In the second round of Ecuador’s presidential election on 11 April 2021, the right-wing former banker Guillermo Lasso defeated Andres Arauz, the candidate supported by Rafael Correa and sections of the left, by 52.4% to 47.6%. An opportunity to break with Lenín Moreno’s neoliberal policies has been lost. Though opportunistically critical of Moreno during his campaign, Lasso will continue in the same harmful direction: advancing the interests of big capital (particularly the powerful banking sector and import-export industry), welcoming foreign multinationals, uniting with other right-wing leaders in Latin America, and submitting to US dominance of the region. How can this disappointing outcome be explained, given the vast anti-austerity mobilizations that shook the country’s political establishment in 2019?
Lasso’s victory was anything but predictable. In the most recent general elections, the two leading forces were the movement aligned with Rafael Correa – which amassed 42 representatives – and Pachakutik, the political wing of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador (CONAIE), which elected 27 members: the best parliamentary result ever for the indigenous movement. In the first round of the presidential election in February, the votes for Arauz (just over 32%) and Pachakutik’s Yaku Perez (just under 19%) added up to a majority, which could have been further increased by the 14% won by the social-democratic candidate. Lasso came second, with an extremely close lead over Perez and 13% less than Arauz. As Arauz and Lasso prepared to face each other in the run-offs, Perez and the CONAIE complained about what they described as massive electoral fraud. The right-wing flank of Pachakutik began advocating a vote for Lasso, while the president of the CONAIE, Jaime Vargas, supported Arauz, joined by the majority of indigenous organizations in the Amazonian part of Ecuador. The country’s so-called progressive factions were split. Amid these discordant voices, the CONAIE defaulted to encouraging a null vote. On election day, 16.3% of ballots were spoiled, and Lasso stormed to victory.
Though Perez and Arauz are more ideologically aligned than Perez and Lasso, the two candidates of the left were divided by more than just the electoral fraud allegations. These were rather a cypher for an antagonism that stretches back over a decade. To understand why a significant part of Ecuador’s popular movement refused to support Arauz, we need to examine the changing face of Correa’s presidency. From 2007 to 2009, Ecuador’s government set a new direction for the country. It led the way in auditing its public finances to identify illegitimate debts and suspend their repayment. In 2007, at the beginning of Correa’s time in office, the government came into conflict with the World Bank and expelled its permanent representative.
The same year, Correa announced the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, which promised to leave 20% of the country’s oil reserves (about 850 million barrels) untouched so as to protect biodiversity in the northwest of the Ecuadorian Amazon and roll back the damaging effects of extractivism: deforestation, contamination of running water, greenhouse gas emissions and soil erosion, as well as overreliance on international markets. In 2009, the government unilaterally restructured part of its commercial debt and won a victory against private creditors, mainly US banks and investment funds. It also took a number of other positive steps during its first term: democratically adopting a new constitution, dismantling the US military base of Manta on the Pacific coast, and attempting to set up a ‘Bank of the South’ with Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay.
Yet Correa’s second and third terms marked a retreat on all these fronts. His party, Alianza País, became increasingly closed off from the indigenous organizations, the CONAIE, the National Union of Educators (UNE) and the union of Petroecuador (the national oil company). As in Lula’s Brazil, mobilizations by such groups came under regular attack from the executive, who accused them of defending their corporatist privileges at the expense of the national interest.
Correa froze the indigenous community out of the government’s decision-making processes and clashed with the CONAIE over its demand to write the principles of the new constitution into law. In 2009 tensions with these civil society organizations erupted over two measures: the government’s draft water bill – which enabled the privatization of water services and the restriction of community control – and the attempt to open up the mining and oil industries to foreign capital. At a special meeting in September 2009, the CONAIE railed against Correa’s programme, demanding that the government ‘nationalize the country’s natural resources and instigate an audit of concessions in the domains of oil, mining, aquifers, hydraulics, telephone, radiophone, television and environmental services, external debt, tax collection and the resources of social security’.
Later that month, the CONAIE organized rallies and blocked roads and bridges in opposition to the water bill. After weeks of refusing dialogue and claiming that the indigenous movement had been manipulated by right-wing forces, including former president Lucio Gutiérrez, Correa finally agreed to negotiate with the CONAIE in October. His administration conceded on several points – passing amendments to environmental and water legislation, agreeing to initiate a permanent dialogue between the CONAIE and the executive – yet by this time the writing was on the wall. Correa would not mount any challenge to Ecuador’s extractivist-export model, nor entertain the demands of the indigenous movement for greater governmental influence. Things deteriorated from that point. In 2013 Correa abandoned the Yasuní-ITT scheme, citing its unaffordability. His government pursued a free-trade deal with the EU and gradually reversed its non-repayment policies so as to gain greater access to international markets. It adopted reactionary stances on abortion and LGBT rights, and launched an assault on the autonomy of the universities.
In response to these betrayals, in June 2014 a number of progressive organizations led by CONAIE presented the government with a list of demands: greater regulation of the mining and oil industries; an end to the criminalization of protest; a reversal of new liberalizing labour laws; reforms to energy and water policy; an end to ethnic community school closures; rejection of the constitutional reform that would enable unlimited electoral mandates; rejection of the free-trade agreement to be signed with the European Union; and a policy to protect indigenous rights. Correa’s response? The following December his government tried to evict the CONAIE from their headquarters in Quito, but was forced to back down after a major public outcry. He later tried (again unsuccessfully) to silence the left-wing environmentalist group Acción Ecológica by withdrawing its legal status. The state continued to meet peaceful protests with excessive force.
In 2017, Correa’s presidential mandate expired and he was succeeded by his chosen candidate, Lenín Moreno. Almost immediately, the country’s debt rose to a ten-year high, and the new president turned to the IMF for support, negotiating an austerity package that included mass public-sector layoffs and an end to fuel subsidies. That led to the massive popular protests of September–October 2019, which forced Moreno to cancel his cutbacks and roll out some modest stimulus measures. Yet it did not take long for him to reverse course. In 2020 he signed another humiliating agreement with the IMF for a $6.5 billion Covid loan, forcing his administration to commit to a brutal neoliberal reform programme for the following year. He also introduced a bill to grant total autonomy to Ecuador’s Central Bank, removing it from democratic oversight and tying it to the interests of private finance.
Alongside these fiscal measures, Moreno broke decisively with Correa’s symbolic opposition to American empire. He revoked his predecessor’s decision to grant asylum to Julian Assange, handing the Wikileaks founder over to the British justice system, and he recognized the far-right puppet Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela – effectively supporting US-led regime change. All the while, Moreno’s popularity faded to nothing. The final polls of his presidency gave him a mere 4.8% approval rating. Despite Arauz’s attempts to distance himself from Moreno (by promising to repeal the IMF agreement, for example), he remained tainted by Correa’s legacy for many in the indigenous and environmentalist movements. This lingering hostility is what motivated many on the right of Pachakutik to swing behind Lasso instead.
Moreno’s hard-line neoliberal policies will now be extended by Lasso. The new president has announced his intention to lower corporation tax, attract foreign investment, give even more freedom to the financial industry and consolidate free trade by joining the Pacific Alliance. It’s likely that Lasso will also try to integrate leaders linked to Pachakutik and the CONAIE into his administration in order to neutralize potential opposition. If he succeeds, the indigenous movement will become even more divided than it was on the eve of the run-off elections. Yet if he fails, and Pachakutik and the CONAIE return to active resistance, they have the potential to frustrate his ambitions. In October 2019 the CONAIE joined with a range of trade union groups, feminist associations and environmentalist collectives to draw up an alternative socio-economic programme, against Moreno’s IMF-backed model. The following year, more than 180 civil society organizations signed a document demanding the ‘suspension of payment of external debt, and an audit to be carried out on external debt accumulated between 2014 and the present, as well as citizen controls of how the debts contracted were utilized’. This street-level opposition to the IMF and World Bank could form the basis of another popular mobilization along the lines of September 2019, which Lasso’s regime will struggle to face down.
The high number of spoiled ballots in the presidential run-offs signals the disenchantment on which CONAIE could draw. Null votes rose from 1,013,395 in the February vote to 1,715,279 in April – representing about 30% of Pachakutik supporters. Turnout was also on the floor, with 10,501,517 voters and 2,193,896 absentees. Yet the left must contend with the fact that most of the remaining 70% Pachakutik’s vote share was captured by Lasso. So strong was the rejection of Correa’s heritage that these popular forces were willing to ally with the banker if it meant they could keep the former president’s heir out of office. It is fundamental for the future of the popular movement to radically oppose the government that Lasso will form. Now, the challenge for the CONAIE, trade unions, feminist and environmentalist groups is to overcome this polarization between Correism and the traditional right by forging a political alternative.
Read on: Juan Carlos Monedero: ‘Snipers in the Kitchen’, NLR 120.
An earlier version of this piece appeared on the CADTM blog.