Ecuador: Lenín Moreno’s Balancing Act

By John Polga-Hecimovich*

Lenín Moreno

Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno (far right) meets with members of the National Assembly in October 2018. / Diego Cevallos / Asamblea Nacional / Flickr / Creative Commons

As Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno begins the post-honeymoon phase of his presidency, he appears firmly committed to positioning himself as a judicious voice and centrist in a region where ideological moderation and restrained oratory are the exception rather than the norm.  This might be unexpected given his political background and four years as vice president under leftist firebrand Rafael Correa (2007-17), but it makes sense given the country’s challenging economic situation and political constraints.  As previously noted, Moreno had two choices when taking office: remain loyal to his socialist roots, govern through his Alianza PAIS legislative bloc, and double down on Correa’s (fiscally unsustainable) “Citizens’ Revolution;” or move towards the political center, splinter his legislative majority, and abandon Correa and many of his policies.  He has decisively opted for the latter, attempting to navigate a middle ground between the left and the right.

  • No issue depicts the thin line Moreno walks more than Ecuador’s foreign policy, and no foreign policy issue reflects that tug-of-war better than his handling of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Assangeto whom Correa granted asylum in 2012 at the Ecuadorian Embassy in Londonis now a costly and increasingly undesirable houseguest.  He is a liability in Moreno’s quest for technical assistance, international loans, and greater security and commercial cooperation with the United States, which is still seeking justice for Wikileaks’s publication of U.S. classified material.  Although Moreno has called Assange “more than a nuisance” and “an inherited problem,” the president has been reluctant to push him out over concern for his human rights.  In July, Moreno suggested Ecuador was seeking guarantees that Assange would not face the death penalty.  Maintaining its delicate dance, however, in October, the government broke from its longstanding dialogue with British authorities over Assange’s situation and announced that it will no longer pay for his food and medical care.
  • Ecuador is also seeking closer relations with its right-of-center neighbors, beginning to distance itself from the region’s leftist governments, and attempting to rebuild ties with the United States. Since June, Moreno has attended the inauguration of Colombian President Iván Duque, met with Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra, welcomed U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to Quito, and launched a security agreement with Washington.  Moreno has also changed his tone with regards to Venezuela.  Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, he spoke of the burden caused by arrival of more than 6,000 Venezuelan migrants a day and called for a national dialogue in that country, provoking an acrimonious back-and-forth between the two capitals that culminated in the Ecuadorian government tweeting that “corrupt, murderous, and lying socialism of the 21st century is still alive in Venezuela and producing the most massive migration in the country’s history.”

Moreno’s strategy to confront the country’s fiscal deficit, which was 5.5 percent of GDP in 2017, is an even greater departure from his predecessor’s approach.  Whereas Correa pursued financing primarily through oil-for-loan deals from China after Ecuador’s selective default in 2008, Moreno has turned to other global lenders such as the World Bank and Japan.  He has also pursued new commercial relationships and market-friendly policies, including a free trade agreement with the European Free Trade Association, beginning accession talks with the pro-market Pacific Alliance, and continuing to encourage foreign investment in Ecuador’s hydrocarbon industry.  However, Moreno has not fully committed to Washington consensus-style reforms: the government announced measures in August to reduce its $60 billion debt, but it also authorized over $1.2 billion in loans to the housing sector, agriculture, and small and medium-sized business to reactivate the domestic economy.

Although not an ideological rightist like Chilean President Sebastián Piñera or Colombian President Iván Duque, Lenín Moreno has reoriented many of Rafael Correa’s domestic and foreign policies out of necessity as he confronts Ecuador’s difficult economic situation.  Given that the country’s fiscal deficit and outstanding debt are strategic challenges, it seems likely that he will continue to judiciously tread this middle path.  Although fiscal austerity measures have lowered Moreno’s approval rating and provoked protests from the Correista left, it would be a mistake to bet against him.  Moreno has not only upended expectations but also proven far more resourceful and politically sophisticated than his critics—and probably even his admirers—expected.  He may also send Julian Assange at some point an eviction notice.

November 6, 2018

*John Polga-Hecimovich is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy.  The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of or endorsement by the Naval Academy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Ecuador’s Difficult Choice on Assange

Photo: Julian Assange by Ben Bryan (bbwbryant) | Flickr | Creative Commons

Many observers have portrayed President Rafael Correa’s decision to grant asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as an act of defiance – a gratuitous slap at the United States – and, because of Correa’s mixed record of respect for a free press, as a sign of hypocrisy.  How can a President who has prosecuted newspapers for revealing damaging information about his government, according to Correa’s accusers, now stand up as the defender of Assange’s right to publish hundreds of thousands of sensitive U.S. Government documents?

The lack of clarity on British and Swedish intentions made the decision difficult.  American officials have minced no words about their hopes to prosecute Assange, although none has stated what the charges would be.  Even U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has referred to him as a “high-tech terrorist.”  Former Republican presidential nominees Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee have called for his execution.  (A former senior Canadian official said, “I think Assange should be assassinated.”)  The Swedish government, which seeks only to question Assange about allegations of sexual abuses (important offenses in Swedish law), has refused to conduct the interrogations in London or by video, or  to provide reassurances that he will not be extradited to the United States.  British officials at one point even threatened to enter the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, a flagrant violation of well-established principles of international law.

Correa’s ancillary agendas notwithstanding, the asylum decision would have been difficult for almost any country.  There is no evidence that Assange would not get a fair trial in the United States or that he would face the sort of abuse and torture that Bradley Manning – the alleged American source of the Wikileaks documents – has faced.  But the American silence on the charges Assange might face, the rhetoric tarring him as a terrorist and the lack of U.S. accountability for past abuses – the Obama Administration last week announced yet another decision to forego prosecution of U.S. officials involved in alleged torture – makes the absence of a pledge regarding extradition to the United States politically sensitive.  Ironically, the U.S., British and Swedish position risks thrusting them into the same ironic contradiction as Correa finds himself:  claiming to protect human rights, they may open the door to prosecution of a man who published leaked information – and who by any reasonable standard is an indiscriminate whistle blower but hardly an agent of espionage.  If their pursuit of Assange were to result in his exposure to U.S. prosecution related to the Wikileaks matter, these democracies would potentially risk being parties to a serious violation of fundamental principles of free expression.