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A public policy blog from AEI
This Sunday, Ecuador’s voters will go to the polls to elect a new president and their choice may become the latest repudiation of Latin America’s failed anti-democratic socialist caudillos (strongmen). On one side is opposition candidate Guillermo Lasso, a center-right free-market leader in the vein of Argentina’s Mauricio Macri and Peru’s Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. He has promised to end the government’s stifling restrictions on freedom of speech and strengthen the economy through job creation, business-friendly policies, and trade.
Lasso faces the ruling party candidate, Lenín Moreno, the chosen successor of the bombastic socialist President Rafael Correa. Correa, no friend of the United States, has been a close ally of anti-American regimes in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and elsewhere. Ecuador’s embassy in London has also protected and housed Wikileaks’ Julian Assange since 2012, a policy that Moreno has indicated that he would continue. Correa’s government has flouted standards for human rights and political freedoms by spying on political opponents, and adopting aggressive restrictions on press freedoms, including publicly pressuring individual reporters and seeking to shut down watchdog organizations. As Human Rights Watch puts it, under Correa, “Ecuador has enacted a series of measures granting the government sweeping powers to punish its critics and curb public debate of its policies.”
Moreno served as Correa’s vice president for five years and generally offers a watered-down continuation of his statist policies. Growing discontent with Correa’s leadership and the country’s economic woes, however, has led Moreno to distinguish himself from the current head of state, emphasizing his less aggressive personality and willingness to ease protectionist policies.
Correa won popularity in Ecuador with high profile infrastructure projects, including roads, hospitals, and an international airport. He has also reduced the country’s housing shortage and poverty by adopting expansive welfare programs, all of which resulted in doubled government spending since 2008. This explosion in spending was largely funded by high oil prices and heavy borrowing from China. Since 2005, Ecuador has borrowed over $17 billion from China, making it the third largest borrower in the region, surpassing Argentina, whose economy is over five times larger than Ecuador’s.
Lasso and others have criticized this borrowing as unsustainable and tantamount to selling the country’s future to China. Meanwhile, the drop in oil prices has forced the government to cut spending, putting the ruling party on the defensive as the country faces a recession and mounting debt.
Polls have shown the lead fluctuating between Lasso and Moreno since the election’s first round on February 19th, but they currently show Moreno ahead by a narrow margin. The opposition goes into Sunday’s election on an uneven playing field, having to contend with the effects brought on by years of government repression of dissent. However, Lasso’s strong performance thus far has shown Ecuador’s desire for change and to join the region’s political shift toward free-market leaders who respect democratic norms and political freedoms.
Electing Lasso would continue and reinforce this political trend and also have implications for important hemispheric issues such as the political and economic crisis in Venezuela. Day by day, it becomes more difficult for even the most dogmatic Venezuela apologists to deny that the country has deteriorated into a corrupt authoritarian dictatorship. Yet, hardline allies like Correa continue to shield Venezuela from any accountability to regional leaders, as was displayed by Ecuador’s vote at this week’s meeting at the Organization of American States. Guillermo Lasso has endorsed stronger diplomatic actions against Venezuela. His victory would flip a key supporter of Venezuela’s criminal regime into a stalwart voice demanding respect for democratic norms and human rights, just as the election of Argentina’s Macri did.
For years, leaders like Rafael Correa have used record oil revenue to buy popularity through massive expansions in government spending. This provided political cover for their neglect of the private sector, and their abuse of human rights and political freedoms. If Ecuador elects Lasso, despite the institutional disadvantages he faces, it will be yet another clear sign that Latin America is eager to leave its abusive socialist caudillos in the past and embrace democratic leaders who champion individual freedom and free-market economic opportunity.
If Moreno wins, the message will be less clear, but his victory will be thanks in part to his efforts to distance himself from the current president. This alone shows Latin America’s waning tolerance for leaders like Rafael Correa and their policies.
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