Ecuador: Stacking the Deck Against Democracy

Enlace Cuidadano

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa during one of his weekly broadcasts Enlace Ciudadano / Mauricio Muñoz / Flickr / Creative Commons

By Catherine M. Conaghan*

Taking a page from Hugo Chávez’s playbook, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is intimidating and steadily increasing controls on his opponents.  He regularly uses his Saturday morning broadcasts to name and shame them.  Actors from all walks of Ecuador’s civil society – journalists, lawyers, activists, academics, bloggers, union and social movement leaders – have been the target of his insults and thinly veiled threats on the weekly program, Enlace Ciudadano.  In February, Correa’s show was skewered by HBO comedian John Oliver – and, to Oliver’s delight, Correa fired back by tweeting insults (click here and here).  Journalists and civil society leaders applauded Oliver for drawing attention to the continuing deterioration of civil liberties in Ecuador.  Correa’s virulent rhetoric and intimidating use of media is part of a larger matrix of policies endangering freedom of expression and association in Ecuador.  Over the last two years, the Correa administration has worked methodically to mount a legal framework allowing for greater government control over the media and civil society organizations.

  • The 2013 Law of Communication and a new oversight agency, the Superintendence of Information and Communication, are intended to ensure that all print and broadcast media provide “truthful information” that is “verified, contrasted, precise, and contextualized.”  Superintendent Carlos Ochoa was selected from a short-list of nominees provided by Correa.  Among alleged violations recently singled out for sanctions are items in the leading newspaper El Universo and its accomplished political cartoonist, Xavier ‘Bonil’ Bonilla.
  • Issued in 2013, Executive Decree 16 also has civil society – from neighborhood associations to think tanks, business chambers, unions, and advocacy groups – under pressure. In addition to elaborate regulations for the legal registration of organizations, the decree stipulates conditions allowing the government to “dissolve” them.  These include group involvement in “partisan activity” and “interfering in public policies.”  To date, only one organization – the Fundación Pachamama involved in environmental activism – has been dissolved, but civic leaders fear that the decree will induce ”self-censorship” and stifle participation.

The new laws amount to a project – unprecedented for Ecuador – of surveillance and regulation.  They provide the government with a tempting arsenal of weapons to use, if necessary, in upcoming battles on other important legal matters, especially on the issue of presidential re-election.  After years of pledging that he would not seek a third term in office, Correa reversed course and has tasked his legislative super-majority with finding a swift route to amending the constitution.  Most public opinion polls show, however, that a majority of Ecuadorians would prefer a referendum to decide whether or not yet another consecutive re-election should be allowed.  The road to re-election may be more difficult than Correa and his advisors imagine, but they enter the fray with the weight of the law on their side.  With powers to control the media and limit the activity of civil society, the Correa administration enjoys the upper hand as 2017 approaches.

March 12, 2015

*Catherine Conaghan is the Sir Edward Peacock Professor of Latin American Politics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.  She specializes in Andean politics.  She is the author of an article, “Surveil and Sanction: The Return of the State and Societal Regulation in Ecuador,” in the April issue of the European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

Snowden’s Revelations Rile Latin America

"Snowden Day in Brasilia, Brazil" Photo credit: midianinja / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

“Snowden Day in Brasilia, Brazil” Photo credit: midianinja / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Allegations by former U.S. intelligence officer Edward Snowden about U.S. operations in Latin America have stirred further recriminations toward Washington.  According to press reports, Snowden revealed that U.S. agencies monitored internet traffic, especially in Colombia (with a special focus on the FARC guerrillas), Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico.  The National Security Agency (NSA) allegedly spied on military procurement and the oil industry in Venezuela, as well as the energy sector and political affairs in Mexico.  The Huffington Post reported that almost every Latin American country was targeted to one degree or other.

Regional reaction has been strong:

  • O Globo (Brazil) columnists, claiming that Brazil was the most spied upon country in Latin America, called the surveillance a genuine invasion of privacy that undermines both Brazilian authorities and citizens.  Former President Cardoso said, “If such activities existed, if they were done, as with all espionage, it was outside the law.”  The Senate has already “invited” Cabinet ministers to testify – and they have pledged to investigate.  (It also invited U.S. Ambassador Tom Shannon, but he is under no obligation to appear before the Brazilian Congress.)
  • El Espectador (Colombia) said the U.S. spying was an attack on Colombian sovereignty.  It quoted various senators as saying that “one does not spy on one’s friends and even less when they’ve been political allies in big decisions between states” and demanding that the government limit such activities.  Foreign Minister Holguín sent a delegation to Washington to seek explanations.
  • Mexican President Peña Nieto called the U.S. spying “totally unacceptable,” and the opposition PRD has accused the government of being “too soft” in its response to the alleged espionage.
  • The ALBA countries have been strident.  Venezuelan President Maduro has demanded “answers and explanations, [and] more than explanations, apologies.”  Ecuadoran President Correa said “we will put up with no more abuses, arbitrariness, disrespect for human rights.”

The extent of U.S. intelligence operations will not be known for decades.  It took experts 30 years, for example, to pry loose information about the CIA’s role in the coup that brought Chilean strongman Pinochet to power.  But the tensions such allegations create do not fade rapidly.  Even accounting for hyperbole in political rhetoric, these protestations cannot be helpful to U.S. short-term efforts to win Latin American help in capturing Snowden, nor in long-term efforts to revive the Obama Administration’s stated goal of building “partnership” in the region.  Continued threats – thinly veiled – from unnamed senior U.S. officials also run counter to that goal of building partnership and the related objective of minimizing fallout from accusations of spying.

The Snowden Case: Provocations and Intimidation

By Fulton T. Armstrong

Edward Snowden / Photo credit: zennie62 / Foter / CC BY-ND

Edward Snowden / Photo credit: zennie62 / Foter / CC BY-ND

The rhetoric and diplomatic jostling surrounding the flight of American whistleblower (or, depending on perspective, criminal leaker) Edward Snowden have once again thrust to the fore Latin America and U.S. policy toward the region.  Some Latin American presidents have seemed to go out of their way to prick U.S. sensitivities, and Washington seems to have gone out of its way to stomp on Latin American sensitivities.  Both sides have been happy to live up to the caricatures of themselves held by the other, but both sides’ interests have been harmed in the process.

The drama started, of course, while Snowden was in hiding in Hong Kong, and it has dragged on as he’s resided in a transit lounge of the Moscow airport.  U.S. media, which in the past have published stories casting Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, and others as eager to poke the U.S. in the eye, ran pieces – shifting attention to Latin America – and away from China and Russia’s even bigger slap in Washington’s face in refusing to hand the leaker over.  Reporters believed their own rumors and piled into an Aeroflot plane bound for Cuba.  Washington rolled out the big guns, including Vice President Biden, to discourage the Latin Americans from offering Snowden any help – and seemed to have success.  Ecuador, which has protected Wikileaks boss Julian Assange from British, Swedish and U.S. pursuit, initially welcomed Snowden but, after a phone call from Washington, pointed out that an asylum petition could not be considered until he arrived in country.  The crisis between the U.S. and Latin America deepened, however, when several European countries – presumably responding to U.S. pressure and bad U.S. intelligence – closed their airspace to Bolivian President Morales, who someone, somewhere, suspected of flying Snowden out of Moscow on the president’s return home.  Latin American condemnation exploded.

Venezuelan President Maduro, stating that that he wanted “to protect this young man from the persecution unleashed by the world’s most powerful empire,” publicly offered Snowden asylum on Friday.  That move ended the slight progress Caracas and Washington had made toward rapprochement– evident since the OAS General Assembly in June – and bilateral relations will surely worsen.  But the Obama Administration’s relations with Latin America writ large don’t appear likely to fare much better.  Some leaders’ rhetoric may be over the top, but Washington’s language has been threatening, and its actions speak louder than its words.  An unidentified senior U.S. official told the New York Times that “there is not a country in the hemisphere whose government does not understand our position at this point,” adding that any aid for Mr. Snowden “would put relations in a very bad place for a long time to come.” Such statements leave one wondering whether we are approaching the point where this administration will cease proclaiming its commitment to a new era of US-Latin America relations characterized by partnership and respect among equals.  Transcripts of Mr. Biden’s calls will not be released, but rarely do countries reverse their positions publicly in the absence of either serious threats or generous inducements – and few clear-thinking Ecuadorans, tracking the Administration’s attitudes toward President Correa, see the latter as in the cards.  In pressuring its European allies to establish a no-fly zone to keep a head of state from returning home, Washington took an action that many Latin Americans – not without a grain of truth – believe it would never take against a region that it respected.  Repairing the damage of el asunto Snowden will be hard for both sides, but Washington has the bigger task ahead.