The results of Ecuador’s presidential elections this year represented an unmistakable setback for the Latin American left. After years of reverses for the Pink Tide, a few recent developments—notably the election of Alberto Fernández in Argentina in 2019, the Chilean upsurge of 2019–20 and the return of the mas to power in Bolivia in 2020—suggested that the region’s rightward momentum could be stalled. On 7 February 2021, Ecuador seemed poised to confirm this trend, as Andrés Arauz, a 36-year-old economist and former minister in Rafael Correa’s government, finished comfortably ahead in the first round of voting. Yet when the second round was held on 11 April, it was Arauz’s opponent, the centre-right banker Guillermo Lasso, who emerged victorious with 52 per cent of the vote to Arauz’s 48. After four years during which Correa’s successor, Lenín Moreno, steadily dismantled the social gains made under his predecessor, the chance to shift the country leftward once more was lost.
A full reckoning of the reasons for this defeat would have to take account of many factors. But central to any discussion must be the role played by years of increasingly bitter contention between two components of the Ecuadorean left: on the one hand, the correísta currents seeking to advance the redistributive priorities of the ‘Citizen’s Revolution’, set in motion after Correa came to power in 2006; on the other, a coalition of predominantly indigenous movements, grouped around the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (conaie) and the political party Pachakutik, calling for a shift away from an economic model that remained overly dependent on the extraction of natural resources.
The two positions were represented in the 2021 presidential contest by the candidacies of Arauz and Yaku Pérez of Pachakutik, and there can be no doubt that their rivalry shaped the final outcome. In February, Pérez trailed Lasso by a mere 32,000 votes, and may have played kingmaker by recommending his supporters spoil their ballots in the April run-off. In a contest Lasso won by 4 per cent, the voto nulo amounted to 18 per cent—a historic high for Ecuador, where it has not been above 11 per cent since the 1980s. The geography of the vote would seem to confirm that many Pachakutik supporters either spoiled their ballots or directly backed Lasso: the banker carried 12 of the 13 provinces Pérez had won in the first round, including many of the poorer and predominantly indigenous highland areas. He often did so by crushing margins, aided by the fact that in several highland provinces, Arauz’s totals were smaller than the voto nulo. It is hardly a stretch to say that the rift within Ecuador’s left cleared Lasso’s way to the presidency.
How and why did this rift develop? Thea Riofrancos’s Resource Radicals offers a thoughtful analysis of the origins and ground-level dynamics of the divergence within the Ecuadorean left. Focusing mainly on the years 2006–2016, it provides a political ethnography of key clashes over the extraction of natural resources, seeing these episodes as central to the consolidation of two broad camps, which Riofrancos terms ‘radical resource nationalism’ and ‘anti-extractivism’. The former ‘demands collective ownership of oil and minerals’ and sees Ecuador’s natural resources as a vital means for carrying out progressive social policies—poverty reduction in particular. The latter camp, by contrast, ‘rejects extraction entirely and envisions a post-extractive society’, and opposed the Correa government’s plans for large-scale, open-pit mining of gold and copper as both ecologically disastrous and anti-democratic, accusing Correa of riding roughshod over the 2008 Ecuadorean Constitution’s commitment to prior consultation of affected populations. For Riofrancos, beyond the immediate debate over policy priorities, this contention over resources also raises more profound questions about the purposes of progressive politics and the location of popular sovereignty: not just who controls the subsoil, but, ultimately, who rules?
Resource Radicals emerged out of the author’s experiences living in Ecuador in 2007–08 and out of fieldwork conducted between 2010 and 2016. Based in Providence, Rhode Island since 2015, Riofrancos is a political scientist and an active member of the us radical left, writing regularly for outlets such as n+1, Dissent and Jacobin. In her work to date, critical analysis of the Pink Tide has overlapped with eco-socialist advocacy: she is also the co-author of A Planet to Win, a 2019 manifesto for a Green New Deal. Resource Radicals is written in more academic vein (it is based on her 2014 doctoral thesis), and joins an expanding body of scholarship on the politics of natural resource extraction. Her approach differs, however, from historical or political-economic studies and from the ‘resource curse’ literature in its strong emphasis on the discursive realm, as the place where rival political visions are constructed and clash with one another. Yet her main concern is to show how ‘popular mobilization shaped the political and economic consequences of resource extraction’, and she is always careful to link figurative battles to material facts and to their historical context. The result is a level-headed and perceptive national case study that sheds light on the broader dilemmas of the Pink Tide.
Natural resources have, of course, been central to Latin America’s fortunes for centuries—from the colonial exactions of the Iberian powers through to the late 19th-century export boom that drew much of the region more closely into the global economy, on deeply unequal terms. While Ecuador’s economy was dominated for most of the 20th century by agricultural exports, discoveries of oil in the Amazon in the 1960s and then gas on the coast in the 1970s made the country a hydrocarbon exporter. For a time, under the military dictatorship of Guillermo Rodríguez Lara, revenues from the state oil company were used to fund national developmental goals. But in the 1980s, in Ecuador as elsewhere in Latin America, amid escalating debt crises and global economic turbulence, this state-led model yielded to neoliberal recipes, combining deregulation and fiscal retrenchment. Developmental goals were side-lined, while export dependency only increased.
Yet it was not neoliberal governments that reaped the benefits of the commodity super-cycle after 2000. Instead, high world prices for oil, gas, metals, minerals, soya and other primary export goods swelled the coffers of one progressive government after another—from Chávez’s Venezuela to Morales’s Bolivia, and from Lula’s Brazil to Correa’s Ecuador—making possible significant expansions of social and welfare spending that slashed poverty across much of the region. As Riofrancos notes, however, the peak of the Pink Tide also coincided with the emergence of the concept of ‘extractivismo’, which has been mobilized by critics of these governments to assail their continued dependence on natural resources.