In a referendum that came on the heels of Lenin Moreno’s presidential victory, an overwhelming majority of Ecuadorian voters hammered the final nail in Rafael Correa’s proverbial political coffin. Quick count results showed, by a 2-to-1 margin, that voters approved reinstating presidential term limits that would bar Correa from ever running again. It was a landslide. But what does this mean for Ecuador’s state of democracy? Is this a sign that the “belt whipping” autocratic style of Moreno’s predecessor will be a ghost of the past? Or is this too optimistic?
Correa who had been in power since 2007, eliminated term limits from the constitution in 2015. Last year, he handpicked Moreno, his protegé and former vice president, to be his successor to continue his policies, but with an underlying motive to get reelected in 2021. The referendum results proved to be an unexpected blow to Correa’s plan. Moreno wasted no time in extending an olive branch to Correa’s adversaries in the business community, loosening controls on the press, and cracking down on corruption by sentencing his own vice president, Jorge Glas, to prison for accepting bribes from a Brazilian construction giant. Though currently underscored by skepticism, Moreno, who is subdued in both stature and charisma, defied the expectations that he would passively serve his four-year term and step aside for Correa.
Although Moreno rose through the ranks of Correa’s Alianza PAIS, they own starkly different personas, styles of governing, and recently, diverging ideological stances. Leading up to the referendum, many believed that Moreno was keeping Correa’s seat warm until 2021, while Correa governed from the outside. However, what could be more indicative of this fractured political relationship besides the recent jousting and revolt against Moreno from his own party? Moreno’s relatively ideologically more moderate stance coupled with recent referendum results could mark the beginning of the end of Correa’s fiery brand of populism, which some argue is growing obsolete.
Nevertheless, under Correa’s rule and as a direct result of his policies, Ecuador reaped significant socioeconomic improvements particularly for the poor and working class. His government invested heavily in public education, health, urban development, housing, and infrastructure, and the poverty rate fell by 38% and extreme poverty by 47%. In addition, the country did not suffer the kind of severe political instability that preceded him. While this is in large part due to a consolidation of powers and eliminating presidential term limits, this is a double-edged sword. Although Correa increasingly centralized the government to hold more power and for an indefinite term, perhaps he was able to implement his policies and make them “stick” precisely because he centralized government powers and was in power for so long. To contrast this with many other democracies in which there are term limits and three branches of government, policies are often difficult to implement through sheer executive power due to necessary checks and balances. And once those policies are implemented, they can very possibly be undone by the following administration that is elected.
Needless to say, despite some of Correa’s successes, democracy in Ecuador eroded substantially as a result of his leadership. Correa, whose surname translates to “belt” or “strap”, not only consolidated power, but he placed restrictions on the free press, oftentimes throwing journalists in prison for publishing unfavorable reports. In addition, he allowed China to have an undue economic influence on the country through crude exports, while vehemently opposing U.S. intervention, policies, and trade. He closed the U.S. military base in the coastal city of Manta, leaving ports more vulnerable to drug trafficking, and out of spite, granted Julian Assange asylum, ultimately leading to full citizenship. Ironically, Correa was educated in the U.S. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne where he received both a Masters and PhD in economics. On the other hand, Moreno, does not have the same kind of deep resentment towards the U.S. as his predecessor, which may lead to thawing U.S.-Ecuador relations – whether this would be possible while President Trump is in power is questionable.
What does this mean for democracy in Ecuador? Since most Latin American governments are heavily centralized with little to no checks on executive power, they are vulnerable to political instability and corruption. The recent referendum, at least from appearances, provides an opportunity to reinstate some of these checks on executive power and demonstrates the president’s commitment to strengthening the rule of law and accountability in the region. Only time will tell whether this is merely a ploy to gain the public’s trust or a sincere effort to clean house or both. Nevertheless, these measures by Moreno’s administration mark a drastic shift from his predecessor’s policies and outlook for the country, which may have ripple effects for the rest of the region. Ecuador is a member of the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) whose countries are dominated by autocratic Venezuela, so moving toward the democratic center may possibly signal a more prosperous and politically and economically stable Latin America. Whether this optimism is well-founded or simply rooted in naiveté and wishful thinking remains to be seen.