- Interview by
- Bhaskar Sunkara
Andrés Arauz doesn’t act like someone on the cusp of state power — in a good way. As I spent time with the likely next president of Ecuador in New York on Tuesday, I was struck by how humble he seemed in his interactions with his staff, activists, and strangers.
The international press would have us believe that Arauz is a dangerous figure, a pawn of the fiery populist Rafael Correa and committed to both polarizing rhetoric and destabilizing policies. Instead, what I found in my discussions was a humble figure, an ideologically committed progressive, but also a nuanced thinker, proud of his technocratic acumen and background as an economist.
By Arauz’s calm demeanor, one wouldn’t suspect the storm brewing around him. Conspiracy theories are growing about his implausible connection with Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN), and propaganda is being spread about what he has planned for Ecuador and who he will answer to. Arauz, who just turned thirty-six years old and was relatively unknown until a few months ago, doesn’t even know who he’ll face in second-round elections in April.
Earlier this month, he won around a third of the vote with a significant lead over his rivals, but it wasn’t enough to avoid a runoff. Pending recount results, April will see either a more straightforward race against a conservative banker in Guillermo Lasso or a complicated one pitting him against Yaku Pérez, an environmental activist who has won the support of some on the liberal left.
None of the three potential presidents of Ecuador, however, are keen to associate themselves with the country’s current leader, Lenín Moreno. After riding the movement around Correa to victory in 2017, he began a right-wing turn, embracing austerity measures and persecuting key leaders of the country’s Citizens’ Revolution.
As a result, prominent figures like Rafael Correa and Jorge Glas were unable to take part in this year’s contest. Indeed, the Citizen Revolution Movement has faced extraordinary measures as it tried to register as a party and put together a ticket. With its existing leadership hounded, an outsider, Arauz, was the best choice to mount a campaign to undo many of Moreno’s actions and deepen the achievements of the Correa administration (2007–2017).
Despite controversies and criticisms over mining projects and clashes with the organized indigenous movement, under Correa’s popular government Ecuador’s minimum wage doubled, poverty plunged, education and health care spending soared, and GDP growth exceeded regional averages. It’s a period that many in the country would like to go back to.
Today, COVID-19 has taken over fifteen thousand lives, unemployment has spiked, the health infrastructure has been battered, and an IMF austerity program threatens to plunge the country into an even deeper recession.
Andrés Arauz was just in his twenties when he served in Correa’s central bank and then later as a minister. In what follows, he explains some of his worldview, how he plans to win the second round and unite his country, and what we can expect from his presidency.
Let’s start with your background. What drew you to economics, and how would you define the tradition of economics that most influenced you?
It all started when I was very young. My grandmother taught me math through playing cards and also taught an important value system — she helped impart to me an egalitarian and moral worldview.
So when I pursued my studies, economics was a natural fit. I had the quantitative skills to excel at the discipline, but unlike a lot of my peers in the field I was also dedicated to the cause of social justice.
At the beginning, I was more attracted to developmental economics, particularly trying to understand the role of institutions in shaping an economy. I was studying political economy, in the sense that I was concerned with the distribution of power, not just income, within the economy.
Back in Ecuador, I became more familiar with what we call the social and solidarity economy — I was really intrigued by alternative models of economic organization at both the micro and the macro level. And then working at the country’s central bank, I was really obsessed with monetary economics in the post-Keynesian tradition.
You could say that I draw on post-Keynesian and developmental traditions, melding those with insights from solidarity economy experiments.
The Rafael Correa government was obviously progressive and redistributionist, but it seemed to emphasize macroeconomic stability. With this emphasis, were you responding to the perceived problems that past left-of-center regional governments ran into?
Our main reference was Ecuador itself — the developmental experience of three periods in our history. There’s Eloy Alfaro [leader of the Liberal Revolution of 1895], who used infrastructure to really create a national project. . . . We followed that mold by emphasizing not only counting up our economic output, but figuring out what kind of real-life assets we were creating and their impact.
Alfaro built the train that connected Guayaquil with Quito, and that changes the Ecuadorian landscape forever. In a similar spirit, we wanted to create infrastructure projects that would not only facilitate development but would help build a nation.
Second, we were inspired by Ecuador’s developmental experience during the 1970s oil boom — that economic growth, the expansion of the state sector, but also the crash.
And finally, the banking crisis of the late 1990s was also a powerful negative example. We studied that history very rigorously and were committed not to repeating it. To put it a bit crudely, we knew that that kind of crisis was a product of prioritizing the financial sector over the rest of society.
That meant creating alternative models of growth, both by increasing opportunities for ordinary people and their capacities but also in a macroeconomic sense.
In your mind, what was the most significant achievement of the Correa government that you were a part of?
Empowering ordinary Ecuadorians — you could tell that people felt like they had a stake in their society and a certain pride in the transformations that were taking place. But obviously, that empowerment was a by-product of everything else, our social policy, education spending, new infrastructure, and so on.
But where the Correa project fell short was in institutionalizing itself the way that, say, the Morales project in Bolivia was through the development of Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Toward Socialism, MAS). Instead through Alianza PAIS, you had Lenín Moreno and those around him hijack the Citizens’ Revolution and try to push it rightward.
What are the lessons, about institution building, party building, that you draw from these experiences?
Well, I agree completely with you — that was the main weakness of our political project, and it’s the most obviously lingering issue we’re dealing with. We needed a real party structure that sunk social roots.
Instead, we were heavily reliant on having a charismatic leader that people connected with through the mass media. We needed our movement to be deeper than that, and that’s a problem I’m aware of and I’m fully committed to addressing.
You had a popular leader and popular program, but it didn’t have the institutional base to connect to people in their workplaces and communities on an ongoing basis.
Yeah, we needed a strong party rooted in a strong civil society, and we didn’t have that. And it’s not just about winning elections; a democratic party is the basis for real political participation for ordinary people.
What steps are you taking to make sure that the new movement doesn’t go down the same road as Alianza PAIS?
Well, after transiting through seven different parties to run in the elections, we are consolidating our own party, which survived all of these judicial processes, and we’re rebuilding with mainly young cadre. There’s an explicit effort to get people who will not be involved in government duty — matters of state — to play a leading role in this party construction.
Likewise, we’re trying to make sure that the party has much more interaction with civil society than before. It’s really important to me that we create a grassroots formation, connecting social movement activism and our political efforts. We have to be conscious that if we reach government, there will be pressure for cadre to take state posts, but that would end up hollowing out the party and these bottom-up efforts.
What is the social base for your party and candidacy today — and why has it proved somewhat difficult to incorporate the organized indigenous movement in Ecuador into your project?
We have a base in the popular sectors of society all around the country. We’re strongest, of course, among the working classes on the country’s coast.
On your other question, it might be useful to contrast to the Bolivian experience. In Ecuador, the indigenous movement allied itself with supposedly progressive forces in the past, backing Lucio Gutiérrez in 2002, and then they were betrayed. The lesson from these experiences was a suspicion of these electoral alliances and state power. In Bolivia, however, there was the prosperous melding of the objectives of a progressive left and indigenous movements — that’s what allowed for the MAS’s consolidation.
My objective is to try to create a plurinational state with the indigenous movement.
Maybe we should take a step back. There’s obviously a narrative, among the liberal left here, too, that might overstate the homogeneity and coherence of the indigenous social base. Indigenous voters were won by Correa, for instance, pretty heavily in the 2013 election for many of the same reasons as other people in Ecuador.
Yes, of course. And there are many sectors in the indigenous movement that supported us, as well.
The political shift since 2013 seems significant, when Pachakutik only got 3 percent in the first round, however . . .
The 2019 uprising was significant, and it was led by CONAIE [Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador], the largest indigenous organization. That created a more popular basis for Pachakutik.
How would you characterize their program — as broadly left-wing, with parts that you can incorporate into your own?
Most of their program is effectively progressive and left-wing, however, there are many components that are clearly influenced by a network of NGOs in negative ways. There’s a postmodern emphasis that I fear may begin to trend toward neoliberalism.
To put it concretely, by “postmodern emphasis,” you’re talking about a rejection of the developmental state?
You can summarize the thought I’m critiquing as the “anti-extractivist” platform taken to an extreme.
Would you put your stance like this: Ecuador needs to responsibly take advantage of its natural resource wealth as part of a project to build an economy that is more advanced and less reliant on extraction?
No, I’d put it a bit more sophisticatedly. [laughs]
But here’s an example: if we have mines with copper, I’m not interested in just exporting raw copper; I want the incorporating of copper processing technology in Ecuador and to have that industry be an engine of development for the communities in which they’re based. It’s more than just “sell as much as you can and then you’ll have dollars and then you can buy whatever else,” but rather the project itself should directly point to development.
When you’re in power, you’ll have a popular mandate to reject IMF-imposed austerity and pursue redistribution, or at least expansionary policies to combat recession, but you’ll also need to maintain business confidence and maintain your existing international lending. How will you navigate the two different pulls?
There will definitely be an area of conflict with the IMF, that’s inevitable. It’s no secret that the IMF represents financial capital above all and that will be a head-on confrontation on both practical and ideological grounds. However, we have the constitution on our side, and we intend to fight this battle in a smart manner.
I would say, too, that the pandemic has broadened the scope of policy that governments can use and that the new discourse from IMF director Kristalina Georgieva on these fronts is promising, even if you still wouldn’t call her economic outlook “heterodox.” You can say the same about your new treasury secretary, Janet Yellen.
What pressures do you think the Lenín Moreno government was under that can account for at least some of its disastrous move to the Right?
Moreno faced significant pressure. Without the strong leadership of Rafael Correa, who was also a unifying figure, our movement’s very heterogenous alliance fell apart.
In the face of a conservative restorationist movement, Moreno wasn’t strong enough to resist. Besides his weaknesses of character, he was blackmailed by economic elites into these neoliberal measures.
How do you think the dynamics of the second round will be different depending on what candidate you end up facing — the activist Yaku Pérez or the banker Guillermo Lasso?
Well, it’ll certainly be easy for any citizen to see the difference between myself and a conservative, neoliberal banker, Lasso. If it’s Yaku Pérez, it’ll be a much more contested fight, and it will probably require much more sophisticated and fine-grained campaigning to make the point that we are the ones who can best deliver an alternative program and fight against austerity and for justice.
If you win the presidency, you’ll still face a hostile National Assembly. How do you hope to overcome this challenge?
We’ll be just shy of a majority, but that just means we have to expand our base, and we have to, through our advocacy of a plurinational state, win over potential allies. . .
You often invoke the plurinational state, but I’m wondering if you can describe it a bit more concretely. What kind of structures do you think are necessary for a plurinational state? Is Bolivia the model?
Since the plurinational state is already in our constitution, our theoretical model is not Bolivia — it’s Ecuador itself. There are specific elements that have been put forward by the indigenous movement for making this a deeper reality.
Part of it is about cultural space and recognition for the Afro-Ecuadorian people, in addition to the indigenous peoples in Ecuador. There are also specific elements concerning the education system, the justice system, local territories, especially in the Amazon, popular involvement in decisions over extractive projects, and other items.
Before we end, I want to bring up the accusations of foreign influence on the election and support for your campaign. There was a fake video of the ELN “endorsing” your candidacy . . . How do you manage to both dispel these roots while not distracting from your core, popular message about getting the economy back on track and improving ordinary people’s lives?
Well, distraction is exactly what is happening. These rumors [were] created precisely to deviate from the important issues facing the Ecuadorian people, because we can win on those substantive issues. This isn’t just coming from domestic elites; we’ve seen fake news coming from Argentina, coming from Colombia . . .
Our ask is simple: we want to decide our elections by ourselves. We want to have a clean and fair democratic contest without media manipulation.