Ecuador’s Neoliberal Government Is Trying to Ban Rafael Correa from the 2021 Elections
Former president Rafael Correa is Ecuador’s most popular politician — yet Lenín Moreno’s government is trying to ban his party from standing in next year’s elections. Faced with a mass uprising against IMF-backed reforms and disgust at his mishandling of COVID-19, president Moreno is using phony lawsuits to thwart the democratic process.
In recent weeks, the lawfare waged against Ecuador’s former president Rafael Correa reached new levels of viciousness — and desperation. On July 20, Ecuador’s national court ratified its previous decision sentencing Correa to eight years in prison in the “Bribes Case,” alleging that the left-wing president had operated a web of corruption during his time in government.
This came only the day after a decision by the National Electoral Council and the comptroller general, Pablo Celi — each aligned to Lenín Moreno’s neoliberal government — to deregister Correa’s electoral front and block it from participating in the 2021 general election. Last week, this decision was itself overturned by the Electoral Contention Court, but further legal moves against the party are expected.
Despite the Moreno regime’s eagerness to bend electoral laws and legal proceedings in order to thwart the country’s most popular leader, Correa’s own core of supporters has remained intact. July 8 saw the birth of a new coalition that incorporated the leaders and supporters of his Citizens’ Revolution, together with other forces opposed to the Moreno regime. Since its launch four weeks ago, this Unión por la Esperanza (Unity for Hope) coalition has attracted social movements, smaller left-wing organizations, indigenous groups, and students’ and women’s collectives under its banner.
At the same time, the government faces fresh instability with the resignation of Otto Sonnenholzner as vice president and his replacement by María Alejandra Muñoz. While a number of other ministers have also tended their resignation to Moreno, Sonnenholzner’s exit has marks the first time in Ecuadorian history that three vice presidents have been replaced in a single presidential term. His resignation has been accompanied by increasing rumors that he intends to challenge for the presidency at the 2021 elections. Together with the worsening socio-economic situation and unending waves of COVID-19 cases across the country, Ecuador finds itself on the path to becoming a failed state.
A Legal Case That Reeks of Desperation
The campaign of political persecution against Correa arguably tops those already instigated against other left-wing leaders in Latin America like Lula da Silva in Brazil, Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, and his own former vice president Jorge Glas. It stands out for its sheer absurdity, the blatant lack of due process and the neoliberal regime’s naked cynicism in pressing outlandish charges.
The National Justice Court Tribune (TCNJ) ratified the eight-year jail sentence against Correa on July 20 after the rejection of an appeal by Correa’s legal team, headed by Fausto Jarrín. The prosecution, headed by attorney general Diana Salazar, has consistently alleged that the former president operated a “web of corruption” during his last term in office from 2013–17, with his then-party Alianza PAIS serving as the front organization to receive bribes of up to $7.8 million from private firms like notorious Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.
The prosecution has consistently focused on just one piece of alleged material evidence — $6,000 that Correa borrowed from the presidential fund and then paid back. Prior to this sentencing, Correa has faced twenty-five other charges ranging from bribery to corruption and even kidnapping.
As with the “Bribes Case,” Correa’s legal team and allies have consistently pointed to the lack of any substantial evidence or due process, violations of Ecuador’s penal code, and refusal to admit key pieces of evidence that contradict the testimonies against Correa.
Jorge Glas, Correa’s vice president during his last term in office, was similarly persecuted in a legal case that lacks any respect for his rights. The proceedings have been full of irregularities, such as the lack of any right of appeal, a higher-than-normal sentence, and a transfer to a maximum security prison despite evidence of his deteriorating health.
At the same time, other historic leaders of the Citizens’ Revolution piloted by Correa have found themselves persecuted by Moreno’s authoritarian regime. Former foreign minister Ricardo Patiño, the former national assembly president Gabriela Rivadeneira, and former constituent assembly member Sofia Espin have all been forced to seek asylum in Mexico. Others like Virgilio Hernández and the current prefect of Pichincha, Paola Pabón, were arrested and imprisoned for several months after the mass indigenous-led uprising against Moreno’s International Monetary Fund (IMF)–backed austerity reforms in October 2019.
The persecution against Correa and his allies has long been centered around stopping them from participating in the presidential elections scheduled for February 2021. However, the electoral strength of Correa and the Citizens’ Revolution (estimated at between 35 and 40 percent of the electorate) effectively makes it Ecuador’s strongest political movement, regardless of its leaders’ status. Only through the elimination of its legal political representation can the Moreno regime and its right-wing allies prevent, or at least forestall, its return to power.
Ever since the initial breakup of the Alianza PAIS party in October 2017 and the creation of the Citizens’ Revolution movement, the Moreno regime and its allies within the judiciary have consistently tried to bury the legacy of correísmo, in particular by blocking it from registering to stand for election.
The first attempts came in January 2018, when Correa and the twenty-nine members of Ecuador’s National Assembly that supported him attempted to form the “Citizens’ Revolution” electoral list. This was rejected by the electoral council on the grounds that this phrase was already used by “another movement” (most likely the Moreno-aligned remnant of Alianza PAIS, a party which once included both him and Correa).
Following this, Correa’s supporters attempted to register under the name of “Alfarist Revolution” using the name of the leader of Ecuador’s liberal revolution, Eloy Alfaro, president from 1895–1901 and 1906–1911. This was also rejected as misleading, on the grounds that Alfaro belonged to the liberal political tradition — not the socialist one.
Unable to register their own party name, Correa and his allies linked up with the minor National Accord Movement in May 2018, with Ricardo Patiño being elected as its new secretary. However, following an internal conflict with the existing leadership — a faction which refused to recognize the new Correa-aligned elements — this organization was also abandoned.
Finally, in December 2018, an agreement was reached between the Citizens’ Revolution movement and Fuerza Compromiso Social (FCS), previously led by Moreno ally Ivan Espinel, for the Citizens’ Revolution movement leaders to be integrated into the party and participate in the 2019 local elections.
The result was a relative success, as the party mobilized millions of votes and scored important victories in the provinces of Pichincha and Manabí (the country’s second and third most populous, respectively) despite the hostility of the private and public media, and the ongoing persecution against Correa. Despite, or perhaps due to, these successes, the Moreno regime continued to look for new ways of preventing Correa and his allies from participating in the key 2021 presidential elections.
This attempt escalated in early 2020 with the “Bribes Case” ruling in March and its ratification in July. This threatens to block Correa from holding public office for the next twenty-five years, although there may be further appeals given the continued campaign by Correa’s legal team. In early July, Pablo Celi demanded that the National Electoral Council eliminate FCS from the list of legal political parties, along with three other minor parties.
Although the Ecuadorian constitution explicitly prohibits the comptroller from influencing the decision of the electoral council, this has not stopped Moreno allies from doing so. There followed a game of legal ping-pong between the Electoral Contentions Court (TCE, the judicial body that oversees the implementation of electoral laws) and the National Electoral Council (CNE), the former initially rejecting the latter’s appeal to proscribe the party.
Under pressure from both Attorney General Diana Salazar and Pablo Celi, the CNE resolved to eliminate FCS on July 19, unless Correa and his team could appeal the decision and present the required evidence to maintain the party’s legal status.
Since then, the legal ping-pong has ensued between the TCE and the CNE. The TCE rejected the proscription of FCS twice between mid-July and early August. However, the efforts to prevent the participation of the pro-Correa electoral front are likely to continue up until the election campaign in February 2021.
A New Hope?
In this sense, it seems there is no end to the lawfare against Correa and his party. Yet even if the regime succeeds in eliminating FCS, their efforts to target this organization may have already been proven in vain. The Unity for Hope coalition was founded at the start of July in an online meeting between Correa and other representatives of the Citizens’ Revolution, as well as various progressive organizations, social movements, and individuals opposed to Moreno.
Apart from Correa’s Citizens’ Revolution movement, the new coalition involves the Democratic Center led by journalist and former prefect of Guayas, Jimmy Jairala, who was aligned with Correa’s government from 2013 to 2017; the Permanent Forum of Ecuadorian Women; the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples and Peasant Organizations (FEI) driven by José Agualsaca MP; the National Patriotic Front led by former ambassador to Brazil, Horacio Sevilla; and SurGente led by Correa’s former minister of labor, Leonardo Berrezueta. In a recent interview with El Ciudadano, Ricardo Patiño mentioned over twenty other political and social movements seeking to join the coalition.
Although there are no details regarding the possible candidates for president and vice president, the former leaders of the Citizens’ Revolution are likely to be featured prominently.
The formation of Unity for Hope, as well as the wider socio-economic circumstances, bear some resemblance to the first formation of Alianza PAIS before the 2006 presidential elections, with some of the key popular demands being the formation of a constituent assembly and a new constitution.
Each case is marked by a deep institutional crisis, an economic crisis compounded by the implementation of a harsh IMF program, and the spontaneous rise of a mass anti-austerity movement. We saw this with the indigenous revolt in October 2019, as with the Forajidos uprising in 2005, where indigenous and urban social movements overthrew president Lucio Gutiérrez following the implementation of IMF-backed socio-economic reforms.
Yet the opposition is not united. The Pachakutik party, which has traditionally claimed to represent the country’s indigenous population through the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), has so far vehemently opposed any formal cooperation with Correa and his movements.
This is primarily based on two factors — the history of the movement’s conflicts with the Correa administration, and its own recent alignment with traditional right-wing forces, the most prominent example of which was its electoral alliance with conservative tycoon Guillermo Lasso, during the 2017 elections.
More disappointingly, Leonidas Iza, the indigenous leader from the province of Pichincha and one of the key organizers of the October 2019 revolt, recently claimed that “correismo is not a representative of the Left [in Ecuador] and instead favours the large [economic] power groups” — a reference to their long-standing claims that Correa’s government was not radical enough in dealing with large corporations (particularly in the mining sector).
It remains to be seen if Pachakutik would repeat its disastrous electoral strategy of 2017 and align with the Right or recognize the need for a popular front against neoliberalism, and the return of a socialist government to power.
The strategy of the two major right-wing political alliances — the Social Christian Party and the CREO alliance led by Lasso — also remains unclear, as both of them have, in one way or another, supported Moreno’s economic policies and aligned against Correa.
No Clear Future
While the Moreno administration’s legal apparatus has proved itself to be efficient in keeping its political opponents on the sidelines, the same cannot be said of its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy, or even its own institutions.
Indeed, the abrupt resignation of vice-president Otto Sonnenholzner was accompanied by those of foreign minister José Valencia, and secretary of communication, Gustavo Isch (the fifth resignation from that post in three years). At the same time, the official COVID-19 statistics stood at 83,193 active cases at the end of July and 5,623 dead — yet, the real numbers are potentially much higher due to the devastation that the outbreak caused in the city of Guayaquil throughout April and May. Finally, the IMF-recommended reforms and austerity remain in place and continue to be implemented by the Moreno regime, despite potential damage to the pressured health care system.
This overall political and economic crisis in the country is creating an unprecedented power vacuum, with the government’s future highly uncertain just six months before elections. Through attempting to eliminate Rafael Correa’s legacy and the electoral path for his return, Moreno and his allies have also incarcerated, purged, and exiled the political leaders most capable of handling the current crisis.
For his part, Correa promises to fill the vacuum of authority with a popular government based on the ideas of Sumak Kawsay (Good Living), as opposed to repression and austerity. The latter is the time-honored course of action historically favored by authoritarian governments across the continent. For Ecuador’s sake, we can only hope Moreno doesn’t succeed in doing the same.