Evan Ellis – Assistant Professor of National Security
In Ecuador, largely unnoticed in the United States, a quiet revitalization of civil society and democratic institutions is taking place.
The nation’s new President Lenin Moreno, once viewed as the “handpicked successor” of anti-U.S. populist leader Rafael Correa, has taken a path so different that his predecessor has branded him a “traitor.”
While Moreno has hardly embraced the United States or neoclassical economics, in his first months since taking office in May 2017, he has shown himself to be a thoughtful, capable, and decent man who has labored to re-open the Ecuadoran political space to pluralism and discourse, including tolerance of dissent from the media. Some believe that he may even move to reform the 2013 communications law, used by the Correa government to intimidate his media opponents to refrain from criticism.
Moreno has also made a significant effort to reach out to a range of social and interest groups on both the right and the left. Arguably never before in recent times have such a broad range of groups been brought into the Presidential palace Carondelet, for consultations. Moreno has, in style and tone, been relatively consistent with his promise to not govern in the name of either the poor or the business elites, but to seek “a government for everyone.” While his policy orientation is clearly left of center, his style is a refreshing departure from the combative, exclusionary orientation of his predecessor.
While Moreno has hardly delivered himself into the hands of the conservative business elites who have been some of the Alianza País movement’s principal opponents, his greatest resistance has arguably come from his predecessor, Rafael Correa, who has taken strong issue with the way in which Moreno has carried on his legacy.
While Correa and his supporters became increasingly outspoken against Moreno from his assumption of office in May 2017, the split was arguably deepened by the Moreno government’s prosecution of and failed attempt to impeach Correa ally and former Vice-President Jorge Glas, sentenced on December 13 to six years in prison for taking $13.5 million in bribes from the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht.
Even before the case against Glas was resolved, in October 2017 Correa allies led by Gabriela Rivadeneira unsuccessfully tried to remove Moreno as head of the party. In December, Rafael Correa returned to Ecuador from Belgium (where he had been living since he departed the presidency), with the declared goal of securing Moreno’s expulsion from the party. Yet as a testimony to the support that Moreno has nurtured in the country through his inclusive politics, the turnout for Correa at his rallies was much more modest than expected, and in some places, the man who dominated Ecuadoran politics for a decade was even heckled.
In the end, the attempt to expel Moreno and his supporters from the party failed, and on January 15, Ecuador’s constitutional court recognized Moreno’s continuing control of the party, prompting Correa to formally withdraw from the partytaking 28 Deputies with him, leaving Alianza País with a minority in the national assembly. In this context, Gabriela Rivadeneira announced the formation of a new movement bearing Correa’s initials, “Revolución Ciudadano” (Citizen Revolution) where Correa’s followers will presumably rally. Still, Ecuador’s national electoral authority has not yet certified the party as having complied with the legal requirements to be formally registered to operate in the country.
Although Moreno, in the short term, has won the struggle to maintain control of Alianza País, the assembly members loyal to Correa could present problems for Moreno’s legislative agenda, since several head committees in the assembly which must approve the government’s proposals, and have refused to step down.
Yet despite such struggles within his own party, Moreno’s otherwise inclusive orientation has, at least for the moment, managed to achieve a broad coalition in the National Assembly. Although Alianza País won only 74 of 137 seats in the assembly, Moreno has managed to build a broader coalition by reaching out to the opposition, compensating in part for the split with Correa and his supporters. Indeed, currently, an estimated 2/3 of its members of the assembly are counted as supporters of Moreno.
With respect to policy, with the defection of Correa’s faction, Moreno is left with only 46 seats in Ecuador’s 137-member assembly, increasing his dependence on other parties to pass his legislative agenda, and thus likely pushing him even further to the political center.
Moreno has thus far focused principally on his social agenda, include bringing back programs such as “Misión Las Manuelas” (Mission for persons like Manuel) which had been cancelled by his predecessor, and whose main objective is to help the handicapped. Moreno has also focused on implementing youth employment programs (in response to the estimated 45 percent underemployment and unemployment in the country. This social focus is evident in his flagship national plan “Todo una vida” (a life for everyone), although the ministries are only in the incipient phases of implementing it.
Although in his inaugural address Moreno sketched out the general shape of his policy vision, many specifics remain undefined. With respect to developmental objectives and the nation’s fiscal deficit, 4.5 percent of GDP in 2017, it is not clear to what extent he will continue relying on China as the nation’s principal source of financing, versus rebuilding Ecuador’s relationship with traditional multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (the debt to which Ecuador renounced in 2008). Nor, despite considerable indebtedness to the Chinese, has he advanced significant changes in taxation or other proposals to generate more revenue to close the budget shortfall. Nor has he advanced many details about his plans for the economy, dependent on oil, with an anemic 1.5 percent rate of growth in 2017.
In foreign policy, while Moreno has disappointed some with his restrained response to human rights abuses and the destruction of democracy in Venezuela, his avoidance of the rabidly anti-U.S. rhetoric of his predecessor is a welcome change for Washington. Although Moreno traveled to the United States in September 2017, the focus of his visit was attendance at the G77+China summit and an address to the United Nations, rather than bilateral talks with U.S. officials.
Beyond his work to advance “Todo una vida,” Moreno’s governance initiatives and outreach have been focused on a consultative referendum, which in November 2017 he achieved approval to hold, and which will take place February 4. The referendum seeks the population’s approval for five proposed constitutional amendments, a proposed change to Ecuador’s basic law, and an administrative change. Most of the changes reverse actions taken during Correa’s rule. One proposed constitutional amendment would eliminate multiple re-election, effectively preventing Correa from running for office when Moreno’s term expires in 2021. Other proposed changes include preventing those convicted of corruption from running for office, terminating the constituent council (a body created by Correa), putting off limits 2/3 of the petroleum-rich area in the Yasuni National Park previously opened up for drilling by Rafael Correa, similarly restricting mining in nature preserves and urbanized areas, and strengthening laws against the conduct of sexual crimes against minors. While almost none of the proposed changes could be called conservative, they directly challenge both the legacy and political future of Correa, who has not surprisingly begun campaigning stridently for Ecuadorans to vote “no” on each of the seven questions.
For his part, President Moreno appears poised to use a successful outcome on the referendum, as a mandate to press forward with an agenda that departs from or dismantles many of his predecessor’s programs. February 4 will thus be a very important day for the future of Ecuador.
Recommendations for the U.S.
For its part, in the U.S., the Trump administration should be attentive to the results of the referendum, and presuming that the outcome merits it, extend congratulations for a successful dement which demonstrates the health and revitalization of participatory democracy in Ecuador.
In the near-term, beyond such respectful diplomacy, there is probably little that the United States can do to advance its relationship with Ecuador, except to continue respectful engagement with Moreno’s government, and to continue to explore opportunities to cooperate where doing so can be beneficial to both countries. To this end, facilitating Ecuadoran access to the U.S. market for its exports (including its well-known flowers), encouraging U.S. tourism to Ecuador (one of the safest countries in the region, and most diverse given its small size), and coordinating on combatting narcotrafficking and other transnational criminal groups is a good start.
Given the quantity of debt that Ecuador has incurred with Chinese banks, the United States could also be helpful in Ecuador’s work to rebuild its relationship with the International Monetary Fund and international financial markets. In a similar fashion, a renewed dialogue by U.S. investors, facilitated by the U.S. government, could help the President Moreno government re-diversify the Ecuadoran economy away from the dependence that has accrued on Chinese interests. In addition, U.S. government material and technical support to help Ecuador strengthen its regulatory bureaucracy and management of public contracting could help the country to effectively combat the challenge of corruption (a central theme for Moreno) while most effectively leveraging the opportunities arising from commercial engagement with foreign partners such as China (but also with the U.S., Japan, India, and the European Union as well).
Ecuador is at a pivotal moment both politically and economically. A friendly hand from the United States will not turn Lenin Moreno into a close ally of Washington in the Andes, but helping the resoundingly decent politician succeed as he moves the country toward the center could help the country become one less problem for the U.S. in the region, while also doing right by the Ecuadoran people. In the process, such a positive relationship could be an important step in helping to restore the faith of the rest of the region in what the United States stands for..