By Olga Imbaquingo and Christina Sabato
Once again, Ecuador finds itself deeply divided leading up to the country’s sixth popular referendum scheduled for Saturday, May 7. The current campaign exemplifies the ideological fragmentation currently afflicting Ecuador, pitting the country’s President Rafael Correa against an array of groups with varying political profiles. Wide-ranging opposition exists against a pro-vote among the indigenous population, labor unions, environmental organizations, mass media, university students, Catholic clergy, the upper and upper-middle classes, and political parties like the Partido Social Cristiano, Izquierda Democrática, Sociedad Patrótica and Movimiento Popular Democrático. Distaste for Correa and the looming referendum have risen to an alarming degree as he subjects the electorate to policy initiatives that are perceived as relatively trivial concerns, while ignoring what appear to be far more looming problems.
The Nature of the Referendum
The upcoming referendum will be framed as a series of ten questions to the voters. Correa is optimistic that he will convince the absolute majority of the electorate to vote “yes” to the referendum’s list of items. The proposed questions include initiatives that will: restrict banking operations and redefine financial services, forbid media ownership of non-media companies, establish a regulatory council for publications as well as TV and radio programs, restructure the judicial system, outlaw casinos and gambling; and, finally, place limitations on bullfighting and cockfighting.
According to the Latin News, the Ecuadorian government has made “the referendum sufficiently complicated to deter many voters from discovering precisely what it entails.” The voting card itself has an exhaustive appendix which only adds to the complexity of the 10 somewhat verbose questions and the confusion for its voters. As for its ability to reach the masses, a Cedatos Gallup survey reports that “only 16% of respondents know anything about the 10 questions in the referendum.” The ambiguity of the upcoming referendum’s questions serves as a detractor from producing a definitive opposition group.
Yet, questions remain. Will Correa’s efforts in the referendum further concentrate presidential power and bolster his image? Or is his public support slipping from his hands at an alarming pace? The reality is uncertain. The following COHA analysis seeks to dissect the current political dynamic and its implications on the already existing political divide.
Some of Correa’s adversaries argue that the president’s significant wealth has allowed him to gain wide publicity through the mass media outlets that favor him, thereby giving Correa an unfair advantage in pushing the referendum forward. Nevertheless, those opposing the referendum have been gaining ground. According to Diario El Universo, 13 political parties and social movements are against the upcoming call to the polls, eight are campaigning against some portion of the referendum, and 10 support Correa’s platform.
On April 3, almost a month before the mandated referendum will take place, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie), representing 3,500 native communities, decided to reject the referendum in its entirety. The organization, with growing political representation as well as growing hostility toward Correa, has adamantly described Correa’s proposals as “neoliberal” and claim that they negatively alter the “collective rights” of citizens. With the strongest and most influential group of indigenous people opposing Correa, controversy can be expected to ensue.
The Two Most Controversial Issues
While many groups and individuals oppose all 10 questions posed by the referendum, the restrictions on bullfighting and cockfighting have caused an unexpectedly great stir. If approved, the proposal would outlaw the killing of animals for entertainment. Bullfighting in Ecuador dates back to the Spanish colonial era, and has evolved into being a compelling part of the Ecuadorian culture. Many Ecuadorians are particularly distressed about the proposal, not only for its targeting of a culturally significant tradition, but also for what they see as a distraction from what they perceive as more pressing issues facing the country such as unemployment and national security.
Another controversial issue, that is now addressed by the referendum, but also at the heart of Ecuador’s political debate since Correa’s 2007 inauguration, is control of the nation’s mass media. Referendum questions three and nine envisage the president as “a regulator and controller of media content and ban media owners from participating in other economic ventures, thereby preventing conflicts of interest.” In light of Correa’s frequent hostility toward the press, mass media independence is of utmost concern among a number of Ecuadorian journalists, intellectuals and defenders of free speech. The Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York City, reported in 2009 that “among the outlets most frequently targeted were the national dailies El Universo, La Hora, El Comercio, and El Expreso, and the television network Teleamazonas. The president [Correa] described such news outlets as “a sewer,” “ignorant,” “trash talking,” “liars,” “unethical,” “mediocre,” and “political actors who are trying to oppose the revolutionary government.” Denouncing popular publications, Correa has been unleashing a scorched earth campaign against segments of his country’s major mass media outlets.
In March 2011, Correa initiated a suit against Quito’s daily, El Universo. The proceedings resulted from a February 2011 editorial piece by Emilio Palacios which mentioned Correa as a “dictator.” Palacios referred to Correa’s role in a police raid on September 30, 2010. Dozens of police officers and armed service members detained the president, protesting benefits cut overseen by Correa. An elite squad of military operatives came to Correa’s rescue, though the altercation left 274 injured and 10 dead. Three of the El Universo’s executives and its opinion editor could face jail time as well as fines if a defamation suit lodged by Correa proves successful.
Freedom of Speech Has to Prevail
Freedom to dissent is among the most sacred of liberties. Regardless of what political party is in power, the Ecuadorian media should always be able to freely express opinions without fear of retaliation. At the same time, the government enjoys access the media and refute or clarify misinformation. Correa has routinely done as such via the government media, though his critics insist that Quito’s demand for accurate reporting by the mass media is only valid when the right to free speech is upheld. In that sense, it is desirable to keep in mind the words of French philosopher Voltaire’s words: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” In Ecuador, it seems that Voltaire’s manifesto is routinely ignored, as both private and government media are guilty of igniting controversy through manipulating the mass media, instead of striving to portray the issues at hand in a honest and professional manner.
At the same time, Correa’s defenders maintain that the private media has neglected to publicize many of Correa’s positive achievements during his term, specifically with regard to health, education, and tax reform that raised rates on Ecuador’s wealthiest citizens. These tax reforms have increased tax revenues by an impressive 16.5 per cent in the last year. Despite a rocky economy, Correa has made strides in expanding programs in children’s and women’s health in the rural regions, social programs once botched by previous administrations. According to Correa, such accomplishments are routinely ignored by the private media who can be counted on to spew out anti-government rhetoric.
The Country’s Divisiveness
In terms of its territory, Ecuador is divided into four regions: La Costa, La Sierra, Amazonia, and Galapagos. Other divisions in the country exist along political, social and ethnic lines. These regional divisions contribute to a visible, yet highly fragmented political presence.
Following in the footsteps of the opposition, the Amazon region is the sector of Ecuador most vigorously against the referendum. The souring of relations between Correa and indigenous groups began in October 2009, centering around indigenous protest of the Water Law, which aimed to remove control of irrigation from native communities and transfer it to a new state agency. When the government granted an oil concession on the protected territory of the Tagari Taromenane community, tensions with the central government grew. After a deadly clash between police officers and natives in the Tagari Taronmenane territory, the Confederation of Pueblos Indígenas de la Amazonia became a fierce Correa opponent.
A few months later, Conaie, the powerhouse leadership organization among the indigenous based in La Sierra, ended its once close and cordial alliance with Correa. In the course of the 2006 presidential campaign, Conaie was one of the most active allies of Correa. Relations have soured significantly, as Conaie’s political branch filed a lawsuit this March against the president for granting oil concessions in the “ancestral” territories in the Amazon Basin. In response, Correa accused the Conaie´s leaders of “[making] fool[s] of themselves”. Conaie’s recent opposition to the upcoming referendum has only deepened the growing rift with Correa.
In Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, the political environment is tense. The city’s mayor and powerful politician in la Costa, Jaime Nebot, has engaged in several confrontations with Correa. He and his political movement have recently decided to openly and actively work against the propositions put forward in the current referendum. Despite this, the electoral tendencies within the city still appear polarized, with a number of its local elites favoring Correa’s initiatives. Correa has insisted several times over that his goal is to restructure the judicial system, citing the U.S. system as his model. He stated, “I am interested [in having] a decent justice system…If the Ecuadorians will give me their support it will be a great responsibility to assume that this is a matter of trust.” On April 7, Nebot predicted that within six months, regardless of the referendum’s outcome, that substantial changes are not likely to be implemented. For example, Nebot believes that the restructuring proposal will only result in the realization on the part of of Ecuadorians “that they have been fooled. People want, at least in the murder and kidnapping, very severe penalties.”
The Opposition Candidate:An Unfulfilled Role
Despite Correa’s unpredictability and aggressiveness, if not intolerance, toward those who he perceives as opposing his position or ideas, the president has not, as of yet, had to face a serious opposition candidate. The Ecuadorian political spectrum has been unable to build up a common agenda to effectively fight against the populist president. Often, the unfulfilled role of the opposition has been taken over by default by the mass media, the Church hierarchy, or university students. None of these have presented any worthy competition to Correa, either singularly or in coalition. Personalities like the former TV anchor, Carlos Vera, or the former Minister of Energy and Mines, Alberto Acosta, have attempted to mount opposition campaigns, yet have been unable to produce a sufficiently serious candidate against Correa who could wage a credible campaign.
Correa has been in power since 2007 and, until now, has proven to be a formidable politician, who has prevailed in five referendums and two presidential campaigns. This referendum will be the sixth of his administration, and it remains to be seen if the president will be able to retain his political influence among key Ecuadorian sectors, as well as to continue to prevail as the presidential favorite in the 2013 presidential race.
Marco Villarruel, former Dean of the Faculty of Communication at Universidad Central, Ecuador’s largest public university, originally supported Correa, but later came to the realization that the president’s apparent intentions to centralize power should cost him endorsement: “Correa has a ferocious opposition from the right wing, people from the center-right, ultra-liberals and intellectuals from the left side… In his favor are his political movement Alianza País, the center-left groups, the urban lower class, small business, and several farmer’s associations. He goes on to describe the division within his country, “there is a painful political discomfort among Ecuadorians. Correa will probably be the winner of this referendum, but I have no doubt the votes won’t overwhelm in his favor.”
Careful thought must be given to WikiLeaks that lead to the recall of both countries’ ambassadors. This development has turned out to be a key, unexpected player in the referendum. As a result of the release of some embarrassing secret documents, the Ecuadorian president ordered U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges to leave the country. The issue was a leaked diplomatic cable that quoted her as saying that Correa had knowingly appointed a corrupt official as his national chief of police. The U.S., in retaliation, asked the Ecuadorian Ambassador to Washington, Luis Gallegos, to leave the U.S. as soon as possible. This diplomatic uproar added fuel to Ecuador’s political fire. President Correa has appealed to the country’s sense of national sovereignty to justify his actions. The opposition, for its part, has now been accusing him of alienating the country’s most important commercial partner.
Ecuador joined the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) in 2009, strengthening the cordial relationship between Correa and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. In founding ALBA with the intention of establishing an alliance to counter U.S. free trade initiatives, Chávez has audaciously remarked that “the U.S. isn’t the sheriff of the world anymore…now we have to speak of ‘sovereign’ and ‘nonsovereign.’” That is, with the unification of the nine Latin American and Caribbean area nations, ALBA aims to promote national sovereignty. Along with the mutual ouster of ambassadors, Ecuador appears to have taken a fateful step to free itself of outside influence, yet its commercial ties leaves it bound to the U.S.
The U.S. is one of Ecuador’s largest trading partners. In 2010, Ecuador’s exports to the United States amounted to USD 6 billion, while its imports from the U.S. were estimated at USD 5.45 billion. The country’s affinity for U.S. goods, particularly in the heavy industry sector, and the chance to increase foreign investment, in the past has necessitated strong U.S. ties with Washington.
Meanwhile, Quito is throwing distracting and controversial questions at its pollsters, with few of the more serious problems have yet to be addressed. Many Ecuadorians must feel mislead as the country’s most serious issues, such as unemployment and national security, appear to be not so high up on the government’s agenda. According to the official statistics office, 6.1% of Ecuadorians are unemployed and 51% work 20 hours or less a week. Kidnapping, assaults, and a constant public fear of falling victim to crime gangs are among the most serious issues exisiting in Ecuador. Yet, the referendum is not confronting these issues.
Ultimately, the diversity of opposition groups makes it hard to predict whether the Correa-backed referendum will favor the Ecuadorian president’s proposals. Nevertheless, while it is likely that this referendum will show some erosion of Correa’s popularity, it is unlikely to end up in his defeat. A viable opposition has not be formed or centralized; the absence of a coherent opposition produces one of the more mystifying aspects surrounding the referendum. Whatever the results will be, a more united opposition among anti-Correa factions may continue to develop. The issues addressed so far in the upcoming referendum simply underscore Correa’s partisan party politics, rather than what should be the most earnestly addressed concerns to the country. As Ecuador faces economic and security issues that could grow to threaten the country’s ongoing stability, the issues proposed in the May 7 referendum are not likely to produce a cure.
References for this article are available here.
This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Fellow Olga Imbaquingo and COHA Research Associate Christina Sabato