Ecuador’s Government Is Persecuting the Man Who Doubled Health Care Spending

In office from 2007 to 2017, Ecuador’s left-wing president Rafael Correa more than doubled investment in health care. But Lenín Moreno’s austerian regime has abandoned that legacy — and is now using the courts to silence those who criticize its response to COVID-19.

Former president of Ecuador Rafael Correa on October 16, 2019. (Wikimedia Commons)

On April 8 Ecuador’s National Court of Justice sentenced former president Rafael Correa and former vice president Jorge Glas to eight years in prison — while barring them from holding public office for the next twenty-five years. The court’s ruling marked an escalation of a vicious political and judicial campaign that has been waged against the two leaders, with Correa — tried in absentia — already facing twenty-five other charges ranging from alleged corruption to kidnapping. Glas continues to serve his existing six-year sentence in the Latacunga maximum security prison for his alleged participation in the Odebrecht bribery scandal.

Ecuador has become a key battleground in the continent-wide campaign of lawfare — the political persecution of left-wing and progressive leaders and movements by way of judicial proceedings often lacking due process or credible evidence. In both this case and the recent proceedings in Brazil, directed against former president Lula, such lawfare bears clear patterns of collusion between the prosecution and reactionary political elements within the state.

But what’s also worth noting here is that the offensive against Glas and Correa — still today a popular opposition leader — comes at a moment of crisis in Lenín Moreno’s government. Its mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic and the revelation of hundreds of undocumented deaths threatens to bring about the biggest socioeconomic crisis since the financial collapse and dollarization of 2000–1.

Authoritarian Powers

Over the last two years, the Moreno government has become increasingly adept at utilizing authoritarian tactics — in particular, usurping the power of the judiciary as a means of persecuting its opponents. Other prominent leaders of the pro-Correa Citizens’ Revolution Movement, such as the Pichincha Province’s governor Paola Pabón and former National Assembly member Virgilio Hernández, have been imprisoned (although later released after lack of evidence), while Ricardo Patiño, Gabriela Rivadeneira, and Sofia Espin have been forced into exile in Mexico.

In August 2019, several anti-Moreno members of the Council of Citizen Participation and Social Control (CPCCS), the elected legal body with powers to nominate and remove the comptroller general and members of the Supreme Court among other functions, were removed after consistently opposing his government’s measures and replaced — despite having been elected in March of that year. The widespread repression against the indigenous and social protests in October 2019 — mass demonstrations against his enactment of IMF-sponsored reforms — placed Moreno’s government on the already long list of repressive Latin American regimes. During a month of turmoil, dozens of indigenous activists and protesters were killed.

This sudden escalation of lawfare against Correa and his allies can be explained by several factors. The Moreno government faces an acute political crisis, particularly with regard to his incapacity and the increasing delegation of duties to his vice president, Otto Sonnenholzner. The regime also continues to struggle with the fallout from the October 2019 protests, especially the tension with indigenous organizations, in addition to pressure from traditional Guayaquil-based reactionary forces and leaders like the former mayor Jaime Nebot and corporate banker Guillermo Lasso.

This instability is especially compounded by the fear surrounding the next general election — a contest scheduled to take place in February 2021, possibly meaning Rafael Correa’s return to the presidency. Although the current electoral map is shrouded in the fog of uncertainty and no concrete political or electoral alliances have been forged, it is widely acknowledged that Correa commands the support of at least one-third of the electorate. Ongoing divisions among both the factions aligned with the Moreno government and those opposing it make his victory all the more probable — should his eventual candidacy be accepted by the National Electoral Council.

Given these preexisting dramas, the COVID-19 crisis has presented itself as a double-edged sword for the Moreno regime. On the one hand, it has provided a pretext to “speed up” the legal process against Correa and block his potential candidacy, as well as introduce severe repression against working-class communities under the guise of quarantine. Yet at the same time, it has forced the government to confront its greatest failures — and a legacy of nearly three years of IMF-pushed neoliberal policies.

A Neoliberal Regime in Turmoil

In the coastal megapolis of Guayaquil, the visual evidence of the pandemic looks more like the aftermath of a war zone or the scenes from a disaster film. Hundreds of corpses wrapped in body bags (or possibly garbage bags) fill up entire trucks as they deliver their deadly cargo to the morgues already overflowing with the dead.

Even the official figures tracking the number of infected began demonstrating the more accurate picture of the catastrophe, with the total number of infected and dead reaching 7,161 and 297 on April 10 — an increase of 30 percent within twenty-four hours. Other private sources have indicated much higher numbers, with more than 1,900 corpses having been collected in the province of Guayaquil alone in the past two weeks.

The last three years of Lenín Moreno’s neoliberal government have left a visible mark on the fabric of the welfare state and social projects initiated and developed during Correa’s Citizens’ Revolution. Under the previous administration’s ten-year rule, the health care sector was top priority, alongside education and social programs. Indeed, the total level of public expenditure on health care rose from 1.81 percent of GDP in 2007 to 4.21 percent in 2016. This resulted in a number of impressive achievements — the total number of doctors increased from 16 per 10,000 people in 2009 to 20.5 in 2016, the total number of emergency beds from 473 in 2006 to 2,535 in 2018, and the standard ones from 19,945 to 24,359 during the same time period. Consequently, the process was stalled following the Moreno government’s turn to neoliberalism, and the gradual dismantling of the welfare state built during those ten years.

The public healthcare sector received its biggest blow in March 2019, shortly after the signing of the new IMF agreement. Approximately 10,000 public sector workers were fired in preparation for the financial body’s reform package, among them between 2,500 and 3,500 personnel working in the healthcare sector. More importantly, over 300 personnel working in the control and treatment of pandemics were also made redundant almost exactly a year before the start of COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, the structures of the state have been hollowed out with the elimination of thirteen out of forty institutions by April 2019, as well as $2 billion of cuts and austerity through the elimination, privatization, and fusion of a number of state companies and public entities originally planned for 2019. Prior to the crisis, in November Moreno decided to expel over four hundred Cuban doctors and medical personnel, much like his neoliberal counterparts in Bolivia and Brazil. He has also been reluctant in restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba and purchasing the interferon alfa-2B antiviral drug currently produced by the island nation to fight the spread of COVID-19. Thus, with the government infrastructure severely weakened through a “death by a thousand cuts” technique, the health care sector has been unable to cope with the pandemic.

Shifting Leadership

This degradation is reflected in Moreno’s leadership itself. His presidency has been increasingly hollowed out and delegated to other high-ranking officials, most prominently vice president Otto Sonnenholzner, following the disastrous government response to the protests of October 2019 and his then-decision to temporarily relocate the capital from Quito to Guayaquil. Throughout the period of the pandemic, starting in early March, Moreno severely limited his public appearances and announcements, while Sonnenholzner has taken center stage.

In many ways, Sonnenholzner is the prodigy of Ecuador’s economic elite. Replacing María Alejandra Vicuña as vice president in December 2018, following her own fall from power on corruption charges, Sonnenholzner was first nominated to this position of power by the right-wing Social Christian Party (PSC), and later achieved the support of the ruling Country Alliance (AP), the once left-wing party founded by Rafael Correa and taken over and pushed to the right by Moreno, and the various political forces aligned with Moreno’s new neoliberal project.

A professor in the faculty of business science at the Catholic University of Guayaquil and previously a consultant in the construction, agriculture, and commercial sector, the thirty-seven-year-old had no prior affiliation with either the Country Alliance or any of the traditional parties — thus making him the perfect human material for breaching the gap between Moreno and his newfound allies in Guayaquil.

One of the most visible business backers of his presidency has been the Ecuador Broadcasting Association (ARE) representing various private media conglomerates, even more so following his success in repealing the Correa-era law of communication that sought to curb the power of private media in manipulating narratives and introducing more support for community-owned and public media. He has since acted as a moderator between the president and the country’s economic elites. Most recently, as some have pointed out, his public appearances and visits to health care workers and victims, bear more resemblance to an electoral campaign than crisis management.

After the extent of the viral outbreak became clear, the regime was in no hurry to implement a plan of containment, boost the health care sector, or create new social programs to assist Ecuadorian workers left jobless. Rather, it has chosen the tried and tested tactic of laying the blame on Correa’s administration, as well as initiating a new round of restructuring and reformulating the state and implementing new tax measures that mostly leveraged the crisis on wages of the working class.

Once the extent of the infection became widely known, both Moreno and Sonnenholzner alleged that the widely circulating videos and images showing the extent of the deadly infection and the repressive response by the Ecuadorian government was actually the work of “online networks” and troll centers operated by Correa and his allies. The announcement was picked up and promoted by a number of private media and journalists aligned with the Moreno government, but widely ridiculed and criticized across social media. This was followed by another bizarre press conference by Sonnenholzner, in which he issued a public apology for the “worsening of [Ecuador’s] international image,” rather than the lack of initial government response. In another widely criticized action, the police proceeded to arrest a man for publishing viral videos criticizing the governments of Moreno and the Guayaquil mayor Cynthia Viteri and repeating the allegations that the true numbers of infected and deceased were a lot higher. This is likely a consequence of the Moreno government’s announcement that it would investigate the publication of “fake news” about the current COVID-19 emergency.

Austerity in the Times of Coronavirus

Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, Ecuador faced economic and political crisis due to the looming austerity imposed by the signing of the $4.2 billion debt package with the IMF in February 2019. The Moreno government was unable to implement the most hard-hitting “recommendations” set out by the fund, such as the lifting of the fuel and gasoline subsides, due to the mass protests by indigenous and trade union movements in October 2019.

Furthermore, the growing pandemic has not stopped the government from putting its obligations to global finance above the health of its citizens. On March 23, economy minister Richard Martínez indicated that the Ecuadorian government is planning to repay $324 million of its current debt to the international lenders as the means of “fulfilling their obligations to investors” despite the evident need for urgent investment in COVID-19 containment measures. In an ironic twist, mere days afterward, the heads of the IMF and the World Bank advocated debt relief for emerging economies, alongside over $12 billion in emergency funding and grants to assist the countries battling the COVID-19 pandemic. Considering how closely the Moreno government has cooperated with the IMF authorities following March 2019, it is nigh on impossible that they were oblivious to this arrangement in the days prior to its announcement.

At the same time, the government initiated the next stage in what it calls the “optimization and reduction” of the state. Most importantly, this meant the announcement of $1.4 billion of cuts and austerity — the result of both the coronavirus pandemic and the recent collapse in the global price of oil. While health care has supposedly been spared from the austerity budget, it still seeks to target several prominent ministers, secretaries, committees, and public service functions that were first put in place by Correa. The secretary of youth, five public enterprises, four technical secretariats, and the public media regulation agency count among the public entities confirmed to be eliminated or privatized.

This round of austerity and cuts have been accompanied by the announcement of new taxes on the working population and businesses, as well as a 10 percent cut to public sector workers’ wages. They also include a temporary 5 percent tax on the company profits of entities that have made more than $1 million, as well as a new progressive tax on workers — those earning above $500 would need to pay $2 extra per month, rising all the way to $4,400 per month for salaries $50,000 and above. For those earning below $400, Moreno promised a two-time $60 payment in April and May. The announcement was accompanied by another false accusation leveled at Correa’s administration, claiming that his administration left a public debt of $65 billion, and, ironically, a request for further lending from the Inter-American Development Bank (BID) and the World Bank, among others.

Unions like the Unitary Workers’ Front (FUT) and the Ecuadorian Business Committee (CEE) have announced they would oppose these measures.

What Could Have Been

Taking all of these factors together, the escalation of the persecution against Correa is an evident cover for the authoritarian regime confronted with the extent of its own inadequacies and the lack of a long-term plan of political action other than stopping the return of any semblance of progressive government.

This poses the question of what would have happened if it were Correa who was in power during this crisis. And while the coronavirus pandemic is both sudden and deadly, it has not been the sole disaster to hit Ecuador in the last several years.  Indeed, the country’s experience with the series of earthquakes throughout March and April 2016 showed that Rafael Correa’s government was fully capable of mobilizing the resources of the state and international aid to mitigate a sudden disaster on a mass scale.

For now, the barbarity of neoliberalism has displaced the country’s once-vibrant twenty-first-century socialism. Its return would depend upon whether the various political factions opposed to both the Moreno regime and the country’s traditional right wing can build a mass movement akin to the one that ended Lucio Gutiérrez’s turncoat neoliberal government and eventually paved the way for the Citizens’ Revolution and the Constituent Assembly of 2007.

The Moreno regime may or may not prove successful in keeping Correa’s name off the ballot paper. But the legacy of Correa’s ten years of progress also includes the political weight of the millions of Ecuadorians who continue to support the Citizens’ Revolution. Today, he and this movement remain the most important vanguard of the opposition to the Moreno regime and neoliberalism in Ecuador.