Ecuador’s Unpopular Neoliberal Government Survives for Now: An Interview with David Villamar

BY JOE EMERSBERGER

Photograph Source: Asamblea Nacional del Ecuador – CC BY-SA 2.0

David Villamar is an economist and political analyst based in Quito. The last time we talked was shortly after Ecuador’s April 2021 Presidential election.

From 2007-17 Ecuador was governed by the leftist government of Rafael Correa. In 2017 Lenin Moreno won the presidency by campaigning as a Correa loyalist but, once in office, immediately turned into the exact opposite. For the past five years Correaists have been brutally persecuted. Correa himself has been given political asylum in Belgium. Despite repression and dirty tricks by the electoral authorities, Andres Arauz, the Correaiist candidate in 2021, came fairly close to winning the presidency. Correists also ended up being the largest block in the National Assembly, though they are not a majority.

In 2019, the indigenous federation, CONAIE, led protests against Moreno’s government after having collaborated with him during his initial years, and applauding Moreno’s persecution of Correaists. Last month, massive CONAIE-led protests broke out against Lasso’s government which has only been in office for a year. Eighteen days of protests led Lasso to backtrack on some of his neoliberal policies though the danger he will renege on his agreement with CONAIE is very real.

Joe Emersberger: Ecuador’s rightwing clings to power more tenaciously than they did from 1996 – 2006 when they went through something like 10 different presidents. Moreno was incredibly unpopular, and now so is Lasso, yet they have not been driven out.  What explains that?

David Villamar: I agree that Ecuador’s rightwing today is very different from what it was in the 1996-2006 period. They are now capable of uniting to an extent that we didn’t see before. During the election campaign of 2021, I told various analysts that the right was going to unite against Andres Arauz. And that happened. Few people agreed with me because Nebot and Lasso seemed to hate each other. But the fear of progressive forces has united them repeatedly since Correa came to power.

An analysis of Ecuador’s right wing during 1996-2006 that I find most convincing was done by Fernando Bustamante. Before Correa was first elected in 2006, Bustamante said that the coups that ousted rightwing populists (like Abdala Bucaram or Lucio Gutierrez) or other rightwingers like Jamil Mahuad were not really evidence of the general public being empowered. Bustamante argued that it was primarily elites opportunistically using popular uprisings so that their particular faction could seize power. These coups brought no structural changes in power relations. It was competing banking interests, big exporters, and commercial interests fighting for control of the government.  People said that “Ecuador is ungovernable” while these coups happened (we went through 8 to 10 presidents in that period) but Bustamante disagreed. He said that it was simply the way Ecuadorian elites settled on how to govern the country because none of these numerous presidents strayed from the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) neoliberal line.  There was no danger of a progressive movement taking power – hence little incentive for right wing factions to unite.

And that was true even as the first round of the 2006 election got underway, the first election in which Rafael Correa participated. He still wasn’t regarded as a threat. Everyone assumed that Leon Roldos was going to face Alvaro Noboa, the preferred elite candidate, in the second round. But Correa’s charisma came to the fore. His appeal grew quickly and, surprising everyone, he ended up in the second round against Noboa. At that point, very wild attacks on Correa began to be seen in the media – claims that he was a fascist for example. In one attack ad, his face was gradually transformed into Adolph Hitler’s. But voters were so fed up with the political class that the attacks didn’t hurt an outsider like Correa, and probably even helped him. All the rightwing parties united behind Noboa. That was already an example of unprecedented rightwing unity against what was only a nascent progressive threat.

It then became clear why they were threatened. In office, Correa restructured power relations in a way that benefited the vast majority and undermined the system that had maintained elite control for the previous 70 years. Correa struck at their economic power.

Our elite are rent-seekers. They are not very productive. Control of the state was key to their enrichment. Access to insider information has often been very lucrative. One common scenario under Social Christian governments was for elites to buy up land dirt cheap where highways or other public works were to be built (often in Guayaquil) then make a killing afterward when the land price spiked. Bankers have similarly made use of insider information with regard to government debt payments on bonds. This method of enrichment was lost to them under Correa. That led all the institutions of the right, not just its political parties, but its media companies, to unite against Correa. While he was in office he was accused of being authoritarian and of wanting to stay in power forever.  Later [under ex-President Lenin Moreno] the attacks focussed on corruption allegations. Today we see more “narco trafficking” and Mafia-related allegations.

But when the threat of Correa recedes, the Ecuadorian right still reverts to attacking each other. We saw that after the 2021 elections which Lasso won. The support of Nebot’s rightwing faction was essential to Lasso’s victory. But Lasso has spent much of the past year insulting Jaime Nebot. And yet, only two weeks ago, Nebot’s block in the National Assembly saved Lasso from a “Muerte Cruzada” vote [as it is informally known] which, had it been successful, would have forced fresh Presidential and National Assembly elections. That would have finished Lasso. When a progressive threat becomes imminent the right now sets aside factional hatreds.

Another example is the recent bickering between two bankers: President Lasso and Fidel Egas. This dispute actually led Teleamazonas to start telling the truth about Ecuador under Lasso. This is a rightwing network whose approach for the last five years has been to ignore Ecuador’s problems, and, if forced to cover them, say they are Correa’s fault. But very suddenly, literally overnight, as soon as this spat between Lasso and Egas broke out, Teleamazonas started accusing Lasso’s government of being corrupt and of failing to address violent crime. But when the CONAIE-led protest broke out, and talk of a Muetre Cruzada vote began, Teleamazones reverted to the approach of other right wing media: vilifying the protesters and alleging that “narco-correismo” was behind them.

JE: I notice that Andres Arauz is in a camp that does not like Correaists talking about CONAIE’s role in helping Moreno (and by extension Lasso) hold on to power. The Correaist party put out a statement that one analyst called “torpe” [clumsy or tackless] for mentioning that history. Correa responded forcefully. I agree with Correa on this. What are your thoughts on those divisions?

DV: The relationship between the Citizen’s Revolution [Correa’s movement] and CONAIE was never a rosy one. I don’t think the historic reasons for those divisions have often been deeply analyzed. The reasons trace back to the formation of CONAIE in 1986 under the influence of some radical left groups. We must remember that the socialist party and the MPD -the traditional leftist parties- had never been successful at bourgeois electoral politics. They’d win a few seats in Congress, make radical speeches, but not have any real impact. But there was a segment of the revolutionary left that sought transformational change more effectively and worked closely with CONAIE. Among the initial influential leaders were Transito Amaguaña and Dolores Cacuango who were both openly communist. That influenced the structure of CONAIE which is a structure of communes. Those communes selected the leaders, and that structure facilitated the first big indigenous uprising in 1990, unprecedented at the time.

They had a clear vision of what was wrong in the country. When they marched down to Quito from all over the highlands, one of the first things they did was to seize control of several television station transmitters. Just like that, a key source of elite power came under grave attack like never before. After that, the other revolutionary left I mentioned (the Socialist Party and MPD) remained stagnant, but the indigenous movement generated huge expectations among leftists who wanted real change.

The first presidential candidate with indigenous movement support was Freddy Ehlers in 1996 [with the Pachakutik party]. Ehlers didn’t quite make the second round but did way better than the left was accustomed to doing. It showed that the indigenous movement could be a significant electoral force through Pachakutik, its electoral wing. And at first Pachatkutik worked coherently with CONAIE’s communal structure. By 1998, Pachakutik’s representation in the legislature was about 10%, similar to the percentage of the population that identified as indigenous.

In 2000, CONAIE teamed up with elements of the military to overthrow President Jamil Mahuad. The leader of CONAIE at the time, Antonio Vargas, allied himself with Colonel Lucio Gutierrez. That evolved into an electoral alliance between Gutierrez’s party (Sociedad Patriotica) and Pachakutik. In 2002 Gutierrez won the Presidential election with this alliance. But that alliance didn’t last six months because Gutierrez sold out completely to the IMF. It was similar to what happened with Lenin Moreno in 2017. He ran as a leftist, but once in office, governed as a rightwinger. However, unlike Moreno, Gutierrez’s term was cut short in 2005.

This history is important because it helps explain CONAIE’s approach to Correa afterward. CONAIE felt betrayed and weary of ever entering into electoral alliances again with the “mestizos” of Ecuadorian politics. In 2006, during both the first and second rounds, Correa proposed an alliance with CONAIE but CONAIE and Pachakutik rejected it.

Even as Correa initially took office there was already friction due to mistrust generated by the Gutierrez fiasco, but also because of a certain logic to CONAIE’s movement as an anti-power movement as many left movements tend to be. That kind of approach is fine against neoliberals, but Correa’s government was working to implement numerous progressive policies. Against that kind of government being anti-power just means you’re helping the right. That’s basically what CONAIE ended up doing during Correa’s ten years in office.

It seems  CONAIE’s leadership, in part, misunderstood Correa’s government but also saw his movement as a natural electoral rival to its own – one that shrank Pachkutik’s electoral relevance. What many leaders did – in particular Yaku Perez, Salvador Quishpe, Lourdes Tiban –  to counter Pachakutik’s decline was to use the right-wing media to amplify attacks on Correa.

JE: Some CONAIE activists, like Virgilio Hernandez, also went over to Correa’s movement.

DV:  Yes, also Freddy Ehlers (who became a minister under Correa) and Augusto Barrera who became mayor of Quito. There was some migration of people from CONAIE and Pachakutik into the Citizen’s Revolution which, as a new movement, required some established progressive leaders. It also developed new leaders, notably Gabriela Rivadenaira, who was driven into exile in 2019, or Andres Arauz, who ran for president in 2021.

Another factor is that Pachakutik as an electoral organization became more separate from CONAIE, and more right wing. Under Leonidas Iza’s leadership over the past few years I think he has tried to address that, to move CONAIE away from the rightist influence and elements of Pachakutik, and away from a reflexive anti-power stance. However, he has sometimes been put on the ropes and battered with “accusations” that he is a “Correista”. He has responded by attacking Correa, saying Correa led a “fake” revolution and things like that. But, notwithstanding those remarks, I think he has been transparent about the divisions within the indigenous movement and tried to take it left. Recently, there was even a split with Pachakutik in the National Assembly. Part of it broke away in protest at the assistance it has given to Lasso over the past year – like protecting Lasso from consequences over the Pandora Paper revelations. This division between the “Pachakutik rebelde” and what could be called the “Pachakutik oficialista” (Lasso allies), allowed the people to see there are at least two factions in the indigenous movement: one leftwing, that became visible only after Leonidas Iza was elected CONAIE’s president, and one rightwing that has controlled Pachakutik for over a decade.

It is in this context that one can ask if the Correaist party statement at the beginning of the protests was clumsy or importunate.

Was it a lie what the statement said about CONAIE’s role in helping the right (during Correa’s government and at the beginning of Moreno’s term)? No, it wasn’t a lie.

But is today’s CONAIE (the one that is leading the protests against Lasso) the same CONAIE that countered Correa during his government? No, it isn’t the same one. And failing to recognize that is a mistake, perhaps not so different from CONAIE’s mistake when they rejected an alliance with Correa in 2006.

Correa’s policies from 2007-2017 have proven to be a successful alternative to neoliberalism. CONAIE’s protests in 2019 and 2022 have proven to be a solid resistance against neoliberal policies. If the alternative to neoliberalism and the resistance to neoliberalism do not find a way to articulate with each other, then it is unlikely that we will regain the necessary strength to defeat neoliberalism. And that is more important than stating who was wrong and who was right, now or then.

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