Ecuador: Weak Government Faces Growing Challenges

By Pablo Andrade Andrade*

Ecuadorians rallying during the paro nacional / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons License

Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso has tried to overcome the economic mess and political divisions he inherited from predecessors with neoliberal policies that, along with other missteps, have fueled growing opposition to him and undermined his agenda during the final two years of his term. Even if, unlike most of his predecessors in the past 30 years, he serves out his term, his record will be marred by policies that had failed when first attempted in the 1980s. According to Perfiles de Opinión, a respected poll, 66 percent of the population say that Lasso’s performance is either “bad” or “very bad,” and only 2.06 percent evaluate his government as “very good.” 

  • Lasso’s immediate predecessors – Rafael Correa and Lenín Moreno – left a country shaken by corruption, debt, a bungled strategy for dealing with COVID, and paralyzed public health and education services. He did not have a working majority in the National Assembly, and his CREO Movement failed to win control of key municipal and provincial governments. 
  • From the beginning, Lasso’s approach to the economic crisis was orthodox, borrowing heavily from the neoliberal fixes attempted in Ecuador in the 1980-90s. Although his administration managed to tap into the relative openness of the IMF and other IFIs, and successfully negotiated its massive debt with China, the Ministry of Economy and Finance adopted a tight budget, cutting state investments. Recovery from the pandemic slowed. Public employment – staple of the middle class – shrank, and inflation rose. 

Opposition to Lasso’s policies started weak but has grown steadily. The Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas (CONAIE), which had flexed its muscles during the Moreno government, was slow to mobilize at first, creating a situation that looked very much like the early wave of neoliberal politics in the 1980s, when a center-right government was able to bypass legislative opposition and weak civil society organizations. Last June, however, a new coalition of the three major rural organizations – CONAIE, Federación de Indígenas Evangélicos (FEINE), and Confederación Nacional de Organizaciones Indígenas y Negras (FENOCIN) – held a national strike (paro nacional) that effectively paralyzed the country for 18 days.  

  • The government backpedaled on its decisions to keep domestic fuel prices at international levels; to maintain low state expenditures for health and education; and to deny indigenous organizations a significant role in decision-making. Lasso reshuffled his cabinet, replacing a half dozen ministers. He opened negotiations with the rural organizations on a range of issues – spanning economic matters (i.e., fuel and food staples prices) and political ones (i.e., the designation of a new Secretario de Pueblos y Nacionalidades to replace the founding secretary Luis Pachala, who resigned in the wake of the national strike).  
  • Although the negotiations relieved some of the stress on the government, the core issues remain highly contentious, and so far, no agreement has emerged. Indigenous leaders say they are not happy with the process, and the few things agreed upon remain provisional. The Catholic Church tried to mediate but failed to progress beyond peripheral issues. In what looks like a desperate move, the government initiated a referendum process that most observers believe is intended to wrestle back the initiative on its own terms. 

The road ahead for the Lasso government is a difficult one – having essentially lame-duck status in the face of steadily mounting woes and opposition. His opponents are as strong and angry now as in June. Despite an improved fiscal stance, the government does not have the will or the capacity to expand public expenditures, so economic growth seems likely to continue at a snail’s pace, and employment will stay depressed in both urban and rural areas. The government’s unwillingness to adopt price controls will continue to fuel popular grievances. 

  • The leadership of CONAIE and others have already threatened a new nationwide mobilization and declared their opposition to the referendum initiative. Whatever support the executive was able to extract from the legislature has faded. Additionally, local government elections in 2023 are stimulating the parties to concentrate their efforts on their political fortunes.  
  • The Ecuadorian military, which played a major role in the abrupt departures of several Presidents over the past three decades, has so far avoided joining the partisan factionalism and appears united in the view that Lasso should stay. The President’s health may be as reliable an indicator as any of his fate. He recently traveled to Houston for treatment of melanoma, specifically a lesion in his right eyelid. In Quito’s churning rumor mill, convincing the population that he has been fully cured is nearly impossible. His efforts to assert his credibility as President will continue to be similarly challenged. 

* Pablo Andrade Andrade is the Germánico Salgado Chair on Andean Integration and Professor at the Department of Global and Social Studies, Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Sede Ecuador. He works on comparative political economy and Latin American politics. 

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: