In 2005, I was a five-year old little girl living in Ecuador. Despite being merely a child, I have a very vivid and traumatic memory of the chaos and political instability my native land endured. On the morning of April 20, my parents turned on the television and were greeted by the image of thousands of people protesting the policies of President Lucio Gutiérrez on the streets of Quito. Violence erupted between the protesters and the police as the protesters tried to storm the presidential palace. Ultimately, the president was forced to flee the country in disgrace, but not before protesters made an attempt to block his plane on the tarmac.
In most other countries, this would have been an extraordinary event, but in a dysfunctional Ecuador it had become standard practice. The country had already suffered not one, but two presidential oustings in the decade before—those of Abdalá Bucaram in 1997 and Jamil Mahuad in 2000. Both presidencies were marred by charges of abuse of power, corruption, or poor governance. Like Gutiérrez, both Bucaram and Mahuad eventually opted to flee the country. Again, in 2005, the Ecuadorian people had had enough.
Enter Rafael Correa. Elected in 2006, only a little more than a year after Gutiérrez was overthrown, Correa could have easily fallen back upon the habits of his predecessors, engaging in propaganda and failing to carry out the social reforms he had promised during his campaign. Instead, he embarked on a massive and electrifying social spending program called the “citizen’s revolution,” which improved the quality of life in Ecuador dramatically and has cut poverty by 27 percent since 2006. With these measures, Correa lifted the spirits of many Ecuadorians and compelled them to look together towards a brighter future with his creation of a “national project,” one akin to the American dream. Although it seems likely that a victory by the opposition will undo aspects of his project, Correa’s legacy is one that will be felt by Ecuadorians for decades to come.
The Ecuadorian Presidency: Corruption and Abuse of Power
Despite the fact that both Bucaram and Mahuad had been elected as left-wing candidates with mandates to help the poor when in office, the pressure of the moneyed interests and established right-wing political oligarchy proved too much. They reneged on their promises and implemented harsh cuts in social spending that dramatically increased the cost of living for the poor. On top of it all, both Bucaram and Mahuad were found to have enriched themselves either from the government coffers or through bribes taken from the elite.
Following these debacles, Gutiérrez was elected as a left-wing reformer who promised to finally bring relief to the poor, which at the time made up almost half of the population. Instead, he formed alliances with right-wing politicians and, in consequence, employed generally orthodox economic policies that did little to reduce Ecuador’s rampant inequality. He further cemented his new alliance by exonerating Bucaram, his immediate predecessor, from corruption charges and allowing his return to the country. Harvard professor Steven Levitsky told the HPR that the widespread corruption of the government throughout various presidencies led many Ecuadorians to experience a deep sense of desgaste, or tiredness, from the failures of the Gutiérrez presidency and the austerity measures he implemented. This feeling drove Ecuadorians to search for a left-wing candidate less willing to compromise with the country’s dominant right wing. They found this candidate in Correa.
The Correa Presidency: A Turning Point
After serving as finance minister under the transitional presidency of Alfredo Palacio, Gutiérrez’ vice president, Rafael Correa was himself elected president in 2006. Just one year after he took office, the global financial crisis of 2008 occurred, and beat down the Ecuadorian economy, decreasing the price of oil, Ecuador’s main export, by 79 percent. In a country where oil composed 62 percent of exports and a third of government revenue, the fall in oil revenues led to an overwhelming $3.5 billion trade deficit in 2009. This had severe consequences for the economy, and Ecuador ultimately became the hardest-hit country in Latin America.
Correa, an economist by training, decided to take an unorthodox path in economic policy by drastically reforming Ecuador’s financial system, a gutsy strategy given the power of the financial sector in Ecuadorian politics. The central bank was placed under the direct control of the government, and it was forced to bring $2 billion of reserves abroad back to Ecuador for use as economic stimulus. These reserves were used to provide loans for housing, agriculture, and infrastructure—in other words, for the benefit of the average Ecuadorian.
Furthermore, Correa’s financial reforms greatly reduced the impact of the crisis on his citizenry, and Ecuador’s GDP only decreased by 1.3 percent. This came as a result of both the changes in the financial system and Correa’s massive stimulus package, equaling approximately 5 percent of GDP. Despite the blow dealt by the financial crisis, Correa’s economic measures helped Ecuador return to pre-recession output in one year. In comparison, it took the United States more than four years.
These reforms and rising oil prices grew government revenues to an unprecedented 40 percent of GDP in 2012, which allowed for unprecedented social spending. Correa took on projects to dramatically improve the state of the country’s airports and roadways. New ports and shipyards have been built to increase Ecuador’s commercial ventures, with domestic industry and consumer goods consumption increased by Correa’s “Ecuador First” campaign.
Under Correa, Ecuador has dramatically improved the quality of and access to education. Whereas before the school system was not controlled or overseen by the government, now the system is carefully managed and evaluated. Rates of enrollment have increased dramatically, with Ecuador nearing universal primary school attendance, while the rate of secondary-school enrollment has accordingly risen. Most significantly, ethnic groups that have historically lower rates of enrollment, like Afro-Ecuadorians and indigenous groups, have shown exponential increases in school attendance, rates which now near the national average.
The Correa presidency has also had success improving access to healthcare. New spending on healthcare has amounted to $13.5 billion, which increased doctor visits at public hospitals from 16 million in 2015 to 38 million in 2016. Most significantly, the rate of malnutrition, a great health problem in Ecuador, has been more than halved, from 1.1 percent in 2007 to 0.4 percent in 2014.
Along with ensuring access to healthcare, Correa has also expanded the country’s social security program, IESS, and now more than 67 percent of people are signed up. Additionally, the minimum wage was increased from $160 a month to $366. Nor have these measures inflicted the severe economic consequences often portended—Ecuador has one of the lowest rates of unemployment in Latin America, at 4.3 percent in 2015.
Of course, Correa’s presidency has not been perfect. He has received much criticism from the international community for massively increasing the public debt to 25 percent of the GDP. Both Levitsky and David Cordero Heredia, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador, told the HPR that eventual decreases in oil revenues will certainly lead to decreases in public spending and an onslaught of austerity measures.
Moreover, under his presidency, there was a serious repression of the press, with the Correa administration litigating against many newspapers for libel. As Cordero indicated, the breakdown of the outlets for expressing dissent, along with the takeover of common mediums of civil society, such as teacher’s unions by Correa’s party, led to heavily one-sided policy making.
However, even among critics, there is a consensus that Correa’s lavish spending was beneficial for the country. In an interview with the HPR, Efren Guerrero Salcedo, another professor at PUCE, stated that although he disapproved of Correa’s “bestial” increase of the public debt and repression of the press, when considering the context of his ascension to the presidency, he has made impressive improvements to infrastructure, education, and other public sector enterprises.
The most important part of Correa’s reforms has been the creation of what Guerrero called “a national project.” The dire political circumstances of the decades prior to Correa’s presidency created a culture of distrust in the political system, and a sense of hopelessness at the prospects for material success by the average Ecuadorian. Correa’s “citizen’s revolution” reinvigorated the Ecuadorian sense of dignity and a hope for a better future, akin to the way the “American Dream” has animated the middle class of the United States since the 1950s.
After Correa: The Future of Ecuadorian Politics
2017 marks the first election in a decade without Rafael Correa as the presidential candidate of his party, Alianza PAÍS. Instead, Correa’s former vice president, Lenín Moreno, is running against the right-wing candidate Guillermo Lasso of the Creating Opportunities party, or CREO. Election day was February 19, but, as predicted, Moreno could not pass the 40 percent threshold necessary to win the election outright. A runoff election between the two candidates occurred on April 2, where Moreno became the next president of Ecuador with 51 percent of the vote, to Lasso’s 49.
Moreno’s win in the election comes as a surprise to most international observers. According to Levitsky and Guerrero, after ten years of PAÍS dominating the political scene, the people likely felt a renewed sense of “desgaste” for the governing party. This was evident in the voting trends from the first round of presidential voting: 33 percent of votes went to smaller, mostly right-wing parties. As in Argentina and Brazil, Ecuador was expected to be the next country in Latin America where the “pink tide” of leftist governments that arose in the 2000s would be dealt another blow. However, Moreno’s win indicates that the majority of Ecuadorians not only continue to support Correa and his party, but that the pink tide may not be over.
What does this mean for Correa’s national project? Moreno’s platform of poverty reduction and championing disability rights seems to indicate that the national project will continue, albeit constrained by the country’s mounting debt. In fact, Moreno promises to invest $2 billion to a new set of social programs aimed at helping newborn children receive natal care, giving a $100 social security credit to the elderly, and helping other vulnerable segments of the population. In opposition to Levitsky and Guerrero, Cordero suggested that the decline in oil prices may not lead to a significant impairment of the government’s ability to spend because of the vast investments the Correa administration made in renewable energy, such as hydroelectric facilities. The Ecuadorian government hopes to increase its revenues by selling hydroelectric power. Hence, Correa’s likely legacy of lessening Ecuador’s dependency on oil may allow for his national project to be sustained throughout Moreno’s term.
Moreover, the continuing strength of Alianza PAÍS in congress—the party won 74 seats to CREO’s 34, enough to maintain their majority—will likely guarantee the preservation of Correa’s most popular initiatives. In an interview with the HPR, the President of the National Assembly and congressional leader of Alianza PAÍS, Gabriela Rivadeneira, said that PAÍS is committed to continuing to make improvements to health, education, and social security programs. It seems that Ecuadorians’ newfound sense of hope for their economic prospects will persist.
Whereas the presidencies coming before Correa were marred by chaos, incompetence, and corruption, Correa’s policies have left a legacy of newfound hope and faith in the effectiveness of the Ecuadorian government. Guerrero said that this election may signify a turning point in Ecuadorian politics; it is finally possible for two strong political parties to exist. With the creation of this strong two-party system along with the fact that, for the first time, there is an expectation from citizens that politicians will get things done, legislators will be forced to make compromises. Indeed, Rivadeneira stated that PAÍS was ready to make compromises on major issues with opposing parties, as it is fundamental to the health of a functioning democracy. Looking back, it seems that, beyond social programs and political stability, Correa’s legacy might also include a stronger Ecuadorian democracy.
Correction, November 4, 2017: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the charges against the presidencies of Abdalá Bucaram and Jamil Mahuad. The article has been updated to correct this mischaracterization.
Image credit: Flikr/Cancillería del Ecuador // Flikr/UNICEF Ecuador// Flikr/Agencia de Noticias ANDES