Guillermo Lasso Ecuador president
Photo: Jhonatan Miranda/Government of Ecuador

Ecuador: a right-wing president will rule with a left-wing base, but that's not all

38 coups d'état (or attempts), 21 constitutions and 9 presidents in 25 years. With this sui generis curriculum vitae, Ecuador sees Guillermo Lasso's first weeks go off script

Ler em portuguêsLeer en español

“Ecuadorians are strange and unique beings: they sleep peacefully surrounded by roaring volcanoes.” The phrase comes from the Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) who, when visiting Quito, was impressed by the calm that the region’s inhabitants had to deal with the volcanoes. But the phrase also works – metaphorically – to other serious everyday problems. Problems that abounded in 191 years of independence.

Ecuador had 38 coups d’état (or attempted coups), that is, one every nearly five years. Also, it had 21 national constitutions – three of them created since 1979, when the country became a democracy again.

Between 1996 and 2006, the country had 8 presidents, two of whom were impeached; another resigned due to a popular revolt, fleeing disguised as a Brazilian policeman.

READ ALSO: With Peru and Ecuador elections, the political map of Latin America is changing (again)

With this sui generis curriculum vitae, Ecuador begins a period with a new president, the ninth in 25 years: Guillermo Lasso, who is a former banker and was the economy minister for a little more than a month two decades ago, when he performed a chaotic administration.

Lasso had already tried to be elected president twice before. Now, he finally got it. He defeated Andrés Arauz, the candidate sponsored by former president Rafael Correa, who is currently in Belgium, his wife’s land, in self-exile, to escape an eight-year prison sentence in Ecuador.

After the election’s first round, it seemed that it would be very difficult for Lasso to win. But he managed to change his image quickly (he even danced Michael Jackson‘s “Bad” on TikTok, making unprecedented success among young people), approached minorities and softened his conservative speech.

In addition, after taking third place in the first round, indigenous candidate Yaku Pérez called his voters to abstain from voting in the second round. However, a good part of Pérez’s supporters voted for Lasso, as they both had “anti-Correismo” in common.

Lasso has one of the smallest bases in Parliament, only 12 seats, equivalent to 8.7% of the total. Its main opponents, the correspondents, occupy 49 seats, or 36% of the Parliament.

READ ALSO: Political outsiders will write the new Chilean Constitution

On the other hand, he made a series of alliances with indigenous groups, from the left-wing and center-left, which circumstantially increased his reach to 64 seats, that is, 46.7% of the Parliament.

Lasso’s first measures

Lasso put an end to the classic portrait of the president on duty hanging in every kind of public office. “It’s the end of the caudillos era,” he said. [Latin American caudillos refers to an authoritarian way of doing politics, in an exercise of power that diverges from democracy.]

He also proposed ending the so-called “Gag Law,” created by former president Correa and maintained by his successor Lenin Moreno. The law imposed heavy fines on journalists and media outlets who, in the government’s view, had committed “attempts to discredit” the government (such as publishing evidence that someone had stolen public money).

The new president also determined that government members will have to speak to the press, besides holding press conferences at least once every three months.

READ ALSO: Political risk haunts Latin America investors as Peru election nears

Lasso also decreed that 1.7 million Ecuadorians who have debts of less than $1,000 will benefit from an unusual measure: companies that provide credit reference services will have to eliminate this debt history for once. Thus, these people, generally poor, will be able to access new credits. Creditors will still have the right to receive, but people will have the chance to clear their names for once.

Fragile economy

Ecuador‘s GDP dropped 7.8% last year and is only expected to grow 3% this year. Poverty rose from 25% in 2019 to 32% currently (almost half of these people are in extreme poverty) and unemployment affects 8.59% of workers.

Since the last years of Correa‘s government, the country has had a growing external debt that was further aggravated under Moreno‘s presidency. Ecuadorian public debt now is $ 63 billion, equivalent to 63% of GDP.

Lasso needs money, but he knows he can’t risk raising taxes at this delicate time.

Pandemic and the first Latin American chaos portrait

In April 2020, Guayaquil city was the first Dantesque scenario of the COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America, with corpses piled up along the sidewalks – because the health authorities could not manage to collect the corpses of people who died in their homes.

Earlier this year, the country was shaken by a vaccine scandal. It turned out that the health minister had diverted vaccines to a private hospital and immunized his family there. Incompetent in managing the health crisis, ministers quickly succeeded each other in the post. Two of them lasted less than a week in the office.

READ ALSO: A mini-guide on Bolivia’s political mega-scandals

Since the pandemic began, Ecuador has had six health ministers. Or seven, since it has just assumed the new minister, the first of the new government.

Lasso, in the days prior to his inauguration, left aside ideological tantrums and is negotiating the vaccines purchase with Russians and Chinese. So far, only 6.9% of the population has been vaccinated.

The new president promised that in 100 days, starting on May 31, half the population will be vaccinated. Experts viewed Lasso’s promise as overly optimistic.

What will become of Correismo?

In 2017, Rafael Correa intended his VP, Jorge Glas, to dispute his succession. But Glas did not take off in the polls and the solution was to put Lenín Moreno, who had been Correa’s VP in his first term. Moreno was elected. Shortly thereafter, the courts sentenced the former president to eight years in prison and Moreno and Correa split. Correa declared himself in self-exile in Belgium, his wife’s land.

Moreno called a plebiscite to end the possibilities of re-elections for former presidents. The vote was massive for the end of reelections. Analysts at the time said that “Correismo” was over.

READ ALSO: The new Colombian crisis (or how to indefinitely put off problems)

In 2019, Ecuador was shaken by popular uprisings. And in 2020 it was hit by Moreno’s chaotic management of the pandemic. Meanwhile, Correa took advantage of his former ally’s growing unpopularity to try to regain his political influence. The solution was to designate Andrés Arauz as his successor. Former “Human Talent” minister, Arauz was practically a stranger but was totally obedient to Correa, something that the ex-president wanted in order to avoid a remake of the split he had with Moreno.

Correa was not officially the candidate in this year’s elections. However, he appeared on the posters beside Arauz.

The defeat for Lasso was a heavy blow for Correa’s supporters. The future of Correa’s power will depend on his eventual ability to articulate against Lasso in the near future.

Publicly, however, Correa sent his congratulations to Lasso on his victory. And Lasso, at the inauguration, stated that he did not intend to “chase” anyone.

The indigenous factor

Indigenous communities have always been ignored by the Ecuadorian political class, both left and right-wing. According to official figures, 7% of the country’s population officially declares itself “indigenous.” But experts say the real proportion would be 25%. Furthermore, at least 50% of Ecuadorians would have some indigenous ancestor.

READ ALSO: A vegetarian restaurant with brown sauce chicken on the menu

There is no former Ecuadorian president who in the last 25 years has not been a target of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador. Indigenous people actively participated in the downfall of presidents of the most varied ideologies: from the neoliberal Abdalá Bucaram, in 1997, until the leftist Lucio Gutiérrez, in 2005, among others. During Correa’s government, the indigenous people – who had initially sympathized with him – withdrew their support when Correa, despite his anti-imperialist speech, encouraged the entry of multinational mining and oil companies into areas that communities claim as ancestral lands.

The new Ecuadorian Parliament president is an indigenous woman, Guadalupe Llori, 58 years old. She had been arrested in 2007 for leading protests against Correa’s oil policy. Llori was arrested at her home and taken to prison by twelve policemen armed. She was imprisoned for 11 months.

Guadalupe Llori, Ecuadorian Parliament president. Photo: Andrés Estrella

In her speech, she harshly criticized Correa and Moreno, stating that “for the first time in many years, freedom and democracy are being breathed.” She highlighted that the Executive and Legislative will not be led by people of the same political spectrum.

Llori’s party is Pachatutik, the second with the most seats in Parliament. She was elected to the command of the Legislative with Lasso’s party support.

The new president declared that “who would have bet that a former banker and an indigenous woman would one day occupy these two seats?”

Days before Lasso’s inauguration, hundreds of indigenous people held a ceremony in which they recognized Lasso’s presidency. The ceremony – held in the Tungurahua region – had the delivery of a wooden baton, among other symbols of power for the indigenous communities (along with a whip and a red poncho). Indigenous priests performed rites of “transfer of positive energies” from the Earth.

In the Tamboloma community, an ancestral ceremony of indigenous possession was held for President Guillermo Lasso. Photo: Jonathan Miranda / Government of Ecuador

For now, the indigenous people are having a calm relationship with Lasso. But the Cotopaxi Indigenous and Peasant Movement already announced that, on June 11, it will happen a major national mobilization against the decree signed by the former president Moreno in 2019 which resulted at the end of fuel subsidies. The Cotopaxi Movement “invites” President Lasso to revoke that decree (that is, to reinstate the subsidies).

Derecha” but not “right-wing” (like the Brazilian)

Lasso is a politician who now – circumstantially (and who knows for how long) – depends on a friendly relationship with the left and the anti-Correista center-left to rule. This is a difference between Lasso and the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. But there are many others, since the fact of being “derecha” does not mean that he is “right-wing” (not even extreme right-wing).

Days before taking office, the Justice Supreme Court in Quito ordered the abortion decriminalization for rape cases. If it had been in Brazil, Bolsonaro would have complained, called militants to protest outside the courthouse, and branded the judges as “communists.” But Lasso, who is a member of Opus Dei and explicitly opposed to abortion, said he accepted the court’s decision. He respected the supreme court’s decision above his personal religious beliefs.

READ ALSO: A tropical revival of fascist and Nazi expressions

Lasso also used terms and concepts that would scandalize Bolsonaro supporters, such as “gender,” claiming that his government would fight gender violence and femicide.

The indigenous agenda also differs from Lasso’s Ecuadorian “derecha” and Bolsonaro’s Brazilian right-wing. While the Brazilian president considers that the indigenous people are still “evolving” so that one day they will “be a human being like all of us” (meaning the white people), Lasso ordered the new education minister, María Brown, to create bilingual schools for indigenous communities (until now, teaching native languages was not a priority).

Lasso also promised respect for the LGTBi community’s rights.

At his inauguration, he declared that “the left-wing word is not bad, nor the right-wing word. The word ideology is not even bad… Dangerous is the word dogmatism, which does not try to convince, but instead colonizes and submits the person who thinks differently.”

Translated by Carolina Pompeo