Here’s something you don’t see every day. The anointed successor of one of Latin America’s most notorious pink-tide, leftist populists has shifted to the center, relaxing restrictions on the media, projecting an attitude of compromise, and ditching the prickly, strong-man leadership of his predecessor. In just eight months, Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno, the former Vice-President of Rafael Correa (2007-2017), has begun to change the autocratic legacy of his predecessor.
Next weekend, Ecuadoreans will take to the polls to vote on a referendum championed by Moreno that would bar Correa from seeking office again. The referendum’s success would be a major step toward strengthening the country’s democratic institutions after the consolidation of executive power under the previous president. But Ecuador is still in the midst of a treacherous moment; the country is on the edge of a financial cliff, with poorly structured short-term external debt estimated at 60% of GDP. President Moreno will need some of his recently accrued good will before long.
The country Moreno inherited was exiting ten years under Correa who, along with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, became the face of the mid-2000s left-wing populism in the region. During his ten years in office, Correa steered Ecuador toward autocracy.
Correa severely curtailed freedom of the press, ridiculing journalists, nationalizing newspapers and media outlets, passing restrictive libel laws, and hijacking television airwaves to promote his administration’s policies and attack critics. Like his friends in Bolivia and Venezuela, Correa also convened a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution and packed the justice system with partisans. Internationally he aligned Ecuador with other autocratic-minded regimes in attempting to undermine democracy and human rights in the Organization of American States and the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Perhaps most worrying for Ecuador’s near future, Correa borrowed massively from China and international bondholders to pump up state spending on popular public projects. Correa, who has a U.S. PhD in economics, left office with massive public debt, a large fiscal deficit, and miniscule foreign reserves, setting up the crisis Moreno will likely have to deal with this year.
Still, the change in Ecuador in the year since the contentious 2017 election is nothing short of astonishing. Moreno took office after winning a vote marred by claims of irregularities that brought hundreds of thousands to the streets in protest. In an op-ed in the New York Times, the vice-presidential candidate for Moreno’s challenger, Guillermo Lasso, warned that “the new government will not have the legitimacy to govern a divided country.” After a recount confirmed Moreno’s victory, many assumed Moreno would serve as a caretaker president until Correa’s inevitable return.
President Moreno’s first eight months in office has silenced the skeptics. Moreno has adopted a conciliatory, friendly style of interacting with the public that stands in sharp contrast to Correa’s fiery, divisive rhetoric. He has reached out to the business community and opposing parties—welcome gestures after ten years of “us vs. them” politics under Correa.
And luckily for Ecuador’s democracy, Moreno’s actions speak louder than words. In the weeks after his inauguration, Moreno invited prominent members of the media to the presidential palace, promising a new era of press freedom and inviting public criticism. He has promised to relax the controversial Correa-era communications law and has stopped Correa’s practice of verbally attacking the press. In his last months in office alone, Correa denounced the media on 64 distinct occasions. Moreno hasn’t publically attacked the press once since taking office.
President Moreno ended 2017 on a high note, with Ecuador’s Supreme Court approving the February 4th referendum that would bar Correa from seeking another term in office. In the past eight months, he’s reached out to the media, engaged with civil society, proposed stricter term limits, and promoted anti-corruption efforts (even when they led to the ouster of his own vice president).
Moreno began 2018 strong as well. Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2018 singles out the country’s progress under Moreno, lauding his “unexpectedly reformist stance” as proof of “the potential for regular elections and transfers of power to disrupt authoritarian entrenchment.” With approval ratings consistently above 70%, Moreno seems to be having an extended honeymoon.
Ecuador still has a long way to go until it becomes a healthy and stable democracy, especially given the state of its economy. The country’s honeymoon with President Moreno could very well come to a close soon, but the progress made in the last eight months is a welcome trend in a region desperate for good news. While Morales successfully does away with term limits in Bolivia, Nicolás Maduro rushes the election schedule to further cement his grip on power in Venezuela, and Hondurans continue to take to the streets to protest the controversial re-election of Juan Orlando Hernández, another leader with strongman tendencies, Ecuador under Moreno has started to replace some of the checks and balances on executive power eroded by his predecessor.
When voters head to the polls for a momentous referendum a week from Sunday, Ecuadoreans can look at the state of politics around the hemisphere and dare to be proud of their president and recovering political system.