First published on August 28, 2017, in counterpunch.org
Ecuador’s former president Rafael Correa was first elected on a left wing platform in 2006 and remained in office until May 24, 2017. The unusual thing about Correa and other politicians elected in Latin America during the “pink tide” era of this century wasn’t their left wing platforms: it was that they actually followed through on them after being elected. During the neoliberal era, Latin American politicians would often fake left during their campaigns but then govern from the right. Who said during his presidential campaign that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is like a “neutron bomb that killed people but left buildings standing”? It wasn’t Rafael Correa, Hugo Chavez, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, or Evo Morales. Those words came from former Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez in 1988 who, once elected, adopted harsh IMF imposed austerity measures. In 1989, his government massacred hundreds, possibly thousands, of poor people in a little over a week during the “Caracazo” uprising against the IMF program.
In Ecuador, the most notorious fake left president of the neoliberal era was Lucio Gutierrez – though Abdala Bucaram also won the presidency on vaguely anti-elite or “populist” platform which, after the votes were counted, reverted to neoliberalism and corruption as usual.
Ecuador’s new president, Lenin Moreno, was part of Correa’s government for several years – Vice President for six. Then, as the UN Special Envoy for Disabilities, his costs in Geneva were covered by Correa’s government. He was nominated by Correa’s political party, Alianza Pais, as its candidate in the 2017 presidential election. Moreno called Correa the best president Ecuador ever had during his campaign. His platform was one of continuing Correa’s polices and for good reason.
Prominent economists – led by Ha-Joon Chang and James K. Galbraith – praised the achievements of Correa’s decade in office. Neoliberalism is basically a menu of right wing economic policies such as cuts in social spending, cuts in taxes (combined with lax enforcement of tax law), deregulation of the financial sector, advocacy of “central bank independence” (combined with a myopic focus on fighting inflation), and privatization. The neoliberal era in Ecuador began in about 1980 and came to an abrupt end under Correa. From 1980 to 2000, Ecuador’s GDP per capita fell by 1.4%. It had grown 110% in the two decades before 1980. Ecuador’s poverty rate hit 45% by 2001. It would have been even higher had it not been for massive migration from the country. Migration not only reduced the number of people looking for work in Ecuador, but those who fled the disaster also provided a lifeline (remittances) to their families back home and to Ecuador’s entire economy.
According to World Bank figures, in the first half of the 1990s, remittances averaged about 1% of Ecuador’s GDP. In the second half of the 1990s, they averaged 3.5%. In the first half of the 2000s, they averaged 6% of GDP. To put that in better perspective, in 2006, the government’s social spending (health, education, housing and urban development) was 4.3% of GDP. There are also personal tragedies that remittance figures alone tend to obscure. Teen suicide, which had been almost unheard of, became a problem as mass migration ripped families apart – to say nothing of the risks and hardships the migrants endured as they crossed borders and worked in foreign countries illegally. Disasters like this tend to get “missed” by the international corporate media. Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, when it was growing quickly and reducing poverty, was falsely depicted as a disaster. By contrast, real neoliberal disasters like Ecuador pre-Correa (or indeed Venezuela pre-Chavez) are ignored or explained away as the result of defective culture.
Under Correa, poverty fell by 38% and extreme poverty by 47%. Social spending as a share of GDP doubled as did public investment. Public spending was also well planned and executed. The World Economic Forum ranked Ecuador’s roads tenth among 18 countries in the region in 2006. By 2015 they were ranked as the best. The efficiency of Ecuador’s public services, as ranked by the Inter-American Development Bank, rose from next to last among the 16 countries it evaluated to sixth best in the region. The U.N. found that the quality of Ecuador’s educational system is one of the most improved in the region since 2006. Incidentally, Chang and Galbraith thoroughly demolished an attempt by a few neoliberal economists in Ecuador to dismiss the achievements of Correa’s government.
Unintended praise for Correa’s polices also came from his enemies. Correa’s reform of Ecuador’s judiciary led Chevron to insist that U.S. courts disregard a $9 billion judgement issued against it by Ecuador’s Supreme Court in 2013. In 1993, Chevron was sued in New York by indigenous people whose land had been contaminated from 1964-1990. Chevron spent almost a decade fighting (and eventually convincing) U.S. courts to rule that Ecuador’s judiciary must handle the case. Chevron obviously didn’t anticipate a government like Correa’s ever coming to power. By 2013, Chevron was fighting to convince U.S. courts of the opposite: that Ecuadorean courts cannot be trusted and that its rulings should be declared fraudulent and unenforceable in the United States (so the victims could not collect). Thanks to wonders of the USA’s “independent judiciary”, Chevron succeeded again. The company is now trying to impose a $32 million dollar fine on Steven Donziger, one of the lawyers who represented Chevron’s victims in Ecuador. It will be a legal atrocity if Chevron succeeds given that it maneuvered around ever having to go before a U.S. jury in this case but, with a judiciary stacked by two corporate-serving political parties in the Unites States, its chances of winning again should not be underestimated.
Judicial reform under Correa not only spooked corporate bullies like Chevron, it helped bring Ecuador’s homicide rate to its lowest level in fifteen year making it one of the lowest in Latin America. Correa also had the guts to get rid of a U.S. military base in Ecuador, default on a third of government debt based on legal grounds (that were quite strong), and grant political asylum to Julian Assange.
Correa correctly identified the private media as his most formidable enemy and he battled it openly and relentlessly. In any capitalist country, but especially one ravaged by centuries of extreme inequality like Ecuador, if you aren’t battling the private media then you aren’t battling oligarchs, corruption or injustice. It really is that simple. Much has been made by his critics of media regulations passed by his government, and some of them can be validly criticized on free speech grounds. However, the tactic his rivals in Ecuador most despised was his weekly TV show. It was one of the ways Correa expanded government media to counterbalance the corporate media. Contrary to what some people have claimed or disingenuously implied, Correa’s show was never broadcast on every TV station and anyone who didn’t want to watch it simply had to change the channel. The more viewers his show attracted over time, the crazier the objections against it became – including claims that the show was a financial burden on the country.
His show generally ran for about three to four hours. Delivered before enthusiastic supporters at various locations throughout Ecuador, the show had the feel of a rally but the policy coverage was very extensive: hence the length of the show. Ministers and other officials were on hand to give presentations, answer questions, and, not infrequently, be chewed out by Correa if he didn’t like their answers. Correa, who has a PhD in economics from the University of Illinois, also spent considerable time effectively debunking neoliberal dogmas regarding public spending, taxation and financial regulation. It was major contribution towards public education and transparency. A politician who goes directly before the public for hours each week to answer critics and explain what he is up to cannot help but reveal himself warts and all. The show brought out Correa’s charisma, work ethic, and command of the issues, but also that he could be hot-headed and needlessly undiplomatic at times towards critics (and even his own team). However, his detractors abroad, either through ignorance or bad faith, routinely misrepresented him.
For example, in 2014, a former head of Quito’s Chamber of Commerce, Blasco Peñaherrera, tweeted that Correa would soon be “hiding in a sewer like his buddy Gaddafi”. Gaddafi was raped and murdered by NATO-backed rebels in 2011. In the context of Ecuador’s recent history, Peñaherrera’s comment was not only vicious, it was threatening. In 2010, Correa was briefly taken hostage during a police uprising that morphed into a coup attempt. Moreover, anyone with a passing knowledge of Latin America knows that US-backed coups that profit Peñaherrera’s social class have been common. Correa highlighted Peñaherrera’s tweet on his show, called him a “fascist”, and trashed the polling firm (Market) that Peñaherrera ran. Peñaherrera, the entitled jerk that he is, actually had the nerve to demand a right to reply on Correa’s show. The Americas Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Jose Miguel Vivanco, was angered that Peñaherrera did not get his “right to reply” and has referred vaguely to this incident as an example of Correa’s “authoritarianism”. That’s the kind of dishonesty to expect from the Empire’s human rights group and other big NGOs.
Oligarchs weren’t without “freedom of expression”. Far from it. They still had their newspapers (El Comercio, El Universo, Diario Expreso) and T.V. stations (Ecuavisa, Teleamazonas) with which to relentlessly attack Correa. What enraged them was that, every week on his show, Correa fired back at them effectively.
Winning an election, as Lenin Moreno did in April, by riding Correa’s coattails is one thing. Having the courage to continue his struggle, to spearhead it, is something else entirely. Moreno replaced Correa’s lengthy show with a vapid 10-15 minute weekly infomercial calculated to appease Ecuador’s press barons. He also put a former editor of one Ecuador’s right wing newspapers, El Comercio, in charge of El Telegrafo, the government-run newspaper. These two maneuvers alone reveal that Moreno badly wants to follow the path of least oligarch resistance, but it gets worse. Moreno brazenly adopted the right’s discourse towards Correa’s supporters by dismissing them as sheep (“ovejunos”) – the very people whose votes he had just won by running as a Correa loyalist. Moreno also deployed a tactic widely used by politicians to justify reneging on campaign promises. Once elected, he claimed to have “discovered” (despite being part of Correa’s government for several years) that Ecuador’s public debt is way higher than he thought. Some of us are old enough to remember Bill Clinton using that scam when he was first elected. In reality, Moreno just fudged the numbers and his own finance minister recently backed away from that claim due to a backlash from within Alianza Pais – including Correa who has been publicly blasting Moreno’s betrayal for months.
Moreno’s government has hinted that it will reduce the taxes of Ecuador’s largest landowners. Correa’s government introduced taxes aimed at destructive and often corrupt real estate speculation. The taxes which Moreno wants to roll back were very well designed to target the richest 2%. Incidentally, a widely cited “leftist” indigenous “social movement leader”, Carlos Perz Guartambel, also opposed those tax increases on the richest Ecuadoreans and, during the 2017 election campaign, endorsed Guillermo Lasso, a banker and candidate of the far right. Carlos Perez stated during the campaign that “a banker is preferable to a dictator”. I have written before about how leftists outside Ecuador, sometimes after visits to the country, end up swallowing really shoddy critiques of Correa from the supposed “left”.
Moreno also weakened Ecuador’s opposition to foreign intervention in Venezuela (which Trump has just increased to frightening extent) by expressing “concern” about “political prisoners” in Venezuela.
With the help of his new private media allies, Moreno has used corruption allegations to try to stamp out resistance within Alianza Pais to his right turn. He “discovered” – after being elected of course – that corruption allegations against his running mate, Vice President Jorge Glas, who has taken Correa’s side since the election, were believable after all. Moreno stripped Glas of all his official functions. Moreno could not oust him entirely because Glas was elected. Glas recently asked the National Assembly, where Alianza Pais has a majority, to vote to allow his prosecution to proceed so he can defend himself in court. They did. Glas has not fled the country or maneuvered to avoid facing a judge. As Greg Wilpert explained, the case against him appears weak.
A major flaw in the way Correa’s and other left wing governments have countered the private media is that it relies on them having executive power. If they lose power (either through an electoral defeat or because a traitor like Lenin Moreno takes over) public debate will quickly become dominated by the same elites all over again. The “media voucher” idea promoted by Dean Baker, Robert McChesney and John Nichols is an essential alternative – a way to have a mass media independent of the government of the day but also independent of the rich.
Shortly before Correa’s time in office ended, Alianza Pais passed a constitutional amendment in the National Assembly to eliminate term limits. To defuse critics, Correa insisted that the amendment not allow him to run in 2017. It was a huge mistake. Correa’s statements during his early years insisting he would not run for office indefinitely (like Angela Merkel) basically came back to haunt him. It may also be that for personal reasons he preferred to walk away. After all, Hugo Chavez basically worked himself to death. Nevertheless, Ecuador’s example illustrates why the left should strongly oppose term limits. Leaders willing to fight oligarchs are much harder to find than phonies and cowards like Lenin Moreno who have always been a dime a dozen.