The inauguration of Lenin Moreno as Ecuador’s new President on May 24th creates an opportunity for the United States to reconstruct its relationship with Latin America’s left. It’s a new relationship that the U.S. should pursue with a combination of respect and great caution.
Let there be no mistake. Under Moreno’s predecessor Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s government pursued a policy that sometimes deliberately, and other times indirectly, undermined the strategic interests of the United States. The expulsion of the U.S. military from its forward operating location at Manta, Ecuador in September 2009 reduced the effectiveness of efforts to address narcotics trafficking in the region.
At the same time, the Correa government was an active participant and an advocate ofleftist organizations working against U.S. influence in Latin America and the Caribbean, including the Bolivarian Alliance of the People of the Americas (ALBA), and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), among others. Data intercepted in 2008 from the computer of Raul Reyes, former leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) suggest that the Correa government, like Venezuela and Cuba, maintained clandestine ties and supported the FARC and other illegal armed groups seeking to conduct terrorist acts against, and overthrow democratic governments in the region. In pursuit of investment and financing independent of Western companies and institutions (such the International Monetary Fund), the Correa government also played a significant role in opening the Ecuadoran economy to Chinese companies and banks, as well as accelerating the entry into the region of the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese military contractors.
The victory of Lenin Moreno, the candidate of Rafael Correa’s Alianza País movement, over Guillermo Lasso of the Creando Opportunidades (CREO) party in the April 2017 presidential election, is generally interpreted as politically empowering the continuation of Correa’s leftist agenda. Yet Moreno is neither a continuation nor a moderation of the leftist policies of Correa, but rather, his own man. Among his first actions upon taking office, Moreno signed a series of degrees reorganizing the executive branch, eliminating the (arguably superfluous) Ministry for a Good Quality of Life (Secretaría de Buen Vivir), and a series of coordinating ministries, and also ending his predecessor’s family planning organization Plan Familia, which had been criticized by the left as too representative of traditional Catholic values.
In the near term, President Moreno will likely pursue policies that give the Ecuadoran state a central role in advancing national development, addressing the needs of the socially and economically marginalized, and generally molding the country’s social and economic structure.President Moreno will also likely continue the government’s friendly disposition toward leftist governments and movements across the region, and a range of extra-hemispheric actors including Russia and China. Yet Moreno is notably more inclusive in his style, and does not bring to the presidency the deep personal resentment of the U.S. that shaped the posture and rhetoric of his predecessor, Rafael Correa, whose father was imprisoned in the U.S. for trying to smuggle drugs into the country, leaving his mother to raise the future president on her own in Guayaquil.
In its orientation toward Latin America and the Caribbean, the U.S. needs to recognize that in the 21st Century its principal strategy challenge in Latin America and the Caribbean is not ideology, but criminality, poor governance, and those who seek to advance their personal agendas by exploiting the needs and frustrations of the region’s population. To this end, neither Ecuador nor any other government in the region should be considered an adversary of the U.S. simply for choosing a left-of-center approach to helping its people.
At the same time, though, keeping an open mind about the political paths chosen by a government does not mean the United States should turn a blind eye to the inefficiencies and corrupting tendencies of giving the state a significant role in the economy, nor to the anti-democratic and subversive elements within a government or movement, including within President Moreno’s.
In Ecuador, the Correa regime was not free of corruption and mismanagement, and limited freedom of the press. Yet it arguably did a better job than its ALBA counterparts in using the state, in combination with resources from China and other non-traditional partners, to advance economic growth and development. Notable achievements include construction and maintenance of a modern road system, and the transformation of electricity production, to include the addition of low-carbon emitting hydroelectric and wind power facilities, while also reorganizing and taking forward both the petroleum and mining sectors (albeit sometimes at the expense of the traditional Western companies that formerly operated in those sectors). The Correa government also made progress in reducing poverty, including cutting the rate of extreme poverty almost in half during its time in office.
To its credit, Ecuador has also generally avoided becoming a hub for transnational organized crime and violence, despite being surrounded by the hemisphere’s two most significant producers of cocaine and bases for illegal mining: Colombia and Peru.
Ecuador coordinates closely with both neighbors on the challenge, and cooperates with international organizations such as Interpol and the network of financial intelligence organizations in Latin America, including its oversight organization GAFILAT. It has also advanced a concept of “integral security” with changes in law and military doctrine to allow the Armed Forces to support the police in an internal security role, as a compliment article 158 of the Ecuadoran constitution which permits such support in general terms. It has also created new military organizations such as the “Andes” brigade to effectively leverage the armed forces in that fight.
While Ecuador has its problems with organized crime, despite the confrontational rhetoric of Correa, the country’s combination of reasonable levels of security, functional institutions and a good quantity of life have made Ecuadoran cities like Cuenca a haven for U.S. expatriates.
President Moreno assumes power at a moment in which the nation’s economy is in difficulty. This is due to a combination of low petroleum prices and inherent inefficiencies in the statist concept of his predecessor, as well as its ongoing recover from the disastrous earthquake of April 2016. Low international oil prices dragged down the country’s gross national product in 2015 and led to a sluggish growth of 1.5% in 2016.
In the short term, President Moreno will probably not have either the political latitude nor will to dramatically reorient Ecuador’s foreign and economic policies. Nonetheless, a positive relationship with the U.S., and improved access to Western markets and sources of capital would not be unwelcome.
From the perspective of the U.S., Ecuador’s election is a small but important part of the state of flux characterizing Latin America’s political left. The course that Ecuador takes in the coming years will impact, and will be impacted by other challenges of leftist movements. Among them: the collapse and discrediting of the populist socialist experiment in Venezuela, Cuba’s upcoming 2018 political transition, the ousting of left-of-center governments through democratic processes in both Argentina and Brazil, as well as the likely return of center-right President Sebastian Piñera in Chile’s November 2017 elections—due, in part, to divisions within the Chilean left.
Yet the concept popular in the U.S. of an “erosion of the pink tide” in Latin America is mistaken. We need only look briefly south to the rise of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and his Morena movement in Mexico and the consolidation of power by corrupt populist regimes in Nicaragua and Bolivia in the name of socialism.
But most important, the Latin American “left,” as an expression of legitimate desires for prosperity and social justice, is not inherently a phenomenon that the U.S. can or should try to “defeat.” The most viable strategy for the U.S., and in the long term, the best one for the region, is to guard against subversive projects by an anti-U.S., anti-democratic subset of the left, while working to ensure that all regimes, regardless of their ideology, succeed through good governance and strong democratic institutions, that shows its people that prosperity and social justice is not only compatible with, but inseparable from democracy, including individual and group rights and freedoms.
In this complex ideological space, a positive and respectful U.S. relationship with the incoming Ecuadoran government of Lenin Moreno is a “win-win” proposition for both sides. It would also have the transformative effect of showing an ideologically genuine and principled left-of-center government can advance the well-being of its people without the inherent enmity of the United States.
There are doubtlessly numerous actors within the Ecuadoran and the Latin American left who would seek to leverage relationship friendly U.S. posture toward Ecuador to advance more nefarious causes, and many whose anti-U.S. designs would be profoundly threatened by a positive U.S. relationship with a leftist, but still democratic Ecuador. Yet the remarkably educated, civil, and democratic political culture of Ecuador, and the thoughtfulness and decency that Moreno has manifested as a person, suggest that if there is any place in the region that such a bold U.S. approach could succeed, it is in Ecuador, at the present time, with its new president.
This argument for a cautious rapprochement with Ecuador will likely come as a surprise for those familiar with my harsh criticism of ALBA, and particularly the current criminal elite in Venezuela.
But there is no inconsistency. For the U.S. and the region, the “enemy” is not those who believe in bettering the condition of their people, although reasonable people may disagree about how to achieve that goal. The enemy is those who subvert democratic processes and exploit the hopes and frustrations of a people to progressively rob them of their rights, liberty and prosperity.
Although it might surprise many in Ecuador, and elsewhere in the region, the concept of buen vivir, championed by the Alianza Pais movement, among others, is actually a prioritization of quality-of-life and spiritual values over raw materialism that many in the U.S. can relate to. There are many within the Ecuadoran left who will use the election of President Moreno to continue their work against the influence of the U.S. and western institutions. In that complex struggle, there are no guarantees about where the Moreno government will end up. Yet it is in the strategic interest of the U.S. to bet on the intellect and decency of President Moreno to actively seek a new path with Ecuador and the Latin American left.
Dr. R. Evan Ellis is Latin America Research Professor with the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. The views expressed in this article are strictly his own.