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A deepening political crisis is facilitating the rise of authoritarian forces


Ecuadoran President Daniel Noboa gives the annual Report to the Nation in the National Assembly, 24 May 2024. Photo: IMAGO / Agencia Prensa-Independiente

Ecuador captured the imagination of the international Left in the first decade of the twenty-first century when a majority overwhelmingly approved a new, progressive constitution in 2008. The country played a pioneering role in recognizing nature as a subject of rights, in establishing the concept of buen vivir (good living) as the guiding principle on which the country’s social, political, economic, and cultural future would be based, and in promoting twenty-first-century socialism as a new system of organizing society.

Martha Moncada Paredes is an independent researcher, environmentalist, and feminist.

Since then, however, Ecuador has experienced more setbacks than transformations, and more failures than achievements. Today, the country is making headlines around the world for the alarming rates of violence and insecurity it is enduring and the growing emigration of its population. There is even talk of a new migratory wave, comparable to the one experienced by the country at the beginning of this century. In order to understand the setbacks Ecuador has experienced, here I seek to offer an interpretation in four acts.

Act 1: The Illusion of Change and the Recovery of the State

How can we explain the gradual consolidation of the Right in Ecuador after the country experienced a decade under Rafael Correa (2007–2017), whose government was one of the most progressive and internationally relevant of recent years?  The answer is not straightforward.

It is true that the Ecuadoran government succeeded in increasing domestic consumption levels, in expanding the coverage of social services, and in alleviating poverty. These changes were possible in an era characterized by a significant rise in oil prices and other primary exports, a “commodities boom”, as described by Maristella Svampa, which stagnated during the final years of Correa’s government, coinciding with the decline in international commodity prices.

Unfortunately, the economic growth and the illusion of well-being were not complemented by public policies aimed at transforming the country’s economic and social structure. Correa’s government did not change the underlying conditions of Ecuador’s deeply divided society, one of the most inequitable countries in the region. The reduction of income inequality, for example, came to a halt in 2014, and there was no political will to improve the redistribution of land or water, only a reinforcement of trends favouring the concentration of resources. One telling metric in this regard is the Gini index of land distribution, which rose from 0.78 in 2007 to 0.80 in 2017.

It is true that the Ecuadoran government succeeded in increasing domestic consumption levels, in expanding the coverage of social services, and in alleviating poverty.

Convinced that Ecuador’s difficulties could only be overcome by harnessing its natural resources, Rafael Correa encouraged public investment (roads, ports, airports, hydroelectric plants) and promoted the expansion of oil, mining, and agricultural operations. The drive to modernize the country was not exempt from serious allegations of corruption. In some cases, these were exaggerated by the dominant media and economic elites, for whom even conceiving of scenarios in which the rights of the majority of the population are guaranteed is unbearable. Nonetheless, they began to undermine the credibility of Correa’s administration.

Dissenting voices against government efforts were subjected to authoritarian attitudes and practices, as seen in the persecution and criminalization of social leaders linked to the indigenous movement who questioned the expansion of the oil and mining frontiers. In 2013, the indigenous movement reported that 189 people were accused of sabotage and terrorism, while human rights organizations cited more than 200 people.

Corruption, authoritarianism, prevailing conservative views on the family and women’s rights, and the alienation of social movements contrast sharply with the stances that Correa’s government displayed on the international stage, which were convenient for garnering support in the region and safeguarding domestic policies against US interventionism, with high-profile actions such as the granting of political asylum to Julian Assange. In fact, the remarkable international posturing of the Correa government demonstrated its colonial character by appropriating concepts and statements that it ultimately emptied of any substance when it came to the enactment of policy. One such example is the buen vivir policy, which was based on a concept created by the indigenous peoples and nations of the region.

A government of light and darkness, and disinclined to dialogue or to building a broad political movement, Correa’s administration promoted the presidential run of one of his closest collaborators, Lenin Moreno, who served as vice-president for almost the entire decade of Correa’s rule. Moreno’s rise to power, with a little more than half of the votes (51.16 percent), demonstrates the Ecuadorian population’s support for the so-called Citizens’ Revolution.

Act 2: The Right Regains Prominence

Opting for Moreno, who was seen as having little initiative, appears to have been a strategy to keep the government in the hands of political sectors sympathetic to Correa. However, the strategy collapsed as a result of internal disputes (branded as treason by Correa), the outbreak of the fiscal crisis, and shift in the balance of power that granted greater leverage to the banking sector and the agro-export industry. The latter burdened importing sectors and entrepreneurs who required the expansion of the domestic market and who would have been more closely linked to Correa’s government.

The Moreno government was characterized by fiscal austerity and the strengthening of economic policies increasingly favourable to big business, which are clearly in line with the neoliberal playbook and the measures dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Probably one of the most compelling demonstrations of this shift was the early prepayment of the foreign debt during the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.

The rejection of the Moreno government’s neoliberal drift and, in particular, of its intention to eliminate fuel subsidies, triggered the social upheaval of October 2019 that paralyzed the country for 13 days. In October of that year, the initial call by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and small-scale farmers’ organizations was warmly received by impoverished urban sectors, precarious workers, students, women, young people, and small traders. This constituted the seed of an alternative discourse and expressions of resistance that defend the rights that have been acquired while raising cautionary voices against the government’s “necropolitics of dispossession”, to use the term coined by Achille Mbembe.

Given the political, social, and economic climate in Ecuador, how is it that in the 2021 elections the banker Guillermo Lasso, a direct representative of the elites, won out, defeating the candidate of Correism by almost 5 percentage points?

The raid on the Mexican Embassy revealed the arrogance, hubris, and authoritarianism with which Daniel Noboa, the son of one of the richest families in the country, is wielding power.

Lasso’s victory symbolizes a process of right-wing radicalization in Ecuadorian society, driven by the fear, xenophobia, and racism that have taken hold of the population, along with the notion that the return of Correism would lead Ecuador to suffer the same crisis as Venezuela. Among the most significant developments that contributed to this shift towards the right are: the prison massacres that occurred between 2021 and 2022, in which more than 400 people were killed, the surge of violence in several cities, the presence of a migrant population, mainly Venezuelan, perceived as competition in the labour market, and Ecuadorian elites’ increasingly open repudiation of protest movements due to the leading role played by the indigenous movement, which staged a new national uprising in June 2022. For 17 days, this new uprising protested against the austerity measures, the downsizing of the state, cuts in public investment, and the privatization plans announced by Lasso.

Although Lasso’s inefficiency and his loss of legitimacy led to the premature end of his government, his term in power (2021–2023) and the subsequent rise of Daniel Noboa demonstrated the elites’ desire to regain direct control of the state, such that their own interests are represented. Underlying these interests is the intention to maintain and deepen their economic and political power through the expansion of extractivism, the precarization of broad social sectors, and the development of other economic endeavours that could well be linked to illegal economic activity.

The exponential growth of illicit money in the formal economy — from 1.2 billion dollars in the period 2007-2016 to 3.5 billion US dollars in 2021, according to estimates by CELAG — can only be understood in the context of the exorbitant profit margins of the banking sector. The internationalization of drug trafficking, as described by Fernando Carrión Mena, has resulted in the shift of a significant portion of cocaine production to Ecuador, an increase in the laundering of drug money (fostered by a dollarized economy), and the transformation of the country into a transit point for drugs exported to the US and Europe. The government’s only response to Ecuador’s threefold role in the drug market and the consequent increase in levels of violence has been the deployment of security and control policies.

Act 3: Securitization and the Dismantling of the State

Before reaching the presidency of Ecuador, Daniel Noboa’s main experience was the management of the companies of the economic group to which he belongs and whose origins go back to the despotic use of banana plantations on the Ecuadorian coast. He also had a brief stint in the National Assembly. His rise to power is attributed to his promise to overcome the political polarization between the Correa and anti-Correa factions that has prevailed in Ecuador in recent years, to his use of a non-traditional style of politics far from conventional models (brief public interventions, effective use of social networks), and to his pledge to firm up security once again, faced as it is with the exacerbation of violence that culminated in the murder of a presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio.

When Noboa began his mandate, Ecuador was the most insecure country in Latin America, with 8,008 violent deaths in 2023, which translates to a rate of 47 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Women, girls, and children are particularly vulnerable to this unprecedented violence. The records indicate a femicide every 27 hours and a 640-percent increase in the homicide rate of children and adolescents between 2019 and 2023, in addition to high rates of extortion and kidnappings.

To tackle this situation, Noboa opted for an unusual measure, unparalleled in recent history: the declaration of an internal armed conflict. This had three repercussions: the militarization of society, the declaration of a state of emergency (which seems to have been normalized with more than 28 states of emergency from 2017 to the present), and the labelling of criminal gangs as terrorist groups — a label that could be extended indiscriminately to whole sectors of society, activists, and opposition figures.

In a blatant display of the authoritarian style that pervades the Ecuadorian government, in early April of this year, the world watched with astonishment as the current president ordered a raid on the Mexican Embassy in Quito to capture Jorge Glas, the former vice-president of Ecuador under the governments of Rafael Correa and Lenin Moreno who had sought asylum. This was an unprecedented decision that transgressed international norms on the protection of diplomatic headquarters and asylum policy.

In response, Mexico severed diplomatic relations with Ecuador, the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) condemned the assault on the Mexican Embassy, and the Mexican government filed a complaint against Ecuador with the International Court of Justice. While it is concerning that the government has downplayed these immediate consequences, which could include Ecuador’s suspension from the UN, it is even more troubling to see the clock ticking forward while Noboa not only refuses to issue an international apology but has also continued to reaffirm the legitimacy of his actions.

The raid on the Mexican Embassy revealed the arrogance, hubris, and authoritarianism with which Daniel Noboa, the son of one of the richest families in the country, is wielding power. This should come as no surprise. Historically, Ecuador’s elites have demonstrated an unwillingness to hold dialogues and build social pacts, an open contempt for poor and racialized members of society, a weak commitment to democratic norms, and a disdain towards the public sphere that is reflected in policy decisions aimed at the systematic downsizing of the state and the weakening of existing institutions.

Dissenting voices against this hegemonic discourse managed to stop two central aspirations of the country’s right wing.

The rise of the authoritarian right in Ecuador takes place in a regional context where similar trajectories and parallels are all too common, as exemplified by the cases of Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, Javier Milei in Argentina, and Trump’s possible upcoming victory in the US. These parallels appear to suggest that the population’s fear of insecurity has become a breeding ground for social imaginaries that portray authoritarian and security-based solutions as the only possible response to the crisis of social, political, and criminal security. In the Ecuadorian case, moreover, it should not go unnoticed that the consolidation of the authoritarian right in power is also an attempt to halt possible new processes of struggle and resistance such as those experienced in 2019 and 2022.

The eruption of social protest is a latent concern given that in order to sustain its security policy in the face of the internal armed conflict and with the economic crisis as a pretext, the government has adopted measures that impact the majority of the population. It has enacted a policy of fiscal austerity and aggressive borrowing so extensive (by 2023 the foreign debt will exceed 60 percent of GDP) that Ecuador is on the brink of a possible default. This erratic approach, occurring in the absence of a defined political strategy for the country, has taken place amidst an increasingly obvious corporate takeover of the state for the private benefit of members of the regime.[1]

In order to both reaffirm the security policies implemented by the government and assess the possibility of running in the 2025 presidential elections, Noboa called a consultation and referendum on 21 May 2024. The results favoured the government in nine of the eleven questions that concerned the strengthening and tightening of security policies. Despite the critical implications of the proposals that were approved,  their scope was neither discussed nor challenged by the political parties and movements that claim to be in opposition in the National Assembly, such as Correism.[2] This is a clear demonstration of their complicity with the security approach promoted by the elites. The recent change of name of the Ministry of Women and Human Rights to the Ministry of Criminal Policy and Human Rights is evidence of the prevalence of this approach and the instrumentalization of gender policy in the authoritarian agendas of this administration.

Dissenting voices against this hegemonic discourse managed to stop two central aspirations of the country’s right wing, which were clearly aimed at greater levels of labour precarization and at subsuming Ecuador’s destiny to international arbitration tribunals. The majority rejection of these two proposals, the victory in a previous referendum (in February 2023) on demanding the closure of oil exploitation in the Yasuní National Park,[3] and the refusal to expand mining operations in the Andean Chocó, are the result of recent struggles and resistance initiatives where CONAIE has played a central role, hand in hand with environmental and social movements, academic sectors, and various left-wing groups. While they lack clearly defined leaderships, these groups include individuals with diverse identities. They make demands of their own and on behalf of other collectives to challenge, confront, and question the nature of domination.

Act 4: The Arduous Path to Unity of the Left

In light of the upcoming presidential elections of February 2025 and the deepening of the neoliberal agenda, various sections of Ecuador’s Left are pushing for the formation of a broad front that also includes “progressives” as the only way to halt the worsening of the current state of affairs and the exacerbation of the multiple crises the country is traversing. Although fraught with obstacles, it is an important first step.

Which sectors could be part of this alliance of the Left? There are more doubts than certainties about the willingness of Correa’s supporters to join a broad front. Although Correism managed to reach the National Assembly with a representative bloc in the last three governments, under Moreno, Lasso, and Noboa, its position has been ambiguous at best. On certain occasions, they have facilitated and supported the enactment of legislation contrary to the rights of the majority of the population, such as: the so-called Law of Humanitarian Support, which allowed for the termination of contracts during the coronavirus pandemic to be carried out bilaterally and directly between the worker and the employer; and the recent approvals of five laws that, among other things, include an increase in VAT (from 12  to 15 percent ), and a tax remission that benefits the country’s larger economic groups, the third such remission to be approved in five years.

Despite these difficulties, the development of an agenda with minimum agreements could help to make a difference.

Beyond its support for economic laws based on the neoliberal playbook, Correism has shown little inclination to forge agreements. For its representatives, the fact that they have around 25–30 percent of the electorate (according to the votes obtained in the last three presidential elections) entitles them to reject anything but eventual adhesions to their movement, which closes off the possibility of building a common agenda. Its limited willingness to unite with sectors of the Left and the impossibility for Correism to reach the presidency without alliances could be interpreted as a political strategy to maintain power in the legislative sphere and sustain the political platform of some of its main representatives, including Rafael Correa.

The alternative role that Correism represented nearly two decades ago has not yet been taken up by other groups. Although Leonidas Iza, president of CONAIE, embodies a discourse that challenges and questions power with a set of updated proposals that have managed to encapsulate nationwide demands, he must tackle the racism that prevails in Ecuadorian society as a precondition for becoming a leader capable of bringing together other sectors. Alongside him, lesser-known figures such as Pedro Granja[4] and Carlos Rabascall[5] are struggling to carve out a space in the political arena, mainly for electoral purposes. On the other hand, several local leaders, who are still being silenced, could gain ground as the plundering of the regions intensifies or as the announced economic policy measures aimed at eliminating fuel subsidies or introducing drastic changes in the social security system are imposed. The Left is therefore fragmented, and their good intentions and goals have not yet resulted in a proposal for real unity.

Despite these difficulties, the development of an agenda with minimum agreements could help to make a difference. This agenda should tend towards articulating viable proposals that confront the unilateral views of those in power as regards security and highlight its holistic, regional, and political dimensions, recovering the value of a substantive democracy that makes room for dissent, conflict resolution, and for the fulfilment of the people’s will,[6] formulating scenarios that allow for simultaneous progress in the reduction of the exploitation and plundering of nature, and the creation of dignified employment conditions in terms of new post-extractive perspectives, and guaranteeing the fulfilment of the rights of the broadest social sectors, as prerequisites for recovering a common horizon and defending life.

Translated by Diego Otero and Michael Dorrity for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

[1] A recent example that illustrates the corporate takeover of the state and the consequent carrying out of private business through the use of public structures is the plan to build a tourist complex in protected forest areas in Olón, a community on the Ecuadorian coast. The company behind the construction of the resort is owned by the wife of the current president.

[2] One of the questions in the referendum, for example, proposed that weapons, components, parts, explosives, and ammunition and accessories confiscated from criminal gangs should be appropriated for use by the police and armed forces, which would limit the possibility of determining whether a homicide was carried out by an agent of the state or a criminal, thus paving the way for the illegal arms trade and paramilitarism.

[3] The Yasuní-ITT Initiative, conceived within social and environmentalist movements, was taken up by Rafael Correa’s government. The driving force behind this initiative was to keep the oil in the ground in a protected area (that is not only valuable for its biodiversity but is also the territory of voluntarily isolated indigenous peoples) in exchange for financial contributions from the international community. In 2013, the combination of the government’s interest in a short-term flow of economic resources and pressure from the oil sector led to the failure of the initiative. The continued support from the broader public made it possible for organized social sectors and the Yasunidos collective to complete the necessary procedures to call for a referendum to discuss the president’s decision. Under Correa’s government, public institutions did not allow the referendum to take place. It was only possible to resume it ten years later when oil exploitation was already underway inside the Yasuní National Park.

[4] Pedro Granja, a lawyer from Guayaquil who studied criminology in Europe and Latin America, is an activist for human rights, especially for children and women, as well as for marginalized communities. He has been gaining visibility in local alternative media for his direct communication style and confrontational stance against the political and economic elites. He is the current presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of Ecuador, a politically weak group with nearly no representation over the past decade.

[5] Carlos Rabascall, a spokesperson who worked a communications specialist for the Correa government. He became a public figure when he participated, together with Andrés Aráuz, in the 2021 presidential elections, under the banners of the Correism movement. He has presented himself as a centre-left alternative for the next electoral contest, although he does not yet have a political party to sponsor his candidacy.

[6] After the triumph of the anti-extractivist positions in relation to Yasuní-ITT (in the 2023 referendum), the Lasso government deemed the shutdown of oil exploitation inapplicable. Similarly, in response to the social rejection of hourly contracts (in the April 2024 referendum), government spokespeople announced that they would establish guidelines for hourly work through ministerial regulations just days after the referendum was held.