C&B Notes

Progress in Ecuador

Ecuador is heading in the opposite direction of Venezuela.  The path would not be easy under any circumstances, and it has been made more difficult by the economic mess the previous President left behind, but current Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno is making real progress in restoring key democratic principles.

Here’s something you don’t see every day.  The anointed successor of one of Latin America’s most notorious pink-tide, leftist populists has shifted to the center, relaxing restrictions on the media, projecting an attitude of compromise, and ditching the prickly, strong-man leadership of his predecessor.  In just eight months, Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno, the former Vice-President of Rafael Correa (2007-2017), has begun to change the autocratic legacy of his predecessor.

Next weekend, Ecuadorians will take to the polls to vote on a referendum championed by Moreno that would bar Correa from seeking office again.  The referendum’s success would be a major step toward strengthening the country’s democratic institutions after the consolidation of executive power under the previous president.  But Ecuador is still in the midst of a treacherous moment; the country is on the edge of a financial cliff, with poorly structured short-term external debt estimated at 60% of GDP.  President Moreno will need some of his recently accrued good will before long.

The country Moreno inherited was exiting ten years under Correa who, along with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, became the face of the mid-2000’s left-wing populism in the region.  During his ten years in office, Correa steered Ecuador toward autocracy.  Correa severely curtailed freedom of the press, ridiculing journalists, nationalizing newspapers and media outlets, passing restrictive libel laws, and hijacking television airwaves to promote his administration’s policies and attack critics.  Like his friends in Bolivia and Venezuela, Correa also convened a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution and packed the justice system with partisans.  Internationally he aligned Ecuador with other autocratic-minded regimes in attempting to undermine democracy and human rights in the Organization of American States and the United Nations Human Rights Council.  Perhaps most worrying for Ecuador’s near future, Correa borrowed massively from China and international bondholders to pump up state spending on popular public projects.  Correa, who has a U.S. PhD in economics, left office with massive public debt, a large fiscal deficit, and minuscule foreign reserves, setting up the crisis Moreno will likely have to deal with this year.

Still, the change in Ecuador in the year since the contentious 2017 election is nothing short of astonishing.  Moreno took office after winning a vote marred by claims of irregularities that brought hundreds of thousands to the streets in protest.  In an op-ed in the New York Times, the vice-presidential candidate for Moreno’s challenger, Guillermo Lasso, warned that “the new government will not have the legitimacy to govern a divided country.”  After a recount confirmed Moreno’s victory, many assumed Moreno would serve as a caretaker president until Correa’s inevitable return.

President Moreno’s first eight months in office has silenced the skeptics.  Moreno has adopted a conciliatory, friendly style of interacting with the public that stands in sharp contrast to Correa’s fiery, divisive rhetoric.  He has reached out to the business community and opposing parties — welcome gestures after ten years of “us vs. them” politics under Correa.  And luckily for Ecuador’s democracy, Moreno’s actions speak louder than words.  In the weeks after his inauguration, Moreno invited prominent members of the media to the presidential palace, promising a new era of press freedom and inviting public criticism.  He has promised to relax the controversial Correa-era communications law and has stopped Correa’s practice of verbally attacking the press.  In his last months in office alone, Correa denounced the media on 64 distinct occasions.  Moreno hasn’t publicly attacked the press once since taking office.

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