Politics

"Democracy in Ecuador will triumph or perish in broad daylight"

An interview with the former foreign minister of Ecuador, Guillaume Long.
The Secretariat of the Progressive International sat down with Guillaume Long to discuss the escalating assault on democracy in Latin America — and how we can fight back.
The Secretariat of the Progressive International sat down with Guillaume Long to discuss the escalating assault on democracy in Latin America — and how we can fight back.

On 18-20 September, the Progressive International (PI) will host its inaugural summit, convening members from across the planet. As part of the summit, the PI will also discuss the right’s lawfare in Latin America, co-hosted by Wiphalas Across the World, with Luis Arce, Andrés Arauz, Alicia Castro. Register here for the summit.

Progressive International: How would you describe the present juncture in Ecuador?

Guillaume Long: The present juncture in Ecuador is about whether democracy is going to triumph or perish in broad daylight at the hands of an increasingly authoritarian government.

It’s actually quite fascinating to think that this government’s own aesthetics and self-avowed political course was oriented toward ‘democratization.’ It was about this idea, peddled by the elites, that Correa had led Ecuador for 10 years under the rule of populism and an ‘authoritarian project’ and therefore after 10 years of Correa you needed to, in Spanish, “descorreizar” — to undo the Correa state and the correísta institutions, and democratize.

But what we’ve had since the end of Correa’s government in May 2017 is an increasingly authoritarian project. We call it ‘neoliberal authoritarianism,’ and the exact opposite of democratization is now underway. The executive branch now exerts near total control over the justice system, leading to a huge wave of judicial persecution or ‘lawfare’ against the opposition, all essentially directed by the government.

And authoritarianism is creeping in all sorts of different ways. Repression of protests on the streets has taken unprecedented form. If you think about the October 2019 protests — probably the largest in Ecuador’s contemporary history, certainly the largest in my generation — they were met by extremely repressive, extremely brutal violations of human rights that Ecuador hadn’t experienced in decades. There were eleven deaths on the streets, something like 1500 people injured, and over 1200 people detained.

So there is real encroachment of authoritarian practices across the board, whether you look it at in terms of the breakdown of institutional checks and balances, or whether you look at it in terms of sheer repression of protests and human rights, and now, for the first time in decades, political prisoners. Some people, including elected officials, were detained and kept for months in pre-trial detention because of things that they said on social media. Senior members of Correa’s movement were tried on charges of “rebellion”, for calling for the resignation of the president, which is completely lawful and is contemplated by the Constitution. There was a wave of people arrested after the October protests who had been elected just months before, including the Prefect of Pichincha, the equivalent in the US of the Governor of the State where Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is located. The governor of that province, Paola Pabon who belongs to the Correísta movement, Movimiento de la Revolución Ciudadana (the Citizen Revolution Movement), was arrested, again on charges of rebellion, and detained for several months. She has since been released, but the trial is ongoing.

We now have politicians, members of the opposition, that are in exile and have become asylum seekers — including elected legislators, members of the National Assembly, who have had to flee Ecuador. This is also something that hadn’t happened in decades. These are people who have had to flee Ecuador because of things that they’ve said, because of their role in the protests, because of fear of reprisals or for the safety of their families.

This essentially means that this neoliberal authoritarianism is really a return of, what in Latin America is understood as, “la guerra interna” or the “internal war” — this whole doctrine based on counter-insurgency, on internal threats to national security, on cracking down on the Left and on progressives. It’s a real return to this climate of the Cold War.

PI: There’s a very interesting relationship between “la guerra interna” happening in Ecuador and the internationalization of lawfare tactics to erode democratic institutions. How do you see Ecuador within the context of this broader, global transformation?

GL: I think this is a regional geopolitical project that’s being led by Latin American elites in alliance with certain sectors in the United States. It’s really striking how similar the situation has become in very different Latin American countries.

This comes after a progressive phase in Latin American history. There were an important number of states wanting a different relationship with the world and with the United States, wanting a different development model, with different economics, with a greater role for the state, state regulation, public investment, and of course, a big emphasis on reduction of poverty and inequality. And this lifted 90 million people out of poverty between roughly 2000-2012.

Now is a new phase in Latin American history, marked by the return of conservative rule, particularly since the commodities decline of 2014-15. There was also some political fatigue along with the economic troubles. Certainly, in the case of Ecuador, the years of 2015-2016 were very bad in terms of growth, but there was no increase in poverty or inequality. And in fact, poverty continued to decrease, albeit at a much slower pace, despite the external shock. But nevertheless, this was a difficult time in Latin America, and it meant through different means that the Right came back to power.

In some cases, this was through elections, as in Argentina; in other cases, through coups. They actually started earlier with Honduras and then Paraguay, then in Brazil, and then in very brutal form in Bolivia. In other cases, such as in the case of Ecuador, this was through a whole different mechanism: having the successor, victorious on the prospect of continuing the Citizen’s Revolution, change his tune and become a sort of Trojan Horse — a political treason in the Shakespearean sense, doing this U-turn, 180 degrees to the Right.

So, the Right came to power in different ways in different countries, but then it orchestrated a similar program, both on the economic front — the return of neoliberal IMF structural adjustment programs and austerity politics — but also on the political and on the judicial front, for political persecution.

The Left is being persecuted in countries where the Right was successful in returning to power and it’s being persecuted in very similar ways. The idea is to make sure that the historic leaders of the Left cannot return to power. So, in the case of Brazil, Lula was in jail because he would have won the elections against Bolsonaro, and in the case of Ecuador, Correa is outside of the country because otherwise his popularity would do a lot of damage to the new elite pact that is governing Ecuador and help progressives get back into power.

Similarly, if you look at the court case against Correa which is based on a forged notebook, you’ll also find the case of a very suspicious notebook in Argentina. Exactly with the same technique — receiving amounts, and very dubious evidence, but there is a ‘copy-paste’ phenomenon between Argentina and Ecuador. Between Ecuador and Bolivia,: the attempts to block MAS from running in the upcoming elections in Bolivia is very similar to the attempts to block the party from existence and obviously from running in the upcoming elections in February 2021 in Ecuador. The attempts to block the candidate in Bolivia, Luis Arce, are very similar to the attempts to block Correa in Ecuador. The sentence that Correa was landed in April sentences him to eight years in prison, but more importantly, it bars him from having his political rights for 25 years, which essentially excludes him from being a candidate in Ecuadorian politics for that period.

I think that where democracy is given a chance, the likelihood is that progressive governments will be elected. Argentina is a clear example of that. Why? Because it’s one thing after 10-15 years of progressive rule to want a change and vote for the Right. But when neoliberalism is being applied by those right-wing governments promising change in such an aggressive form through IMF loans and conditionalities, people realize that is not the kind of change that they wanted.

The people have a very vivid memory of what progressive governance was all about: the return of sovereignty, of the reduction of poverty and inequality, of big works in infrastructure that had a real impact on jobs and the economy but also on rights: building schools, hospitals, highways in some of the most abandoned parts of the country. In the case of Ecuador, hydroelectric plants, ports, airports, infrastructure for systemic competitiveness which actually had a virtuous effect on the private investment and activity — all these things are fresh in people’s memories. So, when you have austerity coming back to the fore, then it’s unlikely to be re-elected.

If democracy had been given a chance in Brazil after two years of Temer, Lula would have been elected. If democracy is given a chance after the disastrous year of Añez, I think you will see the MAS elected. If democracy is given a chance in Ecuador — the latest polls certainly confirm it — if Correa were a candidate he would clearly win. And the chosen candidates of Correa’s party are very likely to win, not only at the presidential level, but also at the parliamentary level where Correa’s party is likely to have at least the largest group in the National Assembly.

And this is all very scary for the elites who have gone very far and crossed many Rubicons in terms of trying to crack down on progressive forces, Correa, and correístas in Ecuador. And because they’ve crossed too many of these red lines, it’s very difficult for them to become nice people again and return to the democratic and institutional fold. So, they are going even further. There is a good French term for that, “fuite en avant,” paradoxically running away from the problem but in the direction of the problem, in this case, going even further down the line of authoritarianism in order to prevent this comeback because they’re very worried about what that comeback could imply.

So, there are many parallels and many similarities between right-wing authoritarian projects in Latin America right now.

PI: Let’s go back to the Ecuadorian case then for a second. Many members of the Council of the Progressive International wrote a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as well as the Special Rapporteur on Peaceful Freedom of Assembly urging action on the case of Ecuador and the fundamentally illegal maneuver of the electoral authorities to refuse to register Fuerza Compromiso Social, the party of Rafael Correa. Where are we now in the struggle, or in the fight, for just free and fair elections?

GL: There have been two strategies that have been carried out by the government and its allies to block the potential victory of Correa’s party and supporters in the upcoming elections in February.

The first is to block Correa himself, because they are concerned of the political effects of Correa physically present on Ecuadorian soil, and with immunity because as a candidate in Ecuador, as soon as your candidacy has been accepted and registered you have immunity until after the elections. This means that Correa could be in Ecuador campaigning, and he is a tremendous campaigner, and they know that well because they lost all the elections against him during 10 years. So, they don’t want him in Ecuador. The way that they’ve barred him from being physically present in Ecuador and condemned him to carrying out his political activism on the social networks, because even the media doesn’t give him any space, is by landing him a sentence which bars him from running and keeps him out of the country.

Now in Ecuador, to try someone in absentia is very difficult. They opened over 30 criminal investigations against Correa; 25 are still ongoing. But most of these criminal investigations could not lead to court cases that could be tried in absentia, and if you can’t be tried in absentia and there’s no guilty sentence, then they can’t bar Correa from running? So, they finally found one, on a very specific case of bribery, that can be tried in absentia. They followed that through and in April of this year there was finally a guilty sentence against Correa — and this is based on the testimony of one of his advisors having claimed that she had received money from various people from the business world with Correa’s knowledge.

This brings us to the notebook and how the notebook was written in the present tense: “Today, I received such and such a sum from such and such a person,” down to the exact cent, and then in another column saying, “Money Handed Over,” as if checking that the money was “entregado,” or “handed over.” A diary, in real time, written in the present tense, real time accounting and a real time notebook. But then it was revealed that this notebook was actually physically printed four years after the alleged ‘facts’. So, Correa’s former advisor, Pamela Martinez, had to say, “Oh no, I wrote the notebook from memory and on impulse.” Which of course really delegitimized this document. But it was nevertheless accepted under huge pressure by the court, by the judges, and it was the basis of this guilty sentence of eight years prison and a 25-year suspension of political rights for Correa.

Now, the problem, from the point of view of the government and the anti-Correa alliance, is that the only way they can block him from being a candidate, is once the sentence has been affirmed, or has exhausted all the appeals. And right now, Correa’s defense has appealed, obviously, this sentence and the registration of his candidacy is the 18th of September, and if the appeals haven’t been exhausted by the 18th of September, Correa is still presumed innocent and can run for office. So there’s a real race against time for these appeals processes to be exhausted before the 18th of September.

In normal circumstances, without the judiciary being pressured by the Moreno government and its allies, this could take months, even years for the appeals process to be exhausted. But in this case, it had been incredibly swift. The pandemic has essentially delayed and postponed all of the court cases in Ecuador, the judiciary has essentially shut down, but the one exception is Correa’s case. This is advancing at a speed that is breaking previous records of expediency in the management of Ecuador’s justice. So that’s one way they are trying to block him, we’ll have to see if they succeed doing that before the 18th of September or if there’s an honest judge who says, “No, I don’t accept this.” The elites are increasingly divided over this. There’s no unanimity over the persecution of Correa because there is a small faction of the political Right in Ecuador that is saying elections without Correa, or correísmo, or Correa’s party would not be legitimate, would not be credible, and even if it’s our guys on the Right who win, the next government will be facing political instability, protests, no real political strength, and no real international legitimacy.

In terms of the party, it’s even more complicated because Correa had his own party until 2017 called Alianza País. It was the most successful party in the contemporary history of Ecuador, it had won presidential, parliamentary elections, but also referenda. In fact, in Correa’s last term as president, the party had more than two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly and it was so powerful it even had the capacity to reform the constitution. But, in November 2017, a few months after Moreno was elected, Moreno realized that the party was going to fast become a huge threat to him, it was going to become an opposition party despite the fact that Moreno himself was a member of that party. The party started protesting Moreno’s neoliberal reforms. Moreno managed to get another favorable sentence, essentially handing him over the control of the party, which means that the party has become a small marginal faction. the bulk of Alianza Party’s members jumped ship, and its voters stopped voting for the party, as it was associated with Correa and obviously not Moreno, perceived as a traitor.

Moreno’s not a strong man. He’s a man of transition who will not himself be a candidate in the next elections. He has the lowest popularity and approval ratings in the history of Ecuadorian democracy since 1979, he’s competing with Abdalá Bucaram and Jamil Mahuad’s credibility ratings. A poll came out a few weeks ago giving Moreno an 8% credibility rating. So, Moreno knew that he couldn’t have a strong party of his own, but what he wanted was Correa to be party-less. He wanted the correístas not to have a strong instrument in opposition to him. And he succeeded in that. He barred Correa from having a party and ever since November 2017, Correa and his followers have been trying to create a new party.

But this has been systematically denied by the electoral authorities controlled by Moreno. And so finally, in 2019, the biggest political movement, faction, force in Ecuador — correísmo — which didn’t have a party, managed to make a deal with a previously existing political party, and so the party called Fuerza Compromiso Social was used as a platform for correísmo. And Correa’s supporters ran in local municipal elections on that platform in 2019 and did very well. So suddenly, Correa has a political party — it’s not his political party, it’s a political party that existed before —but still: he had a political party, he could run, you could have correísta candidates.

Well as of July, the electoral authorities have banned that political party, which is unbelievable really. It’s not very subtle authoritarianism. It’s not subtle lawfare. It’s very heavy handed. They took away Correa’s party, the party that Correa created, then they barred him from having a new party, and when he managed to make a deal — really being against the ropes to make a deal with a pre-existing party — they got rid of that pre-existing party. They barred it from the electoral register. This decision is now pending appeal, but for all intent and purposes, the operation has been successful, because Correa’s supporters have had to come to an agreement with yet another party, in order to be able to present a ticket on time and run in the February 2021 elections. Going into elections under these circumstances, with that level of persecution, is extremely debilitating, confusing for voters, messy, awkward, and the Moreno government and his elite pact know it and it has been their strategy all along.

This is where the international community should play its most important role — denouncing Moreno’s government in not holding free and fair elections, persecuting the opposition, barring candidates and attempting to ban the biggest political force from participating in the coming elections. But, in Latin America the hard, neo-McCarthyist Right is in power in so many places, there has been no regional reaction. The UN remains flat on its feet; and the inter-American human rights system, which responded to human rights abuses after the October 2019 protests, has so far not reacted to the violation of political rights in Ecuador.

So, this is the next step: to make Moreno and his government accountable internationally and pile on the pressure so you can have free and fair elections in February.

Photo: Jcabezasaguilar

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Date
03.09.2020

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