Photo: Ecuadorean President Guillermo Lasso delivers remarks. Source: Christopher Goodney / Bloomberg.
On September 12, President Guillermo Lasso proposed an official referendum to bring Ecuadoreans back to the ballots for a pivotal vote. With eight questions, the referendum suggests a series of constitutional reforms centered on three fundamental topics affecting Ecuadoreans: national security, democratic institutions, and environmental sustainability. Although the questions at hand tackle matters of national interest, they also shine a light on the region’s most profound struggles. While Ecuador has rarely been the focus of U.S. foreign policy, this referendum offers the country an opportunity to engage further and strengthen its bilateral relationship with Ecuador.
Now more than ever, Ecuador has become one of the main U.S. allies in the region. As a result, Ecuador remains in a unique position in the eyes of the U.S. as a beacon of improving prosperity, democratization, and transparency. After 10 years of a government filled with corruption scandals and a tarnished relationship with the West under Rafael Correa’s administration, Ecuador has taken significant steps to showcase its commitment to rebuilding and strengthening its democracy.
Its recent admission to the Alliance for Development and Democracy (ADD) looks to safeguard prosperity and democratic values across the region and as a member of the Andean Community, Ecuador aims to achieve a balanced development through Andean trade and commerce. In Lasso’s first 100 days as president, Ecuador decreased its fiscal deficit from 7 percent to 4 percent of the country’s GDP, created more than 350,000 jobs, and denounced more than 10 corruption cases. The country’s strong commitment to multilateral organizations, NGOs, and local and regional partners highlight Ecuador’s strong devotion to building a better future for its citizens—but it can’t do it alone.
This is not to say that Ecuador is immune to challenges; it remains a small country with a GDP of USD $106.7 billion dollars. The pandemic and the recent geopolitical backdrop have hindered the country’s social and economic development, culminating in an 18-day protest in June of 2022 that paralyzed the entire country and cost the economy over $1 billion in productivity losses. Regarding U.S. foreign policy, Ecuador has had little influence compared to other countries in the region. With paralyzed trade agreement negotiations and scarce cooperation to improve national security and development, the U.S. should further engage Ecuador as a key ally. The region is at a turning point, and the U.S. will not be able to achieve its objectives in Latin America without considering Ecuador.
The U.S. Should Pay Close Attention to the Referendum
The referendum at hand is pivotal to strengthening U.S.-Ecuador relations. Ecuadoreans will exercise their fundamental right to vote on the issues that are most affecting their lives, which also happen to be at the heart of U.S. priorities for the region—security cooperation, democracy promotion, and sustainable economic prosperity.
The referendum will consist of eight questions, and recent polling from Cedatos indicates the overwhelming approval of over 70 percent of respondents for all questions. The first two tackle national security efforts to fight transnational organized crimes such as drug, arms and human trafficking, and migrant smuggling. Lasso’s government is asking citizens to allow the Ecuadorean Armed Forces to collaboratively work with the National Police to tackle security threats related to organized crime. The current constitution establishes that members of the Armed Forces will join forces with the National Police only when the president decrees a state of emergency, and it only allows such cooperation to last for a limited time.
Allowing the engagement of the Armed Forces will certainly expand the resources and areas covered to ensure the control and surveillance of crime and violence related mostly to drug cartels. With an overwhelming approval of over 85 percent, it is in the U.S.’ best interest to step in to combat transnational crime, showing its commitment to the issue by providing necessary assistance will improve the country’s perception locally. To do so, the U.S. must help Ecuador develop a strategic plan of action and provide advanced military intelligence to monitor and trace crime and cartel movements that cost the Andean country approximately 12 deaths per day. Currently Ecuador is the fifth largest South American migrant population in the U.S. Although violence is not the principal cause of Ecuadorian migration, it is certainly an important determinant factor.
Similarly, extradition is a necessary tool to effectively tackle transnational organized crimes, and Ecuador currently prohibits the practice. The constitutional reform would allow, according to the government, less impunity and greater international cooperation in the fight against transnational crime. In the U.S., extradition is legal, thus highlighting an important area of potential cooperation between both countries to tackle a shared regional challenge.
Secondly, much of the referendum focuses on reducing bureaucracy and improving institutional quality to reinforce horizontal accountability and, in turn, strengthen Ecuador’s democracy. Currently, the Judiciary Council is the institution in charge of selecting, training, promoting, and sanctioning the country’s prosecutors, even though the Prosecutor’s Office is an autonomous body within the Ministry of Justice. For this reason, the government proposes to create an independent “Fiscal Council” to assume these responsibilities. The Fiscal Council would become an administrative, technical, and auxiliary body that would be made up of seven external members. In 2021, the Judiciary Council had almost one thousand allegations of corruption against judicial officials. Democratic promotion is at the heart of U.S. interests in the region. If Ecuador approves Lasso’s proposal, the U.S. should work with the government to ensure the council adopts a system of checks and balances, where it is subject to routine supervision from the international community to guarantee its autonomy and independence. This will be a preemptive strategy to tackle corruption cases in Ecuador and ultimately strengthen the country’s democracy.
Finally, the last two questions tackle matters of environmental sustainability. The government is asking citizens to approve that environmental compensation programs for people, communities, and ethnic groups who aid nature conservation, are managed by the government. Ecuador has witnessed continued substantial illegal mining practices in the Amazon. It is only fair for the money the government provides for such compensation programs to be managed by them. However, this effort is not enough to tackle the root cause of the problem. The U.S. should step in and provide satellite technology to trace illegal extraction practices and provide monetary resources to make sure that environmental compensation programs are optimal, long-lasting, and reach the right communities.
The referendum gets to the root of some of Ecuador’s deepest struggles, and with an approval rate of over 70 percent in all areas, Ecuadoreans seem poised to address them at the ballot box. Given its approbation, the referendum opens an opportunity for the U.S. to step in and support Ecuador’s efforts to tackle its most pressing problems—especially in the areas of security, democracy, and environmental sustainability. Passing the referendum would generate positive effects on multiple levels—for the Ecuadorean people, for democracy’s position and presence in the region, and, finally, for the U.S. and its regional influence.
Isabel Chiriboga is an Ecuadorean citizen and Project Assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.