13.04.2023 | Ecuador - the writing’s on the wall?

In most countries, graffiti is associated with either underground movements or the boredom of youth. In Ecuador, however, it is a legitimate medium for mainstream political discussion. It has the air of desperation, as if all other channels have failed, with endorsements and denouncements of all parties found at the side of major roads.

When we arrived in the capital, Quito, tensions were rising in the run-up to a constitutional referendum and mayoral elections. This comes against a backdrop of a deteriorating security situation over the last few years, in which Colombian and Mexican drug cartels have entered the country, shipping their product from the ports of Esmeraldas and Guayaquil. The centre-right government of Guillermo Lasso, elected in 2019, promised eye-catching measures in the referendum like the extradition of drug traffickers and the reduction of parliamentarians, which seemed to address the Ecuadorian people’s concerns.

What is striking both in the graffiti and in other conversations we had tilting towards politics is how former President Rafael Correa (2007-2017) continues to loom large over the country. This is surprising given his eight-year sentence for corruption in 2020 and exile to Belgium, where his wife is from. Elected in the so-called “pink tide” of left-leaning populist governments in Latin America in the 2000s, Correa realigned the country away from US tutelage and into the hands of Chinese influence and capital. For this he and his party Alianza PAIS became immensely popular, particularly among Ecuador’s vocal indigenous population. Ineligible for holding more than two terms in office, he was succeeded by Lenín Moreno (2017-2019), formerly his Vice-President.  Moreno’s government uncovered a web of corruption in government contracts from the Correa era, some of which related to the Brazilian Odebrecht scandal, implicating Correa himself as well as a range of other Correístas. 

With a cult of personality reminiscent of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, there is no doubt that Correa appeared to transform Ecuador, injecting a sense of confidence which had been lost in the late 1990s with the collapse of its currency, the Sucre, since when the country has used the US dollar. With this came with major sacrifices, however. He tried to assert himself by demanding better conditions for Ecuador in contracts with foreign companies, while at the same time accepting eye-watering loan agreements with Chinese banks such that he simply swapped one form of economic dependency for another. Additionally, the Correa government undermined the media’s ability to criticise the government, including by suing major newspaper El Universo in 2011. As well as the multiple and ongoing corruption probes, since his presidency reports have even emerged that it was his government which began to make overtures to the cartels.

Nevertheless, our taxi driver Carlos was convinced that if Correa returned to stand in presidential elections, he would be sure to win. A couple of weeks before the elections on 5th February Correa’s new party Citizen Revolution was holding regular rallies through Quito and the surrounding area: a few days later, returning from the nearby town of Otavalo, we had to find an alternative route after a convoy of Correa supporters had blocked the main road through the Andean foothills. Such shows were in stark contrast to the graffiti, much of which ran along the lines of “Extradición Narcorreístas” (“Extradite the narcorreístas”, a pun on Correa supporters being drug-traffickers) or “Contra el asembleísta corrupto vota Sí” (“Vote Yes against corrupt congressmen”).

Campaigning reached a new intensity the following week. One mayoral candidate, Jorge Loor Zambrano, decapitated a live snake on a real-time news programme to demonstrate his commitment to fighting corruption. Two mayoral candidates were assassinated – one of them, Omar Menéndez, was elected despite having been shot dead the day before. In the end, on 5th February, Lasso’s government lost the referendum and suffered major losses to Citizen Revolution, including in the conservative stronghold of Guayaquil. Commentators have noted that, as a former banker, Lasso is not trusted by most Ecuadorians, who still hold the banks responsible for the currency collapse. To complicate matters further, on 4th March the National Assembly voted to initiate impeachment proceedings against Lasso for overlooking corruption at the state oil transport company Flopec. It remains to be seen whether these will bear fruit, but it is certain that Correístas will exploit this move to entrench their position in the polls.

Perhaps Ecuador’s condition may be considered through the lens of Quito itself which, like most capitals, embodies the contradictions of its host country. Wedged into a tight Andean gorge, Quito has barely discernible seasons; rather, it experiences what inhabitants call “four seasons in a day” – mild mornings, sunny afternoons, rainy evenings and cold nights. The lack of seasons, combined with the fact that you still hear the same reggaeton hits from the 1990s, gives the sense that the place is somehow stuck in time. The stasis is interrupted by periodic outbursts, however, such as the protests by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador which effectively shut down the city in 2022, or, indeed, the waves of violence prior to the elections this year. No sooner is calm restored than the stage is set for the next eruption of tensions.

Now, as before, it is difficult to see a way forward for Ecuador. The avowedly progressive Correísmo remains the only force able to galvanise a majority, but a retrospective analysis of Correa’s government raises the question of whether this would really constitute progress at all.