The small Latin American country was a brief democratic bright spot. But it appears to have fallen victim to a clash between populists and anti-populists, without a democrat in sight.
The past decade has not been kind to democracies in Latin America. Moribund economies, institutional weakness, and politicians willing to bend or even break democratic rules have put one country after another to the test. But, if you scanned the horizon, at least one democracy seemed to be headed in the right direction: Ecuador.
Since 2017, the country’s leaders have broken with the illiberal populism of former president Rafael Correa (2007–17), and his political party’s hegemony has given way to freewheeling political competition. Although Ecuador has never been a robust liberal democracy, many observers believed it was on the way to becoming one.
Those hopes, which persisted even as evidence against them mounted, finally came crashing down on 17 May 2023, when President Guillermo Lasso, a small-government conservative and former banker elected in 2021, invoked an unused constitutional clause to dissolve Ecuador’s opposition-led National Assembly. The Assembly was days away from a vote to impeach Lasso on allegations of corruption. Although opposition lawmakers did a poor job demonstrating that Lasso had benefited from or participated in the alleged corruption, other unsettling scandals continue to cloud his administration.
Lasso will now rule by decree until snap general elections are held later this year. (He says he will not seek reelection.) But with the country’s murder rate soaring, one in seven Ecuadorians going hungry each day, and organized crime making inroads into the security forces, the legislative shutdown is probably the least of Ecuador’s worries.
Where did Ecuador’s post-populist democracy go wrong? Why does the country remain a flawed democracy years after leaving behind Correa’s brand of illiberal populism? The answer is a warning to other democracies that are confronting a political opening after years under the thumb of a powerful, illiberal president: Deconcentrating power is not enough to secure democracy. The successors of populist leaders face thorny dilemmas that go beyond dismantling their predecessor’s hegemony—namely, how to preserve state capacity and integrate the former ruling party into democratic politics. Ecuador has stumbled on both of those tests, and its fragile democracy is now paying the price.
Ecuador’s Post-Populist Turn
In 2017, few expected Correa to leave office—least of all Correa himself. A singular figure in Ecuador’s politics, Correa was first elected in 2007 promising Ecuadorians a radical departure from the traumas of the late 1990s, a time when the Andean country was wracked by political instability, financial crisis, and mass emigration. That much, he achieved. Over three successive terms, Correa expanded the reach of public services, reduced inequality and poverty, and cut Ecuador’s homicide rate to one of the lowest in Latin America. For a country accustomed to cycling through a new president every year, Correa’s decade in office brought an unprecedented degree of stability.
But there was a dark side for democracy: Correa eliminated presidential term limits, brought fines against media outlets critical of the government, shut down NGOs opposed to oil and mining projects, and targeted civil society and opposition leaders with prosecutions and espionage. The Correa government, like virtually all its South American peers, also received multimillion-dollar bribes from the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, and squandered vast sums on white elephants. As Ecuador’s commodity-dependent economy slowed in 2014, Correa’s public-approval dwindled.
Unlike Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela or Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Correa saw the writing on the wall and did not try to hold onto power himself. Instead, he stepped aside with the intention of letting his former vice-president, Lenín Moreno, bear the brunt of the hard times—under his tutelage, of course.
Moreno, benefiting from a tilted playing field, won the 2017 presidential election. But from day one, he went off script, both literally and figuratively. At his inauguration ceremony, he ditched a speech written by Correa’s speechwriters in favor of one of his own, which referenced themes of dialogue, turning a new page, and listening to criticism.
Moreno wasted no time in proving that he was serious about pursuing his own agenda. He swapped out a cabinet handpicked by Correa for a team of ex-correístas and former student leaders disaffected with Ecuador’s illiberal and populist turn. In February 2018, Moreno launched a seven-part referendum that included proposals for a restoration of presidential term limits and a purge of the Council on Citizen Participation and Social Control (CPCCS), which selects top officials in accountability institutions and the judiciary. All referendum questions passed by large margins and with high turnout. Moreno also reformed a controversial law that placed limits on the press and dismantled onerous regulations on civil society. In addition, a transitory CPCCS (whose members were nominated by civil society and chosen by Moreno) replaced the sitting members of the National Electoral Council and Constitutional Court and appointed a new attorney general who launched a sweeping inquiry into the Odebrecht case.
The investigation resulted in the convictions of Correa and the then vice-president, Jorge Glas, as well as investigations into other Correa government insiders. As a result, Correa and many others remained outside Ecuador to avoid facing what they claimed were fabricated charges. Just months into his term, Moreno had become even more popular than Correa at his peak—a testament to the public’s weariness with Correa’s divisive authoritarianism. But the country’s deeper troubles could not be avoided.
The Weak-State Problem
Ecuador’s post-Correa presidents soon ran into two problems: state weakness and the relentless growth of organized crime. Given Ecuador’s mounting public debt—which consumed close to half the national budget by the time Moreno took office—state institutions may have weakened no matter what. A former Correa administration official I interviewed acknowledged that criminal activity in coastal areas began to intensify during Correa’s presidency, and that there was uncertainty and debate within his government over how to respond. But it was Correa’s successors who had to deal with the problem head on. Several of their choices made crime worse.
Moreno launched a series of institutional reforms in 2018 to restructure the state, both to cut costs and to shake off bureaucratic structures left behind by Correa. The new president eliminated “coordinating ministries,” a sort of super-bureaucracy that Correa had layered atop the ministries to ensure they moved in lockstep with the executive. According to several security officials I interviewed, this gave ministers newfound autonomy to act but also produced fragmented and often incoherent responses to new challenges such as rising crime. The restructuring also fused the Interior Ministry with another entity, generating administrative confusion and deprioritizing public security.
What’s worse, the state lost control of the country’s mega-prisons to escalating gang warfare. Moreno shelved the Justice Ministry, run by a close Correa ally, and created a new autonomous entity to oversee prisons. But this entity was not up to the task. Government documents, including maps of state prisons, were lost during the institutional handover. High-caliber weapons began pouring into prisons due to the negligence (or complicity) of prison administrators. Descending into lawlessness, these prisons became centers of organized crime and sites of bloody turf wars. Since February 2021, more than four-hundred inmates have been killed in prison massacres.
This was just a harbinger of the violence to come outside the prison walls. From 2020 to 2021, Ecuador’s homicide rate doubled as narcotraffickers—who had grown more powerful during the Correa years—relentlessly expanded their reach and disputed control of lucrative trafficking routes. Last year, the homicide rate nearly doubled again and is now the fourth-highest in Latin America. Car bombs, kidnappings, and political assassinations have become disturbingly routine in Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil, and other coastal cities, generating a widespread perception of lawlessness and impunity. Meanwhile, Moreno—who styled himself an anticorruption champion—now faces charges for alleged bribetaking.
Into this mess stepped Guillermo Lasso, elected president in 2021 by a coalition of conservatives and anti-Correa centrists and leftists who begrudgingly chose him to head off a return of correísmo. In office, he has doubled down on his small-government model with minimal planning. There were no transition meetings between the Moreno and Lasso teams. Lasso surrounded himself with young and relatively inexperienced ministers recruited from his libertarian think tank. His brother-in-law, Danilo Carrera, was implicated in a major corruption scandal, and his economic and finance minister boasted about evading taxes. Furthermore, despite sitting on historic central-bank reserves, Lasso’s government spent just a fraction of its first-year budget even as poverty and hunger remain widespread.
In a bewildering Twitter gaffe, Lasso described Ecuador’s raging crime problem as “a war between you all [Ecuadorians] and the criminals.” He quickly deleted the tweet, but it touched a nerve among many Ecuadorians who feel abandoned by the state. Although it’s not a perception shared by all, one journalist who put himself at risk to expose corruption under Correa told me that “it’s irrelevant if Correa returns (to office). There are now bigger problems.”
Populists versus Anti-Populists
The Moreno and Lasso governments have both faced a second dilemma: how to treat the correísta opposition. This problem, too, has contributed to the unraveling of Ecuador’s democratic fabric. Correa allies who were purged from government via Moreno’s 2018 referendum argued that they had been removed due to their political affiliations and not for any proven wrongdoing. In certain cases, that rings true. Even the Organization of American States criticized Moreno’s purge-by-referendum process for sidestepping the normal legal channels for removing public officeholders.
Correa and his followers have also argued that the Odebrecht corruption investigations against them amount to a judicial witch hunt. This is an overstatement: The prosecutor’s office backed up its charges using not only witness testimony, but also recovered documents and personal emails among the accused that leave little doubt about the existence of a vast corruption scheme.
Still, legal experts I interviewed in Ecuador’s capital, Quito, agreed that the cases against Correa supporters varied in quality of evidence, and were fast-tracked compared with those against members of other political parties. For instance, a court moved at lightning speed to uphold Correa’s corruption conviction, which bans him from running for public office for 25 years, within two weeks of the deadline to register candidates for the 2021 elections. This dashed his plan to run for vice president.
Moreover, a former auditor general (who is now in jail for corruption) successfully pressured the National Electoral Council to strip Correa’s political party of its legal status ahead of the 2021 elections, although a higher court overturned the Council’s decision. Major Ecuadorian media outlets openly sided against the 2021 correísta presidential candidate, Andrés Arauz, broadcasting unproven allegations that he received financing from a leftist Colombian rebel group. Some leading political figures called on the military to take a direct role in safeguarding that election from possible tampering by correístas.
Correa had dramatically tilted the playing field against his opponents. Although his allies have a majority in the National Assembly and hold key municipal posts, it is difficult to argue that under Moreno and Lasso the field has been entirely leveled. That said, the correístas’ self-defense comes tinged with a certain irony: They ran roughshod over the opposition to Correa for years, but since finding themselves out of power they have taken to denouncing what they claim is political persecution.
What’s more, the correístas’ enthusiastic calls for mass protests against state authorities in 2019 and 2022 (which turned violent and led to the sacking of government buildings) and their repeated attempts to remove Lasso from office call into question their commitment to acting as a loyal opposition. Today, Ecuador’s politics looks increasingly like a clash between anti-populists and populists—with both weaponizing institutions against one another—rather than a contest among democrats.
Five years ago, many believed Ecuador’s democracy had reached a turning point. In hindsight, and in light of the recent showdown between Lasso and the National Assembly, the story is less black and white. Most Ecuadorians have more political freedom today than during the Correa years. But criminality and polarized political combat have evaporated much, if not all, the promise of that brief democratic opening. Getting it back would take a new government able to sweep in, strengthen the state, and somehow reconcile Ecuador’s deep political divide. But after the disappointments of the last several years, that’s far more than Ecuadorians expect from the people who lead them.
Will Freeman is fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. You can follow him on Twitter @WillGFreeman.
Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy
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