After the Ecuadorian election
by Marc Becker
Lenín Moreno narrowly turned back a resurgent conservative restoration in Ecuador’s April 2 presidential election. Rafael Correa’s former vice president defeated the wealthy banker Guillermo Lasso by a slim margin of 51 percent to 49 percent.
In the campaign, Moreno vowed to continue Correa’s spending on social programs including education, housing, and infrastructure that lifted millions out of poverty.
Lasso, a member of the reactionary Catholic cult Opus Dei, pledged to cut social spending, privatize healthcare and education, and slash taxes for corporations. He also promised to create a million jobs, though his platform lacked details on how he would do that or what kinds of jobs those would be.
Lasso was finance minster under Jamil Mahuad in 1999 whose policies led to an economic crisis, the dollarization of the economy, and the exodus of millions of Ecuadorians in search of employment. Lasso personally benefited from the crisis, as he speculated on financial losses and moved millions of dollars in ill-gotten wealth into offshore accounts in Panama and elsewhere.
In the 1990s, Ecuador gained a reputation as home to some of the hemisphere’s most powerful and well-organized social movements for their battles against neoliberal economic policies. Popular protests removed a series of conservative presidents from office, and in fact targeted the policies that Lasso previously and currently advocates.
Now in the 2017 election some of the activists from those same organizations actively supported a candidate who vowed a return to the ravishes of austerity and an upward redistribution of wealth. Carlos Pérez Guartambel, the current president of the once radical Indigenous federation Ecuarunari, famously proclaimed, “a banker is preferable to a dictatorship that has stripped away our land, declared a state of exception, and locked us up in jail.”
The opposition to some of Correa’s policies is not hard to understand. His reliance on extractive economies—particularly petroleum and gold mining in the eastern Amazon—alienated environmentalists and Indigenous activists who otherwise might have supported Moreno’s candidacy. Activists who protested mining operations faced police repression and imprisonment.
Lasso promised to release those imprisoned in ongoing protests against extractive economies and to hold binding consultations on mining and oil exploitation. The blatant opportunism of a wealthy banker proclaiming to defend the rights of Indigenous peoples even as he advocated for a return to the vicious neoliberal economic policies that had initially mobilized the communities a generation earlier is immediately apparent.
Lasso outpolled Moreno in Indigenous communities, both in the rural central highlands as well as the eastern Amazon. Some of those communities also have a strong presence of evangelical Christians. Support for Lasso reflects either a lack of a political consciousness on the part of the voters, or the depth of frustration at Correa’s intransigence in the face of their complaints.
Moreno, in contrast, had his strongest base of support in the province of Manabí that was the epicenter of an April 16, 2016 earthquake that devastated the Ecuadorian coast. Correa’s strong governing structures launched effective reconstruction efforts, but the vote also seems to reveal that voters responded to standard clientelist practices rather than leftist ideologies.
Despite being named for the Russian revolutionary—a name that is not that uncommon in Ecuador—Moreno does not emerge out of the traditional ranks of the left. Before serving as Correa’s vice president, he worked in marketing and in tourism. After being shot in a robbery in 1998 that left him paralyzed, Moreno turned to laughter therapy and authored numerous books on his theory of humor.
As vice president, Moreno won recognition for his promotion of the rights of disabled people. Unlike Correa’s famously abrasive personality, Moreno is more reserved. He is personally well liked, though some observers are concerned whether he will be able to emerge from out of under Correa’s shadow.
Social movements as well as the broader left have emerged weakened after a decade of Correa’s rule and the election of Moreno. Some blame Correa’s authoritarian nature for closing political spaces, including terminating political parties, labor unions, social movements, and bilingual education programs, which the left could otherwise have used to advance their agenda. Some argued, in a quite myopic and short-sided fashion, that they would have more opportunities to organize under Lasso’s neoliberal policies rather than under the continuance of Alianza Pais (AP, Country Alliance) rule.
The actual governing policies of a Lasso administration—as opposed to his empty campaign rhetoric—inevitably would have led to a new round of protests, including by those who openly supported him in the election. But that is the problem that Ecuador’s social movements faced—protest alone does not solve problems. To do that, one must take office and deal with the complicated and messy process of implementing policies. One thing remains clear: a Lasso presidency would have been a disaster for Indigenous communities, social movements, and the environment.
No evidence or historical precedence exists that the ascendency of a conservative candidate benefits the left. Such a development might momentarily assist in the mobilization of popular forces, but in terms of implementing positive concrete policy initiatives the left must have a presence in power. To move left, we must move left.
Some leftists point to Correa’s adherence to a welfare model based on the redistribution of surpluses derived from the export of commodities rather than shifting away from a capitalist mode of production as ultimately harming their broader agenda. A common complaint is that neither Correa nor Moreno are true leftists, but rather adhere to neoliberal policies repackaged under a nationalist guise.
Even with all of the limitations and complications of the current political environment, Moreno’s election—even by a narrow margin—was a positive and fortunate outcome.