The Divided Left in Ecuador

The Divided Left in Ecuador

Rafael Correa has long been hostile to indigenous movements in Ecuador. It’s no surprise that they are reluctant to support his successor.

Yaku Pérez Guartambel with supporters in Quito this February (Juan Diego Montenegro/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Ecuador has been governed by Alianza País for fourteen years. In the party’s first decade in power, from 2007 to 2017, its government was led by President Rafael Correa, one of the emblematic figures of the Pink Tide of left-wing governments across Latin America. When Correa left office, amid economic decline and charges of authoritarianism, he was succeeded by his former vice president, Lenín Moreno. It was supposed to be a smooth transition, but Moreno soon clashed with his predecessor: he pursued corruption cases against Correa and deepened austerity policies his predecessor had initiated. In October 2019, after the announcement of an increase in fuel prices, a protest movement erupted. Then, early in 2020, Ecuador became the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Latin America. By April, bodies were being left in the street in Guayaquil, the country’s most populous city.

These crises are the backdrop for the presidential elections, which will be decided in a second round of voting this Sunday, April 11. To win the presidency in Ecuador, a candidate must either receive greater than 50 percent of the vote or over 40 percent and at least 10 percent more than the second-place candidate; otherwise, a second round takes place between the top two vote-getters. In February, Correa’s chosen candidate, a young economist named Andrés Arauz, came in first place. Initially it seemed that the second-place candidate would be a surprise: Yaku Pérez Guartambel, who represents the indigenous movement that had often clashed with Correa over issues like large-scale mining projects, was ahead when a portion of the results was released early. But Pérez’s margin over the third-place candidate, the conservative banker Guillermo Lasso, was narrow, and after a few days the count settled in Lasso’s favor (Pérez claimed electoral fraud).

In the runoff this Sunday, Arauz the Correísta will face Lasso the neoliberal. How have the indigenous social movements that supported Pérez’s campaign responded to this choice? And what do the first-round results reveal about the future of the left, in Ecuador and throughout the region?

The Rise of Alianza País

Between 1995 and 2005, the parties that had emerged during Ecuador’s period of social modernization found themselves in crisis: three presidents and an all-powerful vice president fell one after the other in confusing episodes involving popular mobilization, indigenous leadership, and military intervention. The cause of this political instability was not mysterious: neoliberal reforms put in place after debt crises in the 1980s were not only unpopular with unions, the indigenous movement, and voters; they also divided the governing elite. New rules for distributing public goods, justified fears about the inflexible discipline of the international market, and the consequences of the indiscriminate opening of the economy caused multiple fractures within the business class. In 1999, an economic crisis led to an 8 percent decline in GDP and the failure of a dozen private banks. It was under these conditions that Alianza País rose.

Partially overlapping with this cycle of economic stagnation and instability was a new cycle propelled by a boom in commodity prices. Across Latin America, the first decade of the twenty-first century saw reductions in poverty and inequality, an increase in public investment, and strong growth among middle-income sectors. In Ecuador, high fossil fuel prices powered state spending. Correa, thrice elected between 2007 and 2017, took advantage of the economic boom to expand the state’s role in the economy. During this period of prosperity, despite the efforts of the most powerful unions and indigenous organizations to capitalize on discontent, the major oppositional political force was headed by Guillermo Lasso, the owner of the only large bank from the coastal region that had survived the financial crisis. In 2013 Lasso founded a center-right party, CREO, and launched his first bid for the presidency, winning a handful of seats in parliament.

As president, Correa actively silenced, discredited, and persecuted dissident voices. From 2013 to 2019, Pérez served as president of the largest regional indigenous organization and he has been a fierce opponent of large-scale mining. He was put in jail four times and accused of terrorism. The severe repression was part of a strategy to reinforce polarization, which made it difficult to build political alternatives outside of the two dominant parties: either you supported the government’s project without qualifications, or you unquestioningly lined up behind Lasso’s project of economic liberalization.

Still, there were attempts to challenge the government and the two major parties from the left. The Ecuadorian indigenous movement, headed up by the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE) and its diverse allies, was the most persistent. It argued for strengthening public authority under a diverse coalition of community and labor organizations. Its proposals—from indigenous territorial autonomy, the redistribution of land and water to promote family-based agriculture, and cancellation of large-scale mining operations—were supported by local coalitions including tour guides, small farmers, and artisanal miners, but made little significant political headway.

A second effort, fleetingly successful, was led by a government functionary in charge of Ecuador’s social security system. Ramiro González, the former leader of the social democratic party, Izquierda Democrática, founded Avanza, a center-left political party, which won more than thirty mayoral elections in 2014. González sought to differentiate himself from Correa without embracing the neoliberal politics of Lasso’s party. But his balancing act ended when he was accused of corruption and fled the country. His party lost almost all representation in local elections in 2019.

A Victory for the CONAIE

Moreno’s election in 2017 at first suggested continuity for the Alianza País government. Moreno was a quiet figure, little inclined to the polarizing and denigrating discourse of Correa. Initially he presented himself as a president who sought to preserve the state-oriented policies of his predecessor while expanding dialogue and the governing coalition. But then a major conflict broke out between Moreno and Correa. A few months into his presidency, Moreno suspended Vice President Jorge Glas Espinel for his connection with the international Odebrecht corruption scandal, after which he was sentenced to six years in jail (where he remains today). Correa defended Glas, despite all the evidence against him. The majority of parliamentarians from Alianza País took the side of Moreno, but the government lost its majority in parliament, leaving Moreno dependent on votes from right-wing parties, including CREO. With declining revenue from commodities after the boom ended in 2014, and with fewer options for expanding the public debt (the path taken by Correa), Moreno moved to deepen austerity policies that Correa had initiated in 2014 The polarized atmosphere was maintained, but Moreno’s government had moved away from the Correísta side to Lasso’s side. Corruption scandals that had long beset the Correa government turned into legal cases, many well-documented but some less so, accelerating the erosion of popular support for Correísmo that had begun in 2014.

As the Moreno government floundered, the Correístas presented themselves as the only alternative to misrule and betrayal. But in October 2019, as part of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund that required reducing the fiscal deficit by 1.5 percent of GDP, Moreno moved to increase the value-added tax by 3 percent but failed due to his lack of a majority in congress. Then Moreno’s government took a brutal economic measure: it increased fuel prices after fifteen years of stability. The costs were felt unequally; the 75 percent of Ecuadorians who use public transit were hardest hit by the increase.

The two-week uprising that greeted these measures was progressive, massive, and popular. Professional drivers, who protested first, rapidly arrived at an agreement with the government. But the CONAIE soon took charge of the protests, and it was not looking for a compromise. The government sought to deflect responsibility by blaming the mobilizations on Correa. But Correísta forces did not have a leading role in the protests; they lacked organizations with capacity for street-level action. The Correístas wanted to steer the protests toward the goal of removing Moreno from office, while the CONAIE focused on repealing the economic measures. Finally, the government abandoned the increases after a live debate mediated by the United Nations and transmitted on state and private TV channels.

The end of the fuel price increases was an overwhelming political victory for the CONAIE. In spite of government efforts to undermine it, the CONAIE emerged as the strongest opposition to the economic policies of liberalization. Immediately after the increases were scrapped, indigenous groups organized a series of mass meetings for debate and deliberation to design an alternative economic plan for Ecuador, centered on redistribution, taxation of large fortunes, and social investment in small- and medium-sized enterprises. Correísmo could no longer present itself as the only viable political alternative.

The COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, only exacerbated the sense of crisis in Ecuador. Around the world there have been many examples of political corruption in the vaccination process, but few were more craven than the case of Ecuador’s health minister, who acknowledged on national television that he moved his mother to the head of line—and the government supported him. The CONAIE, meanwhile, bolstered its prestige by organizing security, health, and food distribution at the community level during the pandemic.

The 2021 Election

The top four candidates in the February election received a combined 88 percent of the vote. Each of them represents a different social coalition.

Andrés Arauz is a thirty-six-year-old economist who worked in the National Secretariat for Planning and Development before becoming minister of culture and a high functionary in the Central Bank of Ecuador. The Correístas had hoped to put forward a new young figure, but Arauz’s only political support came from Alianza País’s old base. The slogan “Arauz is Correa” appeared in posters and was painted on walls.

Arauz promised a return to the golden years of Correa’s citizens’ revolution: “What we want, we already lived through it, compatriots,” he said during the presidential debate. His vote share of 33 percent shows significant overlap with Moreno’s in 2017, although it is lower in the Andean and Amazonian provinces, where support for Correa has been falling since 2009, and where social organizations are much stronger.

Since 1984, the coastal region has systematically voted for different varieties of right-wing candidates and right-wing proposals (like the privatization of the social security system in 1995). Correa lost votes in the region in 2006 but has since gained more and more support on the coast. Meanwhile, the Correístas have lost voters in the Andean region, where the electorate had supported center-left candidates and proposals since the 1980s. This trend might seem like a paradox, but the shift is a sign of how Correa gradually embraced right-wing values. The more conservative coastal region also received disproportionate investment in sorely needed public infrastructure during the Correa years: highways, bridges, schools, hospitals, canals, and barriers against flooding. Support for Correísmo is lower in the poorest areas; the pro-Correa vote has been linked to places where the emerging “middle classes”—people who have only recently and precariously moved past the poverty line—are dominant. These are the groups that most benefited from improved public services between 2007 and 2017. An exception is the majority support that Correa maintains in the Afro-Ecuadorian population of Esmeraldas, on the northern coast, and in the poor areas of the province of Imbabura, in the northern mountains.

In the months leading up to the election, Lasso was leading in the polls, but his support fell over time. His promises of further economic liberalization and reduction in the size of the state had limited appeal in an atmosphere of desperation. He is still associated with the disastrous economic policies of the Moreno government, which he openly supported during the uprising of October 2019. Lasso’s vote share (28 percent in the first round in 2017 and 20 percent in 2021) can be explained primarily as a rejection of Correa. His polling numbers are higher in the mountainous interior provinces than in those on the coast, where he is from and where the conservative vote has been historically stronger, but where Correa built support through popular infrastructure spending. His sudden drop in support in the Andean and Amazonian regions this year suggests that he can no longer count on the anti-Correa vote. Only the wealthiest cities and neighborhoods remained loyal to Lasso in the first round.

Pérez, the candidate of Pachakutik—the party linked to the Ecuadorian indigenous movement—was underestimated, including in exit polling conducted on the day of the election. This was because his vote came overwhelmingly from the smallest and poorest provinces of the country, and in the rural zones of the Andes and the Amazon. He received more than 19 percent of the national vote, a much better result than the candidate supported by Pachakutik in 2017, who scraped together just 7 percent.

In his campaign, Pérez spoke an ecological language, vague in programmatic terms but centered on reconciliation and empathy for the poor. His political support is rooted in his relationship to the CONAIE, in which Pérez had played a leading role in the fight against structural adjustment policies and large-scale mining operations. His campaign referred to a “communitarian and ecological left” and the fight against corruption and the authoritarianism of Correa. He also pitched his candidacy as the vindication of his humble origins and his history of activism. He didn’t make many inroads in the middle classes, but his campaign led to a strong showing in indigenous and impoverished rural areas. The distribution of electoral support from the indigenous movement is the geographical inverted mirror of Correísmo: strong in the Sierra and Amazonia—the poorest, most organized, and most indigenous areas—and weak on the coast.

The fourth candidate to break into the top tier was Xavier Hervas, a businessman supported by Izquierda Democrática. His unexpected 15 percent of the vote has been attributed to active campaigning among young people on social media. Hervas didn’t crack into loyal Correa supporters, and he didn’t receive many votes in indigenous and poor areas, which Pérez captured convincingly. Instead, he competed against Lasso for anti-Correa middle-class voters from mountainous regions who did not fully support Lasso’s right-wing agenda—an electorate to which Pérez also tried to appeal. Izquierda Democrática is well established in small and medium-sized cities of the Sierra and Amazonia, where mestizo residents have old rivalries with the surrounding indigenous population. The vote for Hervas was the socially inverted mirror of the Pérez vote: urban, from the consolidated middle class, and mestizo or white.

The results of the first round show how the polarization of the Correa years has broken down. Correa did not admit the existence of opponents on the left; as the Kirchners of Argentina once put it, “To our left is the wall.” In February 2021, two fissures appeared: one on the left, and one in the center. The second-round election between Arauz and Lasso threatens to repolarize the electorate. But there are now viable alternatives waiting in the wings.

What Comes After the Hegemony of Correísmo?

Only 32,000 votes separated Pérez and Lasso in the first round of the election, but Pérez’s call for a recount was denied by the electoral tribunal. With his path to the presidency closed for now, Pérez, along with the CONAIE and Pachakutik, has signaled that he will not endorse either Lasso or Arauz.

Why isn’t the indigenous movement, which has been characterized by its fight against economic adjustment, closing ranks in support of Arauz in order to stop Lasso, the candidate who has sketched out an openly neoliberal agenda? The short answer is that Correa’s decade in government has made an alliance impossible.

While campaigning for the second round of elections, Arauz said, “We have come to terms with many errors that were committed in the government of Rafael Correa, and I hope Pachakutik can see in us an option that can find possibilities of future cooperation.” Among those errors were “the criminalization of social protests, and the issue of extractive projects in our country.”

Up to this point, however, Correa has made no declaration admitting these moves as “errors”—and it is Correa who still holds most of the power in the party. Correa’s authority stands in contrast with political dynamics in other Pink Tide countries. In Bolivia, President Luis Arce served as minister of the economy for fourteen years, but he owed as many votes to Evo Morales as the other way around. In Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s current role as vice president represents a formal reunification of various Peronist tendencies that had grown apart during her previous time in office. In Ecuador, the power and personal authority of Correa lacks any counterweight within his movement.

This gets to the heart of the political problem of this election for the indigenous movement and its allies in Ecuador: it is hard to tell which of the options on the table would be worse. Lasso’s economic policies might well be more destructive, but while in power Correa showed no respect for civil liberties, social mobilization, or the autonomy of mass organizations. Lasso will advance a neoliberal economic agenda; Arauz will weaken all organized movements that can oppose this agenda and other injustices now or in the future. Recent history in Ecuador shows that the threat to civil liberties has been less severe under right-wing governments than in Correa´s administration. Lasso isn´t Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro; he is more like Argentina’s Mauricio Macri. Faced with the choice between Arauz and Lasso, the real question for the CONAIE and Pachakutik is which of the two adversaries would be weaker, so they have a chance to keep fighting. On that question, there is little certainty.

Beyond the declarations or even the intentions of Alianza País, what has really counted in the past are the coalitions that make up the party. During the first two years of Correa´s government there was a broader alliance with grassroots organizations, activists, and intellectuals on the left. This initial coalition declined, as I have argued elsewhere, when the government and the president succeeded in pushing for greater centralization of presidential powers.

Although some of the left intellectuals and militants who were associated with this broader coalition remained in government, they lost the authority and influence they had once had. It was this group that gave Correísmo its initial heterodox profile, which generated support from the Latin American and global left.

A different group took control of governing: a cohort of more or less progressive technocrats, whose power derived from the capacity to build the authority of the public sector. Correa, without a history of association with social movements, was its representative figure. This group of technocrats, which gave the government a claim to efficiency—often more apparent than real—felt profound disdain for the masses, who they felt could only express “particular interests.” This ideological profile only became more dominant as the president became more powerful.

Behind Pachakutik there is a completely different coalition: a social movement that is diverse, popular, and multicultural. It has been forged in social mobilization, community resistance, and the chaotic and disorganized work of grassroots organizing. After his historic electoral result, Pérez has considerable personal power. But balancing that power is a network of organizations, grassroots organizers, and alliances with unions, environmentalists, professionals, peasants, indigenous peoples, and feminists. There are no guarantees of authentic ideological coherence in popular politics, and still less so in electoral politics. But the existence of a real social movement is a crucial component, and helps to explain the substantial difference between the political project of Correístas´s technocrats and the political project of the growing communitarian left in Ecuador.

A left government could have chosen to nourish such movements; instead, Correísmo weakened independent forces, with profoundly conservative consequences. It is not unusual for different parts of a political coalition to have divergent goals. But the Correa government’s hostility toward autonomous social mobilization was severe: persecution, division, and punitive legal charges, such as terrorism and sabotage, were all used to sow fear and despondency and produce immobilization. Socialism is not the increase of the power of the state, but of society. The continental left should not support any government or project only because in certain facets (for example, in the role of the state in the economy) there are areas of agreement. The left has to take into consideration the totality of a political project, the coalitions of power, and its political actions in particular national situations.

After these experiences, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that social movements are reluctant to support Correa’s designated successor. Correísmo earned the mistrust and hostility of all of the significant popular movements and organizations of Ecuador. The CONAIE and Pachakutik have called for voters to spoil their ballots on Sunday (if invalidated ballots outnumber valid ones, the election would be declared null and void—a scenario no one is expecting). But there is a difference between the organized movements and the majority of disorganized people. In the second round of the 2017 run-off between Lasso and Moreno, the regions, provinces, and municipalities that in 2021 voted for Pérez (indigenous, poor, and center-left) chose Lasso. They preferred a neoliberal president they could fight against to an authoritarian one. The Correístas cannot blame the victims of their abuses if they decide to turn their backs.

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.

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