenues.

This resulted in a model of import substitution industrialization (ISI), which meant that although exports increased in the short-term, industrialization was dependent on foreign lending organizations to which Ecuador was subsequently indebted. Other countries in Latin America and across the Global South have faced similar problems with the ISI model—problems which have only worsened as organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank link debt relief to “structural adjustment” neoliberalization policies.

Some theories suggest former Ecuadorian President Jaime Roldós Aguilera (fourth from the right) was assassinated by the CIA in 1981 as part of Operation Condor.

Ecuador’s military government transitioned to a democracy in 1979 with the election of the left-leaning Jaime Roldós Aguilera. In 1981, however, Roldós died in a plane crash that some have theorized was an assassination. Proponents of this theory tie the United States to his death by citing a declassified CIA document that revealed Ecuador’s 1978 entry into Operation Condor, a program of intelligence-sharing and military cooperation between the US and the right-wing dictatorships of the Southern Cone which resulted in widespread murder, repression, and assassination directed at the political left. Supporters of the assassination theory also point to the fact that Panamanian head of state Omar Torrijos, who was critical of America’s role in the region, died in another suspicious plane crash two months later.

Regardless of the validity of this theory, subsequent presidencies faced a debt crisis due to the over-borrowing of the military period. Another important factor in this crisis was the “Volcker Shock,” a massive hike in interest rates instituted by Chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker in 1980 which intensified the debt burdens of these countries enormously. What followed was an increased neoliberalization of economies across Latin America, including Ecuador. As Francisco Sánchez and John Polga-Hecimovich write in The Tools of Institutional Change under Post-Neoliberalism:

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Ecuadorean political and economic elites adopted various degrees of neoliberal reforms, reducing the state’s interventionist power. Beginning in 1984, successive governments shrank the public sector and attempted privatisations of telecommunications, highways and electricity, deregulation of the financial sector and labour market, and other state reforms consistent with the Washington Consensus.

These privatization policies resulted in the widespread perception that the government was serving its foreign lenders rather than its domestic constituents. Political instability ensued. Uprisings by Indigenous movements, unions and workers’ syndicates were a frequent occurrence throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, and the unrest played an important role in the removal of three presidents from office: Abdalá Bucaram, Jamil Mahaud, and Lucio Gutiérrez. It was in this context of far-reaching dissatisfaction with neoliberal governance that Rafael Correa, running on a platform of left-wing transformation which sought to free Ecuador from the dominance of Western (particularly US) capital, was elected president in November 2006.

The Citizens’ Revolution and its accomplishments

Rafael Correa in February 2017. Photo by Micaela Ayala/Wikimedia Commons.

By the time Correa won the presidency, other left-wing movements across Latin America (Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Lula da Silva in Brazil, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia) were taking power after campaigning against the structural adjustment policies of the IMF and the World Bank.

Correa aligned himself with these governments by joining ALBA and UNASUR. Acting on his anti-imperialist rhetoric, he refused to renew the United States’ lease on the Manta Air Base in 2009, declaring “we’ll renew the base on one condition: that they let us put a base in Miami—an Ecuadorean base,” before sarcastically adding, “if there’s no problem having foreign soldiers on a country’s soil, surely they’ll let us have an Ecuadorean base in the United States.”

With a majority in congress, a commodities boom, and the US preoccupied with its wars in the Middle East, Correa was able to initiate his program to volver a tener la Patria, or “reclaim the Fatherland,” from oligarchy and imperialism, particularly through the sovereign use of natural resources as a way to circumvent the debt bondage of the IMF and the World Bank. His record was positive in many ways, but lacking in others which Arauz will need to address if he hopes to widen the movement’s base during his potential presidency.

In 2008, Correa’s government put forward a constitutional referendum in which 65 percent of voters approved a new progressive constitution which, among other changes, increased state autonomy from the oligarchy and recognized the right to food and the rights of nature. New taxation measures were introduced, and redistributionist projects were undertaken. These initiatives were very successful: according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, poverty fell by 38 percent during Correa’s decade in power, and extreme poverty fell by 47 percent.

Under the national plan for buen vivir (a Quechua concept that roughly translates to “good living” or “well living”), Correa’s government prioritized social spending with the goal of alleviating the economic issues that had led to protest movements in the neoliberal era. According to Sánchez and Polga-Hecimovich:

the Inter-American Development Bank finds that the number of civil servants more than doubled between 2003 and 2011, from 230,185 to 510,430… between 2006 and 2015, the government added 26,328 teachers (a 15 percent increase, from 197,000 to more than 230,000) and 31,407 healthcare workers (marking an astounding 81 percent increase, from 28,626 to 70,033)… The state’s prioritisation of improvements to social services was clear.

The commodities boom waned in the later years of Correa’s presidency, and this contributed to an economic decline. Despite this downturn, however, Alianza PAIS won the presidency again in 2017 while running on Correista policies, indicating a considerable base of support even during times of financial stress.

In order to honestly assess Correa’s legacy, however, one must avoid painting his government in needlessly broad strokes. The truth is that although the Citizens’ Revolution represented the accession of a progressive left-wing movement to power, there were numerous shortcomings and criticisms that must be taken into account when considering the future of Correísmo.

The revolution and its discontents

The most important area in which Correa did not live up to his rhetoric was environmental protection and Indigenous rights. Although he relied on Indigenous assistance to win the 2006 election, particularly from the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), his actions soon alienated many of these supporters. As historian Benjamin Dangl writes: “Correa’s electoral victory was… largely a victory against Plan Colombia’s US-led war on drugs, the old Ecuadorian oligarchy, US-style free trade deals, and electoral fraud,” but by 2008 the CONAIE had split with his administration.

This was partly the result of the 2008 Constitution, which indicated for some Indigenous groups that Correa would continue to promote industrial projects on their lands, and also due to his aggressive rhetoric toward those who opposed these programs. Although the Indigenous populations in Ecuador are diverse and have never monolithically denounced Correa, it is important to note that large-scale protests occurred during his presidency in response to policies which were environmentally harmful and viewed as criminalizing of protest.

In September 2010, Correa was kidnapped by police officers in a coup attempt in Ecuador’s capital Quito. The officers were protesting the withdrawal of promotion bonuses from the police and military, as well as the extension of time between promotions from five to seven years (the fact that Correa had already increased police wages “from the 2006 salary of $355 per month to $750 per month” did not mollify the officers).

Correa was sitting at a 67 percent approval rating in Quito at the time, and with the help of his supporters and regional progressive organizations, the coup was thwarted. Nevertheless, he did not experience the same broad outpouring of Indigenous support that Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales received while combatting coup attempts of their own in previous years. CONAIE’s public statement on the matter was heavily critical of Correa:

“Faced with the criticism and mobilization of communities against transnational mining, oil, and agro-industrial companies,” wrote the Indigenous groups, “the government, instead of creating a dialogue, responds with violence and repression… The only thing this type of politics provokes is to open spaces to the Right and create spaces of destabilization…”

It is this feeling of alienation that has led some Indigenous communities to support Yaku Pérez of the Pachakutik party in the February election. Pérez describes himself as an “eco-socialist” who represents Indigenous resistance to “extractive” industrial policies, but an analysis of his past alliances and statements of support suggests that he, like Moreno, could serve as a Trojan horse for the Ecuadorian right.

For example, Pérez supported Guillermo Lasso’s 2017 presidential run, praised Moreno as “a good man,” called for the intervention of the military in the February election after he placed a close third, and stated that he “would not think twice” about signing a free trade agreement with the United States, famously no promoter of renewable industry.

Pérez has also voiced support for right-wing coups and political movements in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and even Bolivia, where a far-right Christian extremist who referred to Indigenous peoples as “savages” and “satanic” overthrew the first Indigenous president in the country’s history. In fact, the right seems very aware that the “eco-socialist” rhetoric of Pérez and the Pachakutik leadership is little more than a brand: before the first round of voting in February, the conservative banker Lasso declared that he would vote for Pérez if he made it to the second round.

It seems that CONAIE’s 2010 warning to Correa was actually quite prescient, as the president’s inability to address the concerns of large sections of the Indigenous population has in fact “open[ed] spaces to the Right” in the form of Pérez and the Pachakutik leadership.

The unfortunate truth is that there was a disconnect between the Correa government and many Indigenous groups during his decade in power, and if Arauz wants to broaden the movement’s appeal and earn supporters among those who chose other candidates in this election, he will need to reach out to them far more than Correa did.

Man holding the national flag of Ecuador. Photo from Twitter.

Canada and Correa

The Canadian government’s interest in Ecuador has always been based on resource extraction and profit. When the Correa government suspended large-scale mining projects in 2009 to write a new mining law, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, alongside Canadian mining companies, took an active role in the proceedings. An official from mining firm EcuaCorriente wrote that “The Canadian Embassy in Ecuador has worked tirelessly to affect change in the mining policy—including facilitating high level meetings between Canadian mining companies and President Rafael Correa.”

Canadian ambassador to Ecuador Christian LaPointe and Minister of International Trade Stockwell Day both visited Ecuador to meet with companies and officials in the Correa government on behalf of the Canadian mining industry. According to Yves Engler, “The Conservatives’ lobbying was successful. Canadian businessmen were granted a privileged position during mining law negotiations and key Canadian holdings escaped Ecuador’s mining mandate.”

Despite Correa’s willingness to allow Canadian capital access to Ecuador’s resources, Canada has always viewed him with suspicion. His association with Latin American socialism, and his considerable popularity in the past and present, means that Canada has always considered Correa’s Ecuador a liability in the context of broader geopolitical interests and alliances.

Historically, Canada has not taken a particularly “hands-on” approach to combatting leftism in Latin America (although that has changed in recent decades). Rather, the Canadian government’s complicity in anti-progressive initiatives is usually evident through its silent rather than vocal cooperation.

During the September 2010 coup attempt in Quito, for instance, Canada was slow to issue a diplomatic statement. Although France, Spain, and many Latin American countries were quick to denounce the coup attempt (keep in mind that the coup against Manuel Zelaya in Honduras occurred only the previous year), Canada waited until the Ecuadorian military declared its loyalty to Correa before releasing a muddled statement which read in part:

Canada is concerned about the growing unrest in Ecuador and is monitoring the situation closely… We call on all parties to refrain from violence and any other actions that could imperil the rule of law and the country’s democratic institutions.

Canada’s subsequent silence regarding the persecution of progressive movements by Moreno suggests that Correa, though he served Canadian interests in the short-term, represented a geopolitical threat to the hegemony of US-aligned capital in Latin America. His involvement in regional Bolivarian initiatives sparked Western dissatisfaction with the Citizens’ Revolution in Ecuador, and spurred the desire for a more pliant head of state who would not only welcome Canadian investment but also follow Washington’s line by targeting progressive movements domestically and across the hemisphere.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Lenín Moreno, the President of Ecuador, to discuss “areas of trade and investment, Indigenous issues, and social inclusion,” September 20, 2017. Photo courtesy the Office of the Prime Minister.

Lenín Moreno’s counterrevolution

Despite serving only one term as president, Moreno’s impact on Ecuadorian social and political life has been enormous. Firstly, he portrayed himself as a loyal friend of Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, reorienting Ecuador’s geopolitical alliances away from Washington’s declared enemies. He allowed the creation of a US air base on the Galapagos Islands, reversing Correa’s no-base policy, and withdrew from ALBA and UNASUR in order to further isolate socialist-oriented governments in the region.

In 2020, Moreno took a $6.5 billion loan from the IMF which, as Lara Merling writes, “includes the same failed policies of the past: austerity, cuts in public investment, wage suppression, privatizations, and deregulation.”

In October 2019, protests erupted against the Moreno administration’s cut of long-time fuel subsidies, as well as broader austerity reforms it undertook as part of an earlier draft of the IMF loan that amounted to $4.2 billion. As Wilma Salgado writes, at the time of the loan “the private sector owed the government US$4,291,200,00 (almost $4.3 billion)—for unpaid income tax alone—not counting interest. This figure is higher than the total credit granted by the IMF.” In response to the protests, Moreno declared a state of emergency and sent in the police, resulting in 11 deaths and over 1,500 injuries.

Protests surged again in 2020, this time in response to Moreno’s inadequate pandemic response, high unemployment, and further austerity measures that included cuts of almost $100 million to universities and schools. Like past uprisings, Indigenous groups have played a prominent role.

Alongside widespread cuts to healthcare, education, employment and benefits, Moreno instituted measures to prevent his former allies from reclaiming political power. He introduced a constitutional reform early in his reign, prior to destroying his reputation, which introduced term limits, thus stopping Correa from returning to the presidency. He then began lawfare measures against Citizens’ Revolution officials, including a bribery case against former Vice President Jorge Glas, and he has even sought to arrest Correa himself (in July 2018, Interpol refused the Ecuadorian government’s request to extradite him from Belgium on the grounds that the kidnapping charge against him was politically motivated).

Moreno has also, in Liam Clarke-Cooper’s words, “restructured the judiciary, the electoral council, his own party, all in an effort to persecute supporters of Rafael Correa and prevent the ex-president’s return to power.”

In April 2019, the Moreno government allowed British authorities to enter the Ecuadorian embassy and arrest the founder of WikiLeaks Julian Assange, whom Correa had granted asylum in 2012. Assange has faced political persecution from the US and its allies ever since he released documents that exposed war crimes committed by the Western nations during the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Some have linked Moreno’s betrayal of Assange to apparent offers of debt relief from the US and to WikiLeaks coverage of the “INA Papers,” a set of documents published in February 2019 which purportedly implicate Moreno in the illegal operations of INA Investment Corp., an offshore tax haven created by his brother in which the family is alleged to have hidden bribe money. As a result of the INA Papers, a congressional investigation into Moreno’s conduct is currently underway.

Moreno’s authoritarian initiatives are part of a conservative shift that has assailed many left-leaning governments in the region, and which in many cases are now facing resurgent challenges from the left. In all of these countries, Canada has either quietly or overtly aligned itself with right-wing movements.

Moreno, for example, has been warmly welcomed by Canadian mining companies, including INV Metals and Lundin Gold Inc., despite the fact that for much of 2019 and 2020 Ecuador was in the midst of “its worst political violence in decades.” And as for the prime minister, Trudeau has never publicly commented upon the widespread social and political repression occurring on the orders of the wildly unpopular president—although he did meet with Moreno in September 2017, supposedly to discuss “areas of trade and investment, Indigenous issues, and social inclusion.”

The April 11 runoff: Correísmo or neoliberalismo

Despite the gravity and extent of his actions, Moreno will not be the deciding factor in the April runoff. Rather, it will be a test for the legacy of Rafael Correa, and (assuming it is allowed to proceed fairly) it will show whether or not the country wants to be governed by the left-wing policies of the recent past or the Washington-aligned neoliberalism of the present.

Conservative forces have already attacked Arauz, attempting to link him to Colombia’s ELN rebels—just as they tried to link Correa to FARC in 2010-11—and the Colombian attorney general Francisco Barbosa went so far as to intervene in the electoral process by delivering supposed evidence of this fact to Quito (needless to say, no alliance between Arauz and ELN has ever been uncovered).

Despite the smear campaigns and the open collaboration of Colombia’s judiciary with the Ecuadorian right, the results of the election’s first round indicate that conspiracy theories such as this do not have much purchase among the public and suggest that Correísmo is on track to return. In this case, Arauz will need to make efforts to address the less favourable aspects of Correa’s legacy, particularly his strained relations with prominent Indigenous groups.

In a recent interview with Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara, Arauz asserted that “my objective is to try to create a plurinational state with the Indigenous movement.” If he is able to continue Correa’s developmental successes while seriously reaching out to these alienated groups, then Arauz will become a progressive inspiration across the region and internationally—but if he fails, one can expect that Yaku Pérez and other individuals will continue to “open spaces to the right” in order to challenge the future of leftist governance in Ecuador.

Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. His areas of interest include post-colonialism and the human impact of the global neoliberal economy.


URP leaderboard June 2024

Browse the Archive