Article by Jeanette Bonifaz from Young Professionals in Foreign Policy – With only a few exceptions, a decade of progressive governments throughout Latin America set an agenda that promoted labor movements, environmental justice, equality, and inclusive development. With the relatively new conservative governments of Argentina, Brazil, and Peru, this so-called “pink tide” has suffered a blow that has left many wondering what the future will be for the region.
Ecuador’s recent presidential election offers some hope for progressives in Latin America, as leftist candidate and former Vice President Lenín Moreno from Alianza Pais (AP) secured 51.17 percent of the votes, a narrow victory against the 48.83 percent secured by former banker and conservative candidate Guillermo Lasso. Despite Moreno’s victory, the closeness of the election suggests that it will take much strength to bring coherence and unity to the ruling AP party.
If President-elect Moreno is truly a progressive who wants to offer a new paradigm to Ecuadorians, he will need to acknowledge the environmental and social implications of an extractive economy and develop a national economic plan that respects both indigenous people and the Amazon more broadly. In this quest, his biggest challenges will be distancing himself from current President Rafael Correa’s controversial legacy and overcoming the widespread dissatisfaction with correism.
President Correa embarked on his first term in 2007 with the promise of a “citizen’s revolution,” aimed at ending decades of neoliberal policies, which initially drew significant support from indigenous and environmental movements. However, soon after he took office, the Correa administration’s support for extractivism and dissidents’ repression was evident, which created a battle between the government on one hand and indigenous people, environmental activists, and journalists on the other. The repercussions of a fragmented left were felt in the recent 2017 presidential elections, as the tight and contentious race demonstrated.
While President Correa’s government has achieved essential objectives such as decreasing poverty, increasing access to education and health care, and decreasing inequality, these achievements have come at a cost. As The Economist puts it, “Ecuadoreans paid a high price for material progress in the form of creeping authoritarianism and continued corruption.” Ecuador’s economy grew by an average of 4.3 percent from 2006 to 2014, and while Ecuador is often compared to Venezuela, the former has clearly enjoyed a better economic outlook.
Petroleum is Ecuador’s main export, which has proved to be both a blessing and a curse for the Correa administration; it has allowed the government to fund social programs and increase living standards, but at the same time it has endangered the environment and has led to a confrontation with indigenous communities and environmentalists. In 2016, the Ecuadorian government sold oil exploration rights to a consortium of Chinese companies in an area of the Amazon inhabited by the Sápara indigenous people, whom UNESCO has declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The exploration area also borders the Yasuní National Park, where one hectare contains upwards of 655 different kinds of trees. In defiance of protests by ecologists and indigenous people, the drilling began in September of last year.
The government has also increased its focus on mining, especially because of the falling oil prices and the increase in the price of copper. Notably, these mining operations in the country currently face strict opposition among indigenous groups. One of the most vocal groups belongs to the indigenous Shuar tribe, who firmly oppose mega-mining projects that encroach on their ancestral lands and livelihoods in the Amazon.
On top of that, the current administration’s reaction to activism is alarming. When President Correa and AP introduced the concept of Mother Earth and Living Well into the new constitution, the first country to do so, not many imagined that one day President Correa would deploy the military, war-tanks, surveillance drones, aerostatic balloons, mobile satellites, and helicopter gunships to protect mining operations by a Chinese company from Shuar and environmental activists – or that he would try to dissolve environmental NGOs such as Pachamama and Accion Ecologica.
President Correa defends his actions by pointing out that the extractive industries provide the much-needed income to fight poverty “without the extremely painful process of exploiting our own workforce.” The general feeling is that this perspective will continue under Moreno’s watch. A recent report by BMI Research already noted that “[w]hile left-wing candidate Lenin Moreno won the April presidential election over the traditionally more business-friendly centre-right candidate Guillermo Lasso, we expect the incoming administration to continue to support mining development, as initiated by Moreno’s leftist predecessor Rafael Correa.” In fact, the industry is expected to grow from $1.1 billion to $7.9 billion in 2021, according to the report. While this is good news for the multinational mining firms and the business community in Ecuador, it would be a death sentence to indigenous communities, their ancestral lands, and biodiversity.
So far, experts and activists maintain that Mr. Moreno has yet to send a distinct message that signals significant change in the economic model and support for more environmentally-conscious policies. Building and maintaining legitimacy and public support will require Moreno to rethink and redirect the values of AP while diversifying the economy, softening the governments’ repression on political actors, and reaching out to indigenous and environmental groups. His main challenges will not only come from the right-wing opposition, but from the dissatisfaction with correism emanating from critical sectors of the progressive movement. The first months Mr. Moreno’s presidency will determine not only the fate of the environment and the economy, but the fate of Allianza Pais as a progressive party.
Jeanette Bonifaz is a Latin America Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). Jeanette earned her BA in International Relations, Latin American Studies, and International Development from American University in 2013. Her work has been published online in The Huffington Post, Diplomatic Courier, Common Dreams, openDemocracy, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, and CEPR’s The America’s Blog: Analysis Beyond the Echo Chamber.