Ecuadorian man in popular protest against the economic and environmental policies of President Guillermo Lasso, June 23, 2022. Image credit: Daniel Constante / Shutterstock.com
It’s Sunday, February 5, 2023: a stage with a giant screen is set up. Around 200 people—mestizo, indigenous, Afro-descended—gather at the Metropolitan Cultural Center in Quito, Ecuador. They are all holding small Ecuadorian flags and blue signs that read “Ganó Ecuador!” (“Ecuador won!”) in bold yellow letters. Ecuador’s right-wing president, Guillermo Lasso, is set to deliver a victory speech at 8 p.m.. Fast forward to 9:30 p.m. and people are getting restless: they’re sitting down, and they’ve lowered their flags.
The president will not show up. As it turns out, he and his supporters did not win.
In mid-January, Ecuador held country-wide mayoral elections, as well as a referendum to amend the constitution. Eight questions appeared on the ballot, including one about permitting the extradition of drug traffickers, as well as amendments on security and environmental protection. Arguably, all would be positive changes for a country with extremely high drug-related crime rates and illegal mining. Surveys by pollsters Ipsos and Cetadatos had predicted that most people would vote “yes” to amend the constitution.
However, not only did Lasso and his allies lose the referendum, but socialist candidates won the majority of the mayoral seats and prefectures.
While the outcome of the election was a surprise, socialism is no stranger to this country perched on South America’s northwest coast. The twenty-first century Latin American socialist wave first swept the country in 2007, when candidate Rafael Correa, a charismatic populist leader, won the presidency and served for ten years. However, the pendulum swung back. Popular discontent over allegations of corruption—the Correa government may have stolen over 36 billion dollars (more than Ecuador’s annual budget)—and a ballooning economic debt to China, pushed Correa out of office in 2017, when he lost the election to his former vice president, left-center candidate Lenin Moreno. After being sentenced to eight years in prison on bribery charges, the exiled Correa now lives in Belgium.
Not surprisingly, voters soured on socialism, and when Lasso, a right-wing banker, won the 2021 elections by a small margin, Ecuador became one of the few countries in the region with a conservative head of state. Lasso’s campaign featured promises of economic salvation, along with threats of becoming a collapsed state like Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela, where hyperinflation and rampant out-migration (1,500 Venezuelans cross the border into Ecuador every month) have brought a socialist country to the brink of collapse. Although Lasso is a generally unlikeable banker (he’s lost the presidential race on two previous occasions), the dystopian future he sketched pushed skeptics and center-left constituents to vote for him.
So, in April 2021, Ecuador’s socialist pink tide receded, and the United States, having just undergone an attack on democracy by its own populist right, sighed in relief. After Lasso won, the White House tweeted: “President Biden congratulates Guillermo Lasso on his election as the next President of Ecuador, as well as the people of Ecuador for demonstrating the power of peaceful and inclusive political participation and upholding the ideals of democracy”.
Yet what could’ve been a historic turning point for the country, turned out to be a social and economic tipping point that the Lasso regime could not reverse. Growing unemployment, increases in fuel and food prices, and rising drug-related crimes (2022 was Ecuador’s most violent year in record), left voters not only disillusioned but actively defiant. One year into his presidency, Lasso had already faced a strike by Pachakutik (the indigenous political party) and the indigenous rural population that paralyzed the country for over 15 days; a vote to impeach him; and loss of support from previous allies in the National Assembly. Although Lasso’s governing slogan is “El Gobierno del Encuentro” (“the government of agreement”), the nation only grew more divided.
This year’s referendum was Lasso’s last Hail Mary: a set of constitutional amendments that were generally well regarded and non-polarizing, which should have helped him regain political support and boosted an approval rating hovering at 30 percent. Yet the referendum failed, reflecting, instead of positive popular sentiment towards constitutional changes, which had polled well, popular rejection of the government itself. Politically unaffiliated signs appeared all over low-income neighborhoods (the most influential voting group) that read “Punish Lasso. Vote no.” Targeted Instagram ads asked: “Has Lasso given you a job? No. Has Lasso given you healthcare? No. Vote no!”
Dissatisfaction with Lasso’s government then translated to rejecting city officials associated with his party. Not only did most of the center-right candidates lose, but the socialist Correa’s political party, Revolución Ciudadana—a party that, for the last eight years, had all but disappeared due to the exit of its leader and corruption scandals—won the majority of seats. Even right-wing fortresses such as Guayaquil, Ecuador’s economic capital, elected a leftist mayor for the first time in 30 years.
President Lasso’s failure to deliver, and the response of voters, not only put his presidency at risk, but also the center-right’s reputation: a coup d’état is not impossible, since there have been 35 in Ecuador’s history. The outcome of the election has strengthened the leftist opposition and the road is wide open for a return to power. Ten years ago, Correa and his political party left in disgrace. Now the pervasive sentiment is “at least we were better off before.”
Minus $36 billion, of course.
Elected officials from the opposition will be sworn in at the end of May. Now, the country is drawing its last breath before diving into the waters of change. The question is: How long will this wave of reform last?
Paloma Velasco is an MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School for Social Research.