Daniel Noboa, Ecuador’s president-elect, at a national assembly session. Image credit: Asamblea Nacional del Ecuador / Flickr
Last year, if you had asked anyone in Ecuador who Noboa was, they would have replied “the rich banana man,” or jokingly called him “Alvarito!” They would have been referring to Álvaro Noboa, one of the country’s richest men, a five-time presidential candidate, and a meme-subject extraordinaire (earlier this year he uploaded a video to his social media account jumping into the ocean to “face” hurricane Irma in Miami).
Today, if you mention the name Noboa, Ecuadorians will have in mind someone new: his son, Daniel Noboa, who is Ecuador’s newly elected president.
On October 15, Ecuador held historic presidential elections. Daniel Noboa, a 35-year-old businessman and center-right politician, handily defeated Luisa González, a left-wing candidate handpicked by ex-president Rafael Correa, with over 51 percent of the vote.
Noboa and González went through to a second round after leading the first electoral round with 23.57 percent and 33.61 percent of the vote respectively. González’s lead was expected—Correa’s candidates have led every election since his exile. But Noboa’s showing came as a shock: re-election polls didn’t predict him in second, third, or even fourth place.
This year’s unprecedented elections were the result of current president Guillermo Lasso’s impeachment trial, during which he decreed “muerte cruzada” (literally “crossed death”) in May—a first in the country’s history. In this last-resort mechanism, the president removes himself voluntarily from the presidency while dissolving the national assembly. Noboa will carry out Lasso’s remaining term, governing until May 2025.
An unlikely candidate, Daniel Noboa is the eldest son of Ecuador’s banana man, Álvaro Noboa. Daniel holds business administration, public policy, and political communication and strategic governance degrees from New York University, Kellog School of Management, Harvard University, and Washington University. In 2018 he started working in the family business, Corporación Noboa. Three years later, he entered politics, serving as assembly member for the coastal province of Santa Elena and head of the Economic Development, Productivity, and Microenterprise Commission.
In the first presidential debate on television, young Noboa’s cool and calm style grabbed the attention of Ecuador’s voters. He presented a sharp contrast not only to his father’s cartoonish persona, but also to the heated rhetoric and wild gesturing of his rival candidates. By his stoic demeanor alone, he dissociated himself from Ecuadorian machine politics altogether.
The other candidates—proudly—carried political banners stamped with invisible -isms. For almost 20 years a candidate’s main selling point was their alliance or opposition to Correa’s left-wing populist ideology and political party. Correísmo had turned the country’s politics into a boxing ring with only two positions: you’re either fighting against the populist Left, or you’re for it. Noboa stood outside the ring altogether. For young voters, aged between 16 and 29 and who make up 30 percent of the electorate, this seemed an increasingly refreshing alternative: his typical supporter was a young “citizen who does not identify with those positions because they didn’t experience them,” writes political analyst Arianna Tanca.
Noboa is muscular, clean shaven with a dimpled smile. He’s married to Lavinia Valbonesi with whom he’s raising a child, with another one on the way. She’s a blue-eyed, blond nutritionist and influencer who’s won the hearts of many young men. During the last stretch of the presidential campaign, Noboa peppered the country with life size cutout cardboard photographs of himself in a T-shirt, which people started sharing on TikTok, flooding the site with images of the young candidate at home and in public, joining people on dates, at parties, and over meals.
It was an effective campaign strategy. But will his image of youthful vitality unmarked by years of political wear in any way help him address the challenges facing Ecuador?
And how is he supposed to quell the flames of violence and instability in 17 months?
This is a fraught time for Ecuador. For many years, it had survived as a small and relatively peaceful country between the drug powerhouses that are Perú and Colombia. Ecuadorians grew up insulated from the horror stories of drug-fueled gang wars that plagued their neighbors. Yet drug cartels slowly began to infiltrate the country. Lasso’s sluggish, technocratic government proved unable to manage the country’s escalating violence.
The country closed 2022 with the highest homicide rate in its history and is poised to become one of the most violent countries in the region. In August it seemed to hit its boiling point when anti-corruption presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, was assassinated in broad daylight at a campaign event. The violence boiled over once more, when his seven murder suspects were murdered in prison just days before the presidential vote.
Noboa plans to tackle the current crisis with five strategic proposals: reform the penitentiary and judicial system; create a central intelligence agency; protect and strengthen the country’s official currency, the U.S. dollar; reduce unemployment; and become more financially competitive. In theory, these are all good ideas—but citizens have heard all of them before. Their hopes for their young president rest less on the novelty of his proposals, and more on the promise of his persona.
But his carefully polished image may prove to be a double-edged sword. His vice president, Verónica Abad is openly against abortion, does not believe in the concept of gender equality and has made controversial statements minimizing gender violence. Meanwhile Gabriela Golbaum, Noboa’s former girlfriend with whom he shares a daughter, is suing him for visitation violations and psychological violence. Against the backdrop of a country that seems to be engulfed in flames, it’s easy to miss the blemishes in the young Noboa’s squeaky clean facade. But they exist.
It’s comforting to interpret Noboa’s win as the start of a new era, a country rising from the ashes of its own wildfires. However, a similar naïveté left voters blindsided when the previous government proved to be such a catastrophic failure: a yearning for something beautiful has made citizens prey to ugly rulers dressed up as sheep.
So yes, there must be hope, but also caution. Remember, the streets aren’t safe yet.
—October 17, 2023
Paloma Velasco is an MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at the New School for Social Research.