Ecuador’s Dilemma

Ecuador’s Dilemma

The main lesson of correísmo is that no project of transformation, if it wants to sustain and even deepen social change, can weaken the people who propel it forward.

Indigenous activists and workers march on March 5, 2015, in downtown Quito, protesting the government of President Rafael Correa. (Photo by Rodrigo Buendia/ AFP via Getty Images.)

The Ecuadorian government of Rafael Correa (2007–2017) stirred hopeful expectations in the continental and global lefts. Although the young economist did not have a record of participation in social movements and had not played any direct role in resistance to neoliberalism, he had been part of a group of heterodox economists known as the Foro Ecuador Alternativo (Ecuador Alternative Forum), some of whom were critics of structural adjustment. His brief tenure as minister of finance in 2005 showed the potential for a different kind of economic management, embracing a neo-Keynesianism at odds with the policies of the International Monetary Fund. Suffused with radical rhetoric, his government, under the banner of “Alianza PAIS,” undertook various measures in line with those ideas in its first years that encouraged those high expectations: the approval of a constitution that considerably widened the range of rights and laid out ample democratic guarantees, an audit of the external public debt, a reaffirmation of new labor rights (in outsourced businesses and for domestic workers), an effort to strengthen publicly owned business in the provision of social services and in strategic areas of the economy, an expansion of social spending, and an increase in taxes on the highest incomes. Correa’s government presented itself as one of the most consistent participants in the Latin-American “Pink Tide” and even encouraged people, like me, who did not expect large structural transformations in property relations or in the country’s place in the global economic order.

Still, there was no lack of contradictions and problems in Correa’s government. From the beginning, the president expressed profoundly conservative ideas about sexual and reproductive rights, was fanatically obsessed with respect for order and authority, and held an unstoppable belief that good technology was enough to solve the social and environmental problems of large-scale mining operations. But with the passage of time, many of the significant reforms of the early Correa government lost force, got stuck, or were reversed. The contradictions and problems overtook the democratic reforms and became defining features of the government.

Correa’s government included left-wing intellectuals and some old militants of socialist parties, but also his childhood friends from conservative circles in Guayaquil, business interests linked to public-sector contracts who had been attracted to the campaign team by the president’s brother (Fabricio Correa, a wealthy businessman), and a growing number of technocrats with varying levels of political experience. This heterogeneous coalition that formed the nucleus of correísmo ended up dominated by conservative factions most closely joined to groups in power. With the victory of Lenín Moreno in April 2017, who comes from a radical socialist background but lacks Correa’s iron-willed leadership and has rolled back some of Correa’s policies in office, that coalition has exploded into pieces and now faces an uncertain political future.

Even apart from its current state, the Ecuadorian Pink Tide experience illustrates the tensions faced by all political movements that seek to use the state as a tool of change: How do you revolutionize the economy when the government depends on the health of the economy that it seeks to revolutionize? How do you control functionaries subject to the temptations of power and money, whether through outright corruption or business cooptation? How do you concentrate power sufficiently to make changes in the face of powerful resistance while not turning that concentrated power into something uncontrollable, dangerous, and threatening to civil and democratic liberties that popular movements need to consolidate?


Socialist politics should bring social power to bear on the power of capital and the state—a process that strengthens society and its autonomous associations, while gradually ensuring the subordination of the state to the mandates and pressures of these associations. But the state has evident advantages over these voluntary civil society associations. It has numerous specialized full-time workers, while associations, unions, and movements are formed mostly by volunteers with little specialization. The state has greater authority and discipline, while associations are decentralized and heterogeneous. Antonio Gramsci framed this problem decades ago: the order that the proletariat (today we would say the popular classes, the subaltern, and the social movements) seeks to establish is unique in human history, because it must build political hegemony without already having established economic hegemony. The bourgeoisie was dominant in the economic sphere before taking state power, and feudal lords controlled the economic system before constructing monarchies. Proletarian social power is much more heterogeneous, and its hegemony is intermittent.

Even if the idea of subordinating state power to society is considered utopian, it offers us a general orientation for socialist politics. A government that drives forward a democratic transformation needs to strengthen social associations, increase their number, increase their public responsibilities, diversify their fields of intervention, support their internal democratic practices, and make room for their political representation. Perhaps not all of this can be done at the same time, and there might be improvements in some areas and setbacks in others. But the general tendency should be clear.

With the government of Rafael Correa, the opposite tendency was dominant: the weakening, division, and retreat of civil and union associations. Correa’s government did not even construct a party, much less a network of popular, social, and union associations endowed with public responsibilities. The absence of a true political party—Alianza PAIS is technically a movement rather than a party—with structures autonomous from the state, internal ideological debate, and some authority to make decisions about public policy, was glaringly obvious at various critical junctures over the course of Correa’s decade in power. It strengthened the tendency toward centralizing decision-making under the president and officials close to him. Ecuador’s so-called “citizen’s revolution” gave no priority whatsoever to the creation of a political organization outside of the government. Instead, Correa’s “statist” government ended up strengthening an independent technocracy and systematically excluded social actors. The only guarantor of public interest was the state and its leaders.

This feature of correísmo can be seen in the Article 232 of the 2008 constitution, which states that “those regulated cannot participate in the regulatory bodies.” According to this constitutional principle, teachers cannot have a voice and a vote in the definition of educational policies, nor can associations of drivers or users of public transportation in the offices of transit regulation, nor the indigenous in policies that affect their territories. The “neutrality” principle from the judicial system was applied to the institutions that define public policies, where the opposite rule should come first: participation and democracy.

In place of civic and union associations, the constitution designed another system for citizen participation in the state: the Council for Citizen Participation and Social Control. Its members were appointed on the basis of merit and a point-based system, in which CVs, titles, publications, and tests of knowledge were valued most of all. Although participation in associations counts for some “points” in this contest, the judges deciding the appointments determine the weight of various factors, and they represent the state, not social associations and organizations. This same selection mechanism was applied to choose the “representatives” of retirees in the Ecuadorian Social Security Institute, the professors on the Council of Higher Education, and the indigenous people who participated in the councils on bilingual education, to name just a few examples. This merit contest, rather than promoting the public responsibilities of unions and social organizations, is designed to eliminate the bonds of representation.

These restrictions were echoed in the government’s decision to maintain the neoliberal prohibition (originally approved in the 1998 constitution) that made public-sector work stoppages illegal. Strikes in some non-state sectors, like transportation and the media, were also constitutionally prohibited. This was followed by a constitutional amendment in 2015 that severely restricted union organizing in the public sector. The government treated public-sector unions just like any boss would: they were a bother rather than an ally.

This policy of weakening public-sector unions—the backbone of Ecuadorian unionism—was applied severely against the National Union of Educators (the largest union in the country), the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, and to the large union federations historically grouped in the Frente Unitario de Trabajadores. The government created its own network of teachers, its own network of indigenous people, and its own union federation. None of these new associations created by the government had real power over public policy. As a result, none of them (with the partial exception of the Network of Teachers) managed to truly consolidate themselves. The government used a strong hand against all independent social mobilizations, most notably the organized resistance to mining—the most dynamic movement of the decade. The attorney general’s office records that the government has initiated between 300 and 400 trials per year against individuals in the anti-mining movement since 2009 for crimes against state security. Close to one hundred of those trials deployed a statute against “terrorism and sabotage.” In a country like Ecuador, historically characterized by low levels of repression and political violence, this number is outrageous and unprecedented.

Public policies under Correa were designed and applied without a defined role for associations and popular organizations. The place where they stood to make the greatest impact is where their absence had the worst effects: in the management of public health. Instead of looking to primary care, which has an invigorating effect on citizen participation, especially among women, the government focused on hospital care. The negative effects were soon evident: no inroads were made against health issues like infant malnutrition, and hospitals were packed with sick people who would have been better attended to in neighborhood or rural clinics.


The governments of the Correa era displayed a serious distrust of social organizations, especially in sectors that were more inclined to political action. They would not even allow powerful social organizations in a subordinate relationship to the state, along the lines of classic Latin-American corporatist political strategies under Juan Domingo Perón of Argentina, Lázaro Cárdenas of Mexico, or Getúlio Vargas of Brazil. With some small exceptions, the Ecuadorian government pursued public policies that systematically discouraged social organization. Any social control over governmental authority was suspected of threatening the government’s project.

The participation of unions and associations in designing and managing public policy does not lack for potential problems. Special interest pleading and corporatism are not fanciful inventions. But the state cannot claim a monopoly on public interest. Determining what that public interest is requires debate and a struggle among diverse interests. Experiences in alternative governments at the local level in Ecuador over the last decade, like the town of Cotacachi, the province of Tungurahua, or the township of Nabón, show that better relationships between the state and social organizations are possible. These places created assemblies with considerable citizen participation. They were able to strengthen organizations representing the common people, who developed some control over planning, public policy, and its implementation. A virtuous cycle of cooperation and mutual support is possible even if tensions and conflicts still exist.

The statist direction taken by the Ecuadorian government between 2007 and 2017 was a deliberate choice by the forces that came to dominate the Alianza PAIS: the most conservative groups of state technocrats and intermediaries associated with the management of public contracts. They weakened popular organizations, social movements, and civic associations to reduce their capacity to demand more—to support new reforms, correct errors, deepen advances, and sustain the pace of social and political transformation. This is the main lesson of correísmo: no project of transformation, if it wants to sustain changes and even deepen them, can weaken the people who propel it forward. Without the leadership of social and citizen mobilization, no project of democratic transformation is possible.

Pablo Ospina Peralta is professor of social and global studies at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Quito and co-author of Promesas en su laberinto: Cambios y continuidades en los gobiernos progresistas de América Latina (2013).

Translated by Patrick Iber.