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Ecuador Trumped-up charges used to attack Latin America’s left

After Lula and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, Ecuador’s former president Rafael Correa is the latest target of a strategy to silence Latin America’s left, writes DANIEL McAVOY

“THEY can jail our bodies but not our ideas,” was the message sent by Ecuador’s former President Rafael Correa to Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former president, hours after a judge ordered the arrest and extradition of the popular Ecuadorian politician this week.

Lula himself languishes in a Brazilian prison on trumped-up charges clearly designed to prevent him standing in October’s presidential elections, which he would win in any free and fair contest.

Lula’s incarceration has brought to widespread attention how “lawfare” is being used to prevent popular left candidates from winning at the ballot box by barring them from office or throwing them in jail.

With that strategy so far successful in Brazil, Latin America’s powerful right wing bloc — which, although making gains in recent years, has not been able to consolidate itself and continues to face widespread resistance — appears to be exporting it.

As Lula said in his solidarity message to Correa: “They are taking from our people the right to decide on the fate of our countries.”

Correa has received an outpouring of solidarity in recent days, many drawing parallels with events in Ecuador and Brazil.

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s left-wing and first indigenous president, Argentinian Nobel Peace Prize winner, activist and community organiser Adolfo Perez Esquivel and Ernesto Samper, the widely respected former head of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) and president of Colombia between 1994-98, were among dozens of key Latin American political and social leaders to offer support.

Pablo Iglesias of Spain’s left-wing party Podemos said that “the oligarchs do not forgive Correa for having… always worked in favour of the weakest.”

And Jean Luc Melenchon, the leader of France Unbowed, said judicial processes are being “manipulated to serve the oligarchy.”

The allegations against Correa are so absurd they barely merit repeating. He was allegedly the “mastermind” of a 2012 kidnapping attempt on Fernando Balda, a former Ecuadorian opposition lawmaker who had fled to Colombia. Later that year Balda was actually deported from Colombia through the formal channels to face long-standing charges for his role in a 2010 coup attempt against Correa.

That coup plot left five dead — all Correa supporters — and was only thwarted by a popular uprising. Correa has explained that Balda first made the allegations of kidnapping in 2013 but didn’t alleged his involvement until late last year, when Ecuador’s political landscape was being shaken up.

The dubious legal procedures that have cast a shadow over Lula’s path are apparent in the case against Correa too. 

Correa faces no current charges, with the arrest order being to place him in “preventive detention” while the investigation is carried out. No evidence against him has been made public. Since ending his presidential term last year, Correa has been living in Belgium, where his wife is from.

Initially the prosecutor had demanded that Correa appeared every 15 days at Ecuador’s consulate in Belgium, which he complied with. A judge changed that and demanded that he reported every 15 days in Ecuador, a disproportionate measure that underlines the political nature of the judicial action. Soon after Correa again reported to his country’s consulate in Belgium this week, a judge ordered his pre-trial detention for non-compliance and called for Interpol to be notified for his arrest.

Correa said it “would be almost suicide in the current conditions,” to return to Ecuador

In reality he is a wanted man for having dared to dream of an alternative for his country. Just as is happening with Lula in Brazil.

Correa was Ecuador’s most successful president in the modern era and part of the left tide that swept the continent in response to failed neoliberalism from the turn of this century.

He left office last year with high approval ratings, having become president on the back of the deepest economic and political crisis in that nation’s history.

Prior to Correa, a Greece-style economic collapse had forced hundreds of thousands to flee the country as economic migrants while poverty soared and unemployment rocketed. There were seven presidents in 10 years during the political crisis that followed this crash.

Correa — elected president in 2006 — reduced inequality, in just one decade, by more than any other Latin American nation in the same period — he successfully tackled poverty, implemented free healthcare and world-leading levels of investment in education. As a result, his party won election two further elections in 2009 and 2013.

But Correa was unable to drive this change without fighting for national independence, which meant scrapping the largest US military base in Latin America. (Humourously, he suggested the US could keep its base if Ecuador could have one in Florida. The US did not agree.)

Economic independence required Correa to nationalise the oil industry, the country’s largest source of exports, cancel the illegitimate debts forced on the country during the neoliberal era and implement tough measures to make the elites pay the taxes they owed.

While no direct proof exists that the initiative for Correa’s arrest came from Washington, it should be noted it was made public just a week after US Vice-President Mike Pence’s visit to the country designed to reset relations.

The enormous US flag draped over the Carondelet Presidential Palace for the visit was a symbol that the old days were coming back. 

Banking giant JP Morgan could barely conceal its delight in a note to investors, saying Ecuador “was abuzz” with the “the visit of [Pence] and the first IMF mission to visit the country in several years, clearer signs that times are indeed changing” and that the new government “does mean business.”

Politics has indeed moved quickly in Ecuador in the past year since Correa’s term ended. His party’s chosen successor Lenin Moreno won the election by a very narrow margin (51 per cent of the vote) on a centre-left platform.

Faced with with a rightist turn in the region and a confrontation in his own country, Moreno had two choices: to take more radical measures that would extend his popularity, or capitulate to the powers that be. He chose the latter.

After victory, Moreno opened up a “dialogue” with Ecuador’s elites. Never satisfied, the right demanded more and more concessions that led to a referendum in February. That plebiscite had three key aims: to prevent any future political return of Correa by retrospectively changing the constitution to ban reelections; to close down the citizens’ participation branch of state (in which social movements chose judges, the attorney general and electoral authorities) and to overturn a law making speculators pay more on super-profits.

Moreno won the referendum but at a great political cost. Over 37 per cent of voters rejected his proposal, with Correa leading the opposition against his successor. That figure was almost identical to the support that Moreno had gained in the first round of his presidential election last year.

Overnight Moreno had lost his own political base. So despite winning the referendum, he became a prisoner of the right and their international allies.

Correa, meanwhile, was delighted with the result. Few had expected Moreno to face such oppostion in the first year of a presidency. Correa acted quickly and formed a new left party, the Alfarist Revolutionary Movement, named for a former president, which with 37 per cent support would be the largest force in Ecuadorian politics. Ecuador’s right is fragmented between various oligarchies that struggle to unite.

The order to arrest and extradite Correa is a clear attack on any such resistance to the country’s new rightwards direction.

The coming weeks will determine whether the move will silence the left or further galvanise it. But the street protests in Ecuador since the arrest order suggest that the politicised judges alone will not settle matters.

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