- Interview by
- Daniel Finn
The last two weeks have seen a historic popular uprising in Ecuador, with President Lenín Moreno forced to flee the capital and eight people killed in clashes with the police and army. As protesters took over government buildings around Quito, Moreno was forced to declare a national emergency, ordering the military to impose a curfew. While talks on Sunday saw the government concede to demonstrators’ key demands, the situation remains intensely polarized.
The protests are particularly striking because Ecuador in recent years represented one of the beacons of left-wing rule in Latin America, under Rafael Correa’s Alianza PAIS government. His party colleague Lenín Moreno succeeded him as president in 2017 in the name of continuity, but in practice he sharply reversed the government’s previous stances, not only handing back a US military base previously evicted by Correa, but also steering the country back toward austerity and neoliberal reforms.
Guillaume Long was foreign minister in Correa’s last government. He spoke to Jacobin’s Daniel Finn about the forces behind the protests, the breakdown of Correa’s former party, and the role of the Moreno government as a vehicle for US interference in Ecuador and the wider region.
What’s going on in Ecuador? It seems like Lenín Moreno has completely lost his legitimacy.
Moreno has become a clownish figure who people are making fun of, and you can see the jokes people tell becoming more aggressive towards him and his government.
It’s important to understand the significance of this mockery, because it contrasts with the image that Correa’s government enjoyed. His was seen as a government of national reconstruction after what many academics described as a failed state, which had seen seven presidents in ten years. Before Correa came to power, Ecuador had been ravaged by economic, institutional, and political crisis, with constant deadlock. But under his rule, Ecuador suddenly came onto the map.
There were all sorts of other elements to Correa’s decade in power, including more “leftist” redistributive, anti-imperialist aspects. But there was also this cultural element, the recuperation of national self-esteem, which went hand-in-hand with having a viable country, political stability, and the recuperation of the nation-state project.
When Moreno came to power in May 2017, that element began to be eroded, and people started to be ashamed of him. But whereas in the first two and a half years there were a few demonstrations, with 30,000-plus people rallying against Moreno, there was certainly not the kind of insurgency that you’re seeing now in the streets. What we had was a pressure cooker on the burn, with pressure gradually mounting and no security valve to let off steam. When Ecuadorians decided enough was enough, the whole cooker blew up. That’s what we’ve been seeing for the past couple weeks.
This insurgency happened overnight but isn’t simply a surprise. There was a deep resentment with the Moreno administration and the fact that he’d taken us back to the old elite political practices of the 1990s and early 2000s. The package of economic measures announced last earlier this month was a complement to decisions already taken as part of a neoliberal structural adjustment package driven by the government and by the IMF. But these measures are a particularly radical part of that overall package. This was the spark that ignited the whole situation.
The following day, the Wednesday, we had mass street demonstrations on a scale not seen in decades. Now, nine days later, we’re faced with the biggest mobilization in contemporary Ecuadorian history. Historians might say things are different if you look back to premodern times, but this is the biggest mobilization of Ecuadorian people in my lifetime and for my generation.
The other new element is the ferocious repression, which is something that Ecuadorians aren’t used to. Ecuador hasn’t had a politically violent history like neighbors such as Colombia or even Peru. In the past, before Correa’s decade in power, there had been political instability and governments falling or toppled. But none of this happened through political violence. In fact, governments often failed when they asked the military to repress uprisings and the military said, “Sorry, but we can’t do that.”
What’s happened this time is that the government has so far successfully pushed the security forces, including the police and the military, to enact a repression unheard of in Ecuador’s recent history. Demonstrators have moved from anti-neoliberal, economic, anti-IMF slogans to calls for a political transition, because the repression has been so fierce. People are now looking for ways out of this crisis, maybe including fresh elections — but all sorts of alternatives are being put on the table.
As you say, the protests and the crisis are unprecedented. The government’s response also appears to be unprecedented, certainly in recent years, now that we’ve seen the declaration of a state of emergency, the moving of the capital, and Moreno’s appearance on national television flanked by army officers in uniform. Is this kind of clampdown sustainable or is it likely to backfire?
If you’d asked me a few days ago, I would have said that the army will withdraw support from the government. Which is not necessarily what we’ve been calling for — we’re not looking to topple elected governments by military force. But the constitution does provide for ways out of this mess. The constitution establishes that when you have extreme national drama, such as is the case now, the president can dissolve parliament,. But he can do that just once in his term, and in so doing he has to call for presidential elections, too. So, we could have a general election, and similarly parliament could impeach the president. But this would also force fresh parliamentary elections.
Certainly, we do now have the kind of national drama to which the constitution refers, here. The president has fled to Guayaquil, the seat of government isn’t the capital anymore, and you’ve got people dying on the streets and all the roads blocked. Several of the original seats of government have been taken over by protestors. It’s a big, big mess. But if you’d asked me a few days ago, I would have said that the military would have refused to toe the line of repression ordered by the government, so I like many have been very surprised to see this.
I know for a fact that within the military there are some dissident voices saying, “We don’t want to repress our people anymore.” Let’s not forget that soldiers in Ecuador come from modest backgrounds and a lot of them have indigenous or working-class families, which also means they have brothers, sisters, children, and cousins. So the army’s divided, though so far the government has managed to keep it loyal.
It’s very difficult to say what will happen next. Last weekend saw the most fierce repression we’ve seen so far, with the police firing tear gas and rubber bullets into a crowd of people essentially sitting down on the grass, having lunch. Here we’re not talking about protestors, but indigenous people with babies, with children cooking, hit by unbelievable, gratuitous repression. This mobilized the barrios — neighborhoods of Quito — that had not been participating in the demonstrations, driven by sheer anger at what happened and the images circulating on social networks. The sheer numbers of people on the streets of Quito [Sunday] are even greater than they were [on Saturday].
The government has tried to avoid a situation where the president quits or dissolves parliament. It knows that it’s so unpopular that it would lose any early elections, and probably Correa’s faction would do quite well, so it has avoided this.
How long can it put off such a choice — and who will be worn down first, the demonstrators or the security forces? Both sides are obviously exhausted because there’s been a huge nonstop occupation of public space by both sides. It’s not clear what the outcome will be. But I think national elections would be the best way out of this.
In your previous interview with Jacobin you referred to the power struggle in the Alianza PAIS party after Moreno replaced Correa, noting that the new president had been successful in transforming it into a vehicle for his own political agenda. Have Correa’s supporters been able to develop a new political center as an alternative to the Alianza PAIS that would be capable of intervening in fresh elections?
Alianza PAIS essentially doesn’t exist anymore. It’s become a very marginal organization that’s struggling to survive because electoral law in Ecuador, as in many parts of the world, establishes that you need a minimum percentage in order to exist as a legally recognized political organization. In March’s provincial and local elections Alianza PAIS did very poorly because Moreno wanted to seize the party — not to use it as a tool for himself, but rather to take it away from Correa, who was after all the party’s founding father, supported by its militants.
This was useful for Moreno in that it hampered Correa, denying him a party with offices all over the country, its Twitter and Facebook accounts, its infrastructure and so on. So obviously Correa has had to create a new party, and in so doing has faced a lot of administrative obstacles, which successfully blocked its formation. This was partially resolved because we managed to make an alliance with an existing party so that we had candidates for the March elections.
Now I think the situation has been resolved, and correaismo has a party that can have an institutional presence and take part in elections for itself. But Alianza PAIS was based on the legacy of Correa’s decade in power, and the betrayals by Moreno have essentially destroyed it. What we instead have is a correista faction called the Movement for the Citizens’ Revolution.
That said, it’s important to say that the current demonstrations are not just about correaismo. You also have the major presence of the indigenous movement. Correa used to get almost two-thirds of the indigenous vote and enjoys a great deal of popularity there. But at the top of the movement — including the CONAIE [Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador] — there’s also significant opposition to Correa. This is a broad, anti-Moreno front, including sections of the Left, or at least those who identify as on the Left, that were never very close to Correa, today demonstrating against Moreno and the IMF package.
So, there’s a complex set of actors opposed to the current government — we don’t even know if they will, indeed, constitute an alliance. But electorally and politically speaking, the biggest bloc involved is the correistas. The former president remains the country’s most popular politician, and despite all the lawfare and persecutions used to try and destroy this bloc, it’s still omnipresent, even if it’s also alongside other forces.
Aside from their diverse political composition, is it clear that the social base of these protests comes from people who would have voted for Moreno two years ago and before that for Correa?
I think that’s probably true of the majority — that these are people disillusioned with Moreno because he lied to them when he said that his government would be based on the continuation of a decade of revolution. Clearly, it isn’t. He’s a Trojan horse, and since 2017 he has — sometimes successfully — been attempting to destroy a lot of the things that the Citizens’ Revolution established in Ecuador.
But as a note of caution, I’d say there are probably forces who did not vote for Moreno in 2017 who are nevertheless involved in the protests. Let’s not forget that even some of the so-called left, and some people in the indigenous movement, refused to endorse Moreno against [conservative businessman] Guillermo Lasso in 2017. We don’t know how many actually voted for Lasso or else just didn’t vote. But I think you’re right in saying a majority of protestors are people disillusioned by Moreno.
It seems like something of a throwback to be talking about the IMF: even if it was never evicted from Latin America, it seemed not to still have such an intrusive role as in previous decades. But now you have a classic IMF austerity program in exchange for a loan and it almost hearkens back to the time when people like Joseph Stiglitz referred to “IMF riots.” Do you think there’s a sense that the IMF has lost its political touch, after being more remote from the region for some time?
I don’t know whether the IMF ever had that political touch. Certainly, it created the chaos in 1990s Ecuador, and in that cycle there were what Stiglitz called IMF riots. I think that what’s going on in the region right now with the IMF — the anti-IMF politics in Argentina , the probable victory of [center-left Peronist] Alberto Fernandez in that country, and the protests now taking place — is a perfect example of the rejection of neoliberalism, both because it is unjust, creating greater inequality, greater precariousness, greater poverty, but also because it simply doesn’t work. It’s not even good for elites. It doesn’t create a greater accumulation of capital. It creates a longer austerity cycle, which itself deepens the cycles of boom and bust.
This whole argument about the IMF imposing short-term pain for long-term gain doesn’t really persuade people. That’s certainly true on the streets. But it doesn’t actually convince most contemporary Latin American economists either. The intellectual class, including a number of economists and development experts, are not all aligned with what was the Pink Tide, but the debate has moved away from being strictly about macroeconomics and monetary instability — as it was in the eighties and nineties — to something that’s much broader and larger. It has to do with development, and especially the transition from raw material–based, primary economies based on exporting commodities, to much more diversified economies less vulnerable to external shocks.
Correa’s own message was very much about moving away from the raw-materials economy, but even his opponents attacked him on the grounds that he was not taking the right measures in order to make that same transition. By that, I mean that even Correa’s opponents were not partisans of the classic IMF neoliberal thinking obsessed with budget deficits, inflation, and privatization. Much more of the discussion was about development and creating more stable economies less vulnerable to external price shocks. One can’t take the IMF side in a discussion about development. It’s all about budget balancing, deficit, and inflation.
There are, still, a few fundamentalist neoliberal diehards in Latin America, but I would say they’re in the minority. They and the IMF are rowing against the current of history both in terms of their relationship with the people — as we’re seeing in these protests — but also the academic discussion and the overall debate on development.
Traditionally, the IMF has been seen as an extension of the US Treasury Department, but US intervention in Latin America also takes different and more intrusive forms. The political turn taken by Moreno after his election victory was obviously seen as an unexpected windfall for Washington particularly in terms of foreign policy, even without its preferred candidate needing to win an election. This was symbolized quite drastically by the Ecuadorian government’s changed position on the Julian Assange case. Has there been any public statement or intervention by US officials on the current protests?
Yes, yesterday the State Department made a big statement giving its full support to Moreno. This was really quite a radical statement, going full throttle on the idea that all this is a conspiracy by Nicolas Maduro and Rafael Correa. This was remarkable for its simplicity and vulgarity. It showed complete contempt for people’s capacity to analyze the situation for themselves, as well as for the Ecuadorian people’s sovereign decision to resist these undemocratically imposed economic measures.
Let’s not forget that the Ecuadorian constitution establishes that if there is an IMF loan, it should be discussed in parliament. The government completely bypassed this process, and there’s a number of senses in which it was imposed in an authoritarian manner. But the State Department has responded by characterizing the response as Maduro’s intervention in Ecuadorean politics, which is quite pathetic if you look at the scale of the protests.
Indeed, if you look at the actors involved, many are not all aligned with Venezuela — this is, really, a preposterous argument. But the United States’ role as a key player supporting Moreno is clear, and his administration itself fulfilled a number of tasks it’s been assigned. The abandonment of Assange was one of these, as was the recognition of Juan Guaidó’s self-appointed government in Venezuela and the granting of an airstrip to the US military in the Galapagos islands.
Ecuador under Moreno has been one of the most aggressive countries in accepting the return of the Monroe Doctrine in the continent, embracing an exclusive bilateralism with the United States as opposed to Latin-Americanist positions. It’s on a par with Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, or perhaps even more radical in this regard.
So, there is a geopolitical component in the protests, not because protestors are necessarily thinking necessarily in geopolitical terms, but because this is a laboratory for the United States to reverse the recent history of what many have called the Pink Tide in Latin America. There have been different ways in which left-of-center governments in Latin America have been either defeated, or removed from office, through elections as in Argentina in 2015, and other cases by lawfare, or by outright coups, as in Honduras, Paraguay, and maybe even Brazil.
Ecuador, however, saw another form of transition, where a successor-president turned his back on his predecessor, his electoral promises, and his program. Moreno actually said a month after being elected, “I want to thank the people who didn’t vote for me. I’m starting to hate the people who did.” That’s an amazing statement. Geopolitically, from the perspective of the Trump administration, this was a great success. Yet the current protests mark a massive setback for these efforts, particularly in the context of what is happening [with the turn to the Left] in Argentina. We’ll see what comes next in the elections in Bolivia and Uruguay, but these protests are a clear check on US strategy in Ecuador and the region.
On that point — there was a conventional wisdom that the left turn in Latin America had run its course and that the momentum was with conservative forces of one kind or another. Yet the political and electoral cycles aren’t synchronized across different countries, and now we see that after four years in office, Argentina’s Mauricio Macri — who was meant to be one of the harbingers of this right-wing turn — faces a tricky situation heading into the presidential contest. Even in Venezuela, while Maduro hasn’t found a positive way to resolve the crisis, the opposition’s momentum seems to have run aground. And now we see what’s happening in Ecuador. So do you have any sense that the pendulum could swing back the other way — or is that too premature a judgment?
I’ve always argued that eventually we would lose at the ballot box — when the Left commits to electoral politics rather than the armed struggle, inevitably it will one day start losing elections. Obviously, the commodities decline starting in November 2014 really hit us badly over the next couple of years, but this was also an important wake-up call for the Left, to not just focus on redistribution but to center in on systemic change in the economy and the forms of production.
But as I also said, the right-wing turn was never going to be a thirty-year cycle that would obliterate the Left. They didn’t make their breakthrough with huge charismatic figures winning elections in the first round like the Left had, but took narrow victories, or sometimes arrived by coups or lawfare. Never having enjoyed massive parliamentary majorities, they saw their popularity eroded within just a few months, because of the neoliberal reforms they were doing. None of the right-wing governments in the region have high approval ratings.
If it is democratic, at least, the right-wing cycle will be short. It may be somewhat longer if it is authoritarian. Authoritarian can mean various things in today’s world. Certainly, I would include lawfare, and persecution of leaders, and preventing them from running, and all these kinds of things as part of the category “authoritarian.” But I’m optimistic that things will be kept democratic.