Shadow Government

Ecuador’s authoritarian creep — and Washington’s silence

You have to hand it to Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa. He has a plan and he is working it relentlessly. Unfortunately, for those concerned about democracy in the hemisphere, his plan calls for the gutting of democratic institutions in Ecuador and concentrating all power in his person. It may be that the Ecuadorean populist doesn’t ...

RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images
RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty Images

You have to hand it to Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa. He has a plan and he is working it relentlessly. Unfortunately, for those concerned about democracy in the hemisphere, his plan calls for the gutting of democratic institutions in Ecuador and concentrating all power in his person.

It may be that the Ecuadorean populist doesn’t generate the international headlines like his amigo in Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, but that doesn’t make him any less of a threat to democracy in the region.

Recently, Correa has generated some attention in the U.S. for the campaign of intimidation he is waging against one of the country’s most respected newspapers, El Universo. Editorials in the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times have harshly criticized his efforts to drag the newspaper owners and a columnist into court and winning a $40 million judgment in a trumped-up defamation proceeding.

According to the Post, what is occurring in Ecuador is, "the most comprehensive and ruthless assault on free media underway in the Western Hemisphere."

The problem is that abuse of the media is only one troublesome aspect of Correa’s populist project. Undermining rule of law is another. This week, for example, a new Ecuadorean Supreme Court will be seated, the product of referendum Correa rammed through last year, giving his latest power grab a patina of legitimacy.

Evidently not satisfied with the provisions on selecting judges in his own rewritten constitution of 2008, Correa changed the rules again. The standing Supreme Court was abolished and through a new, convoluted selection process — controlled by the Executive — Correa got what he wanted: 13 of the new 21 judges are now in his pocket.

But with control of the judiciary and his party’s present control of the National Assembly, Correa is still not satisfied. He has set as his next priority ensuring that his party remains in control of the legislature by rewriting electoral laws to unduly favor incumbents (including himself) in the run-up to 2013 elections.

For example, a law he is currently pushing would prohibit the news media from "either directly or indirectly promoting any given candidate, proposal, options, electoral preferences or political thesis, through articles, specials or any other form of message." As to how anyone could run a campaign under such a law is mind-boggling — which is obviously the way Correa wants it.

Correa’s defenders point to his current popularity in Ecuador to somehow justify his policies, but that is hardly a measure of the health of any democracy. Demagogues have never had much problem recording high popularity numbers by playing to mass resentments and envy. The true measure of the health of any democracy is the respect and protection afforded the rights of the minority. And, in Ecuador, those protections are increasingly non-existent.

Drinking from the populist cup will someday soon cause a massive hangover for Correa’s mass of supporters. But there is plenty the U.S. and other defenders of democracy in the region can do and say to stand up to Correa’s steady suffocation of democratic processes and hollowing out of democratic institutions.

Unfortunately, the administration response to date has been only to silently and feebly nominate a new U.S. ambassador to Ecuador following Correa’s intemperate expulsion of respected career diplomat Heather Hodges in April 2011. (The nomination of the new ambassador has been held up, however, by Senator Marco Rubio [R-FL] out of frustration with the administration’s languorous policies towards the steady erosion of democracy in the region.)

The least the administration could do is speak out against Correa’s trampling of the Inter-American Democratic Charter and provide public support to those Ecuadoreans standing up for their rights. If the administration aims to pursue a new ambassador to Quito, then it needs to select someone more experienced in difficult environments who is not afraid to publicly stand up for the principles and values enshrined in the Charter.

As the New York Times noted, "Latin America has a bitter history of authoritarian rule. It has struggled hard to get beyond those days. All of the hemisphere’s democratic leaders, including President Obama, need to push back against Mr. Correa." Indeed, Ecuadorean democrats cannot do it alone.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.