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The slow strangling of Ecuador’s democracy 

As Ecuador’s government delivers for the elites, the space for democratic resistance is being restricted, writes DANIEL McAVOY

US military planes flying across the skies, students protesting against education cuts and progressive politicians facing political persecution. This isn't the Latin America of the dark and distant past but Ecuador today. It is a stark reminder of just how far social progress has been overturned there. 

The social change that swept Latin America at the turn of the century was one of the most progressive advances in modern human history. Collectively the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Nicaragua, Uruguay and others drove back decades of underdevelopment, exclusion, poverty and inequality.   

Ecuador, under the socialist leadership of Rafael Correa, was a central part of the left tide that swept away so much reaction. In just over a decade, poverty was slashed there by a third, with inequality reduced by more than in nearly any other Latin American country. 

The elites were forced to pay their taxes, providing the funds for enormous investment in health and education. 

Foreign policy was reoriented to focus on co-operation with regional neighbours and away from the US domination that has shaped Latin America’s history for the worse. This was best exemplified by Ecuador kicking out a US military base, with Correa wryly demanding one in Miami in return if it was to stay.  

But since Correa’s term ended in May 2017, his successor Lenin Moreno has begun to knock down each of the pillars on which this social progress rested. 

No government in Latin America can deliver for their populations without asserting greater independence in its relationship with the US. It is not simply geographical proximity to the world’s largest military superpower that distorts Latin America’s politics but Washington’s buttressing up of each nation’s ruling elites in their own interest. So Lenin Moreno’s close relationship with the US is a worry for all progressives. 

A visit by US Vice-President Mike Pence to Ecuador in the spring began the undermining of Ecuador’s once sovereign foreign policy. A new US Security Co-operation Office — shut previously under Correa — has since been opened in Ecuador. A US military Lockheed plane now flies over the skies, with the excuse of tackling drug trafficking and organised crime. 

While this week Ecuador’s Foreign Minister was in Washington meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Press speculation suggests this was part of choreographing further attacks on Venezuela and ending Ecuador’s asylum for Julian Assange — granted under Correa, given fears of persecution after WikiLeaks exposed US war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Progressive domestic policies have been set back too. Moreno’s decision to write off billions owed by private companies to the state speaks volumes for the class loyalties of his government, but protests against his government’s neoliberal turn are mounting. Students have protested against the $400m education cuts planned for 2019 and workers’ marches have focused on spiralling living costs, after the government ended fuel subsidies, and on resisting cuts and privatisation. 

But it is on the democratic front that the reversal is perhaps sharpest.

Where the left has been defeated in Latin America in recent years, it has retained significant bases of support, as well as having accrued years of experience of delivering progress in government. That poses a real threat to the political elites of the left returning to power, especially when the right’s favoured free-market economic policies fail. 

Developments in Brazil with the illegitimate ousting of the left-wing president Dilma Rousseff and the barring and jailing of president Lula are the clearest example of how the region’s elites plan to deal with this threat. Events in Ecuador provide similar concerns. 

The assault on democratic freedoms in Ecuador in 2018 is frightening. First, President Moreno organised a multi-question referendum that proceeded despite not being approved by the Constitutional Court. 

One of its more obscure questions was then used as a pretext to use an all-powerful “transitory council” to axe Constitutional Court judges and leave their posts vacant, and replace the Attorney General and members of the National Electoral Council, Judicial Council and other bodies with figures more aligned to the government.  The separation of powers so embodied in presidential systems the world over is clearly in breach in Ecuador. 

Key allies of the Correa government have been especially targeted. Indeed, the leading political figures that successfully ran the country for a decade are being prevented from even registering a political party — a requirement to run in upcoming elections.

Correa’s former vice-president has been jailed with concerns raised about the lack of due process. He is currently on a weeks-long hunger strike. And the government, not the judiciary, recently raised the spectre of banning all members of Correa's previous governments from leaving the country. The rule of law appears all too dispensable.

The real target of all this is of course Rafael Correa himself. The former president is facing a litany of slurs and allegations as the government seeks to find some way — any way — to criminalise him and prevent his return to front-line politics. Correa said in a recent interview that up to 14 charges have been floated, with others raised since.

Were it not for events in Brazil, where president Lula was jailed and then excluded from standing on the flimsiest of charges, the absurd claims against Correa would be laughable. 

The most serious is a charge of involvement in a botched kidnapping of a political opponent but for which there is no evidence. For those charges the Ecuadorean government unsuccessfully requested that Interpol act on an arrest warrant to bring Correa back from Europe, where he now lives, to answer these charges. Even the lawyer for the person alleging kidnapping states: “I feel that we are persecuting Correistas (Correa supporters) for being Correistas and not for their actions.”

Subsequent allegations against Correa appear to be getting ever more bizarre. These include seeking to blame Correa for the death of a policeman who took a bullet meant for Correa himself in an operation to rescue him during a 2010 coup plot. And even that he over-indebted the country while president, which is not true given Ecuador’s low debt levels and anyway is certainly not a criminal offence.

Specific allegations are, however, not the point. Just as in Brazil, this strategy aims to prevent candidates from standing or force them to leave the country and allow the right a free rein to overturn a decade of social progress. As Correa recently explained, what is under way is a wave of political persecution. The right knows that, in a fair democratic fight, it will not win support for a return of neoliberalism. 

It is increasingly clear that the case of Lula in Brazil is not only meant to be a model to drive that country backwards but a model for the continent as a whole. Our solidarity with Latin America has to be about defending more than social progress but, tragically for a region with such a history of brutal dictatorship, about defending democracy itself.

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