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The changing of the guard in Ecuador

Lenin Moreno took office on May 24, pledging to continue the policies of his predecessor Rafael Correa. But he faces a tough job, both politically and economically. Español

Lenin Moreno. Carlos Rodríguez/ANDES. Algunos derechos reservados.

This may have been the first time since the nineteen twenties that the presidency of Ecuador has changed hands within the same party, and that in itself is something, but I doubt anyone has ever seen anything like the spectacle that was mounted for the handing over of power by Rafael Correa to Lenin Moreno.

A theatrical apotheosis, would be one way to describe the show, but not of the incoming head of state but the outgoing, one Rafael Correa: celebrated with fireworks, choirs, and a large number of testimonies as to his greatness. There is no doubt that, as politicians go, he was one of the most effective this country has ever seen. On the other hand, all except the most biased would have to admit that he had his dark side. But saint or sinner, the whole display was a bit much, a confirmation perhaps of Mario Vargas Llosa’s theory of the ‘civilization of spectacle’.

There is no doubt that, as politicians go, he was one of the most effective this country has ever seen. 

There were positives. One was that in broadcasting the half hour long homage to the now ex-president the national communications directorate interrupted the anti Hugo Chavez soap opera ‘El Commandante’. The show has been banned in Venezuela, which is hardly surprising given its bias and the present edgy situation in that country. And while the authors admit that it is not a documentary, what is true and what false has been left in doubt. The show is basically propaganda, but at the same time clearly demonstrates the war the Right has been waging against Chavismo, with the help of the U.S., from the very early years. What is happening now is simply a violent end game. That is, however, another story.

So, show over, off went Rafael Correa, straight from the inauguration ceremony to hospital, where he was treated for pneumonia, probably due to exhaustion, while the new leader of the ‘Citizens Revolution’, Lenin Moreno, took up the mantle. Notable up to now as a man who has been able to become President while being confined to a wheelchair, which undoubtedly says something positive about Ecuador, it remains to be seen what he will do in his new role, and whether he will be able to grow into it. Most are adopting a wait and see attitude.

What is happening now is simply a violent end game. That is, however, another story.

Most, but not all.  Some are simply unconvinced by Moreno, expecting nothing more than the continuation of past policies, with perhaps a more gentle face. Guillermo Lasso, the losing candidate in the second round of the presidential vote, is now a little more circumspect than he was a month ago in the heat of the final count. Lasso recently returned to the public stage with a more subdued rhetoric, while promising to continue the fight. What that means is not clear. Hopefully what it does not mean, looking again at Venezuela, is a scenario where opposition and polarization is the daily diet and where violence is entrenched. No one, probably not even Lasso, wants that.

Dialogue and more dialogue, and then what?

Moreno, meanwhile, has been calling for dialogue, singing his songs, and promising pardons for community activists charged with crimes such as sabotage or terrorism for blocking roads and suchlike during protests. The ‘criminalisation of protest’ as it has become known. The issue is high on the indigenous confederation CONAIE’s list of political priorities (a lot of its members are involved) and the request-demand for a broad amnesty is now being processed by the National Assembly. It is a promising sign, although it will almost certainly be weighed carefully by Moreno and his people. The demand may be fair, at least in most cases, but giving in too quickly will be interpreted as a sign of weakness, something the new administration cannot afford. Whether the policies that lead to the protests and the charges will be changed, is something else again.

Guillermo Lasso, the losing candidate in the second round of the presidential vote, is now a little more circumspect than he was a month ago in the heat of the final count.

To be honest, policy change does not seem particularly likely. Mining will go ahead where possible, despite the environmental and social consequences. One mine in the South of the country has been particularly controversial, creating major problems with the indigenous Shuar, a people unlikely to go quietly into their own goodnight. The mine, operated by a Chinese company, is being developed on land close to their territory; it is land the Shuar consider essential to their way of life, and that way of life is protected by a number of international treaties. They are right, but the mine has gone ahead anyway: communities have been displaced and there have been deaths, including the murder of an anti-mining activist which has never been satisfactorily solved. It is not at all clear how Moreno plans to deal with this. CONAIE is keeping up the pressure, and it is more than likely that the President’s people are in ‘informal’ talks with the indigenous group, hoping they can keep a lid on the issue for a while. 

Moreno may be luckier with other proposed mining projects, in particular where the major deposits are copper: the price of the metal has fallen sharply due to lower Chinese demand, and seems unlikely to recover at any time in the near future. These mines will probably never go ahead, at least not in Moreno’s term of office. As for oil, the plan for combating lower prices is to produce more from fields with lower production costs while reducing output from  older fields: one of the former, the highly contentious Block 43 (in Yasuni National Park) has been operating since September 2016 and will increase production to 70,000 barrels a day by 2018.

Mining and oil are not be the only problems. CONAIE has also been in the news for threatening to ‘discipline’ one of its former directors, Humberto Cholango, recently named head of the water authority SENAGUA. But the real issue goes beyond who heads up the authority. The job will be difficult: control over the distribution of water is a major issue for indigenous communities and has led to major clashes in the past. Water for mines or flowers (or Coca Cola), or water for small scale production of food for local consumption – your choice. It is not hard to guess which side the indigenous groups are on. Cholango will do more than well to keep the sides from going to war and, to be honest, the position seems more like a poisoned chalice than anything else.

Cholango will do more than well to keep the sides from going to war and, to be honest, the position seems more like a poisoned chalice than anything else.

Free speech is like free trade

On the subject of war, the Correa government opened various fronts during its ten year term, the corporate media being a major target. Correa was a tough opponent for the opposition: court cases (which he was clearly never going to lose), sanctions and direct threats made life uncomfortable for many. And while he won the battle, he also created a lot of enemies, many of whom were interviewed in a recent Guardian article. It is not precisely a great piece of reporting, accepting with little question the idea that freedom to express opinions was inexistent in Ecuador and that those who did so were automatically persecuted. The corollary being that those under threat of legal action were simply poor innocents who happened to disagree with government policy and who have, as they say here, been persecuted simply for ‘thinking differently’. The reality is much more complex. For most of the people cited by the Guardian the issue is one of journalistic impartiality abandoned in order to campaign directly against the ex-president.

The Correa government clearly responded in kind to opposition propaganda, in doing so creating a polarization and climate of dubious information that was difficult to escape. There were, on the other hand, sanctions imposed by the Superintendent of Communications which strained credulity: seven publications were fined for not reproducing, during the election campaign, an Argentinian investigation into the offshore finances of Guillermo Lasso. It’s another sticky issue related to the difference between political activism and freedom of the press. Moreno declared he did not agree with the fines, but that was before becoming president. He can clearly not allow the private media to dominate his agenda.

The Correa government clearly responded in kind to opposition propaganda, in doing so creating a polarization and climate of dubious information that was difficult to escape.

The idea that repealing the present media legislation will resolve the dispute, as the Lasso people are claiming, is hardly logical and they would likely have kept the legislation if their candidate had become president. For anyone associated with the Left the problem is more acute. Free speech is similar in many ways to free trade: it is not free; someone always controls it and, in the case of the media, those people are, almost without exception, opposed to progressive economic policy. Liberals they may be, in some cases, but socialists they certainly are not. Creating balance was what was needed, and to a large degree that happened, although that balance became a sort of ‘fight club’ where impartiality and the middle ground were lost. It is easy to see that in combating one monster, the state can become another.

The law needs reforming, of that there is no doubt. There is however an underlying problem: a judiciary almost entirely controlled by the government. Until the situation changes, disputes related to the difference between freedom of the press and political campaigning will be impossible to resolve fairly.    

On the positive side

One immediate and highly popular change, is that ‘Plan Familia’, a programme to combat teenage pregnancy and whose principal figure was a member of the right wing catholic organization, Opus Dei, has been shelved. Another is the appointment of an Anti-Corruption Commission, whose promise lies in the very fact that there will be one after years of an alarming lack of action on the issue - the Odebrecht and PetroEcuador cases were exceptions, simply too big to contain. The makeup of the new commission has been questioned and, to be fair, the presence of many people linked to the previous government casts doubt over its legitimacy. More questionable is that the commission, or ‘Anti Corruption Front’, will have no powers to investigate but will rather oversee public policy; the Attorney General will have the responsibility for inspecting and prosecuting. It is not a situation that inspires confidence.  

What has come more quickly than expected is that the Odebrecht scandal has finally resulted in action, a number of people have been arrested while the homes and offices of other have been searched. One of those under suspicion is an uncle of the Vice president Jorge Glass, while another is the State Controller, Carlos Polit, who strangely enough is presently out of the country due to… ‘health problems’. The hope is that this will not turn out to be an isolated case, and that the new government will be as tough on corruption as Moreno has promised.

Jorge Glass has once again been forced onto the back foot by the accusation against his uncle, defending himself once again against rumours of corruption. The fact that his relative is the only one of the five arrested who has been permitted house arrest has not helped. Glass is said to have been relegated by Moreno, which of course they both deny, but the Vice President is clearly not part of the new President’s intimate circle. The Moreno’s wife, on the other hand, certainly will be active as ‘First Lady’. An independent, articulate woman, she will be an invaluable asset.

What has come more quickly than expected is that the Odebrecht scandal has finally resulted in action, a number of people have been arrested while the homes and offices of other have been searched.

On the economic front, the use of the dollar as national currency is heavily backed by the business sector (with dollar denominated debts), and the system will even be strengthened, says the new Minister of Economy, Carlos de la Torre. In that he is simply repeating the mantra. Given the present political climate, proposing to establish a new national currency is considered tantamount to suicide. This, despite the problems the strong dollar is causing for exporters and the country’s balance of payments. The need for dollar income means that agricultural policy will continue to prioritise exports and agri-business. There probably is a way to get out of the dollar trap, although it will not be easy. But without dialogue finding the right path will be impossible.

The future: the economy.

As for the future of the new government, it is all down to money. And as far as cash is concerned, a recent report by JP Morgan suggests that Moreno is taking over in troubled times. The conditions are hardly ideal: the strong dollar affecting exports; no ability to devalue as have other Latin American countries; a relatively weak oil price; and a deficit-debt that is beginning to cause problems. If the economy stabilizes, and there have been faint signs that this is taking place, almost everyone will be happy, otherwise the ride will be rough. There will undoubtedly be cuts, mega infrastructure projects will be the first to go, with the attendant risks cuts pose for the economy as a whole. Staff reduction will not come immediately however: the ministry of finance recently floated bonds on the international market to postpone the problem. In the meantime, the hope that the economy will right itself in the near future, coupled with the fear that cuts will undermine an already weak government probably mean we will have to wait for some months to find out what the future holds. 


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