Sentencing former President Rafael Correa and Jorge Glas to eight years in jail and barring them from public office for an additional 25 years is a desperate move by a repressive administration trapped in a socio-economic crisis of its own making.
The Carondelet presidential palace in Quito stands in front of Plaza de la Independencia, the statue depicting the first ‘cry of independence’ and dedicated to the heroes of South America’s liberation. Each Monday, the square would become the stage for one of the key palace ceremonies – the changing of the guard. Massive crowds gathered there to observe not only the parade by the blue-clad guards, the raising of the nation’s flag and the sound of the national anthem, but also to catch a glimpse of the nation’s president, always clad in a black suit and a Guayabera-style indigenous shirt.
The palace now lies virtually empty and the salon of the national treasures – the gifts received by Rafael Correa during his various official visits abroad – has been hollowed out, with the shelves laid bare. The water fountain in its central courtyard now stands still, the echoes of palace guards, visitors and public servants no longer resounding through its wide marble corridors. It is a worthy metaphor for a country saddled with an inept leadership in the midst of a deadly pandemic.
The response of the administration of Ecuadorian president Lenin Moreno, which was already severely weakened by the mass protests of October 2019, has been a combination of limited initiative and finger-pointing for its shortcomings. Naturally, the target of its blame was its predecessors in Rafael Correa’s administration.
Otto Sonnenholzner, Lenin Moreno’s appointed vice-president and a protégé of the Ecuadorian Chamber of Commerce, has effectively taken over the reins of the administration and followed a procedure in line with the other neoliberal governments in the region: severe repression, deprivation of workers and the most vulnerable communities, failure to mobilise the public resources and incompetence in seeking and acquiring international assistance.
Ecuador’s coronavirus death wave goes viral
Up to the end of April, the number of infected and deceased caused by the COVID-19 pandemic had spiraled out of control, nearly collapsing the country’s public healthcare sector, already struggling with the cuts and austerity due to the Moreno government’s IMF deal.
The official figures tracking the number of infected finally began demonstrating the more accurate picture of the catastrophe, with the total number of infected and dead reaching 7,161 and 297 on 10 April – an increase of 30 per cent within 24 hours. By the end of the month, the official figure for the infected stood at 24,934 infected and around 900 dead.
These numbers have been widely disputed by the citizenry, the international media and the medical staff on the ground, who have reportedly been terrorised and silenced about what they have witnessed. The viral images and videos of bodies wrapped in black bags lying in makeshift morgues or being loaded into trucks made headlines across the world, while a report conducted by New York Times showed that the death toll is approximately 15 times higher than the one suggested in the official reports.
Other private sources have indicated much higher numbers during that time, with more than 1,900 corpses collected in the province of Guayaquil alone in the first two weeks of April. This number is reported to have increased to 7,000 until 24 April and 14,000 by the end of the month.
There are several reasons why Guayaquil was hit especially hard by the outbreak compared to the rest of the country’s regions. The densely populated coastal province is a major travel hub for travel and transportation to the neighbouring Peru and Colombia, as well as an increasingly popular destination for retirees from the United States.
More importantly though, the city of Guayaquil has been governed for more than 30 years by the rightwing Social Christian Party, a remnant of Ecuador’s old neoliberal political order. Both the current mayor, Cynthia Viteri, and her long-time predecessor, Jaime Nebot, have been long-time opponents of President Correa, consistently maintaining Guayaquil as a bastion of opposition and neoliberal reform. This has evidently impacted the quality and availability of many public services, including healthcare.
As has become the norm with the Moreno regime in the last several years, the initial response of the government has been to blame the appearance of the viral horror on Rafael Correa and the online ‘troll farms’ he allegedly operates. The announcement was picked up and promoted by a number of private media and journalists aligned with the Moreno government, but widely ridiculed and criticised across social media.
The attempt at pushback was followed by another bizarre press conference by Vice-President Sonnenholzner, in which he issued a public apology for the ‘worsening of [Ecuador’s] international image’, rather than the lack of initial government response.
In another widely-criticised action, the police proceeded to arrest a man for publishing viral videos criticising the governments of Moreno and Guayaquil mayor Cynthia Viteri while repeating the allegations that the true number of infected and deceased was a lot higher. This was likely a consequence of the Moreno government’s announcement that it would investigate the publication of ‘fake news’ about the current COVID-19 emergency.
Business as usual for Ecuador’s economic elites, layoffs for pandemic specialists
The last three years of Lenín Moreno’s neoliberal government have left a visible mark on the fabric of the welfare state and social projects initiated and developed during Correa’s Citizens’ Revolution. Under the previous administration’s ten-year rule, the health care sector was top priority, alongside education and social programs. Indeed, the total level of public expenditure on health care rose from 1.81 per cent of GDP in 2007 to 4.21 per cent in 2016. This resulted in a number of impressive achievements – the total number of doctors increased from 16 per 10,000 people in 2009 to 20.5 in 2016, the total number of emergency beds from 473 in 2006 to 2,535 in 2018, and the standard ones from 19,945 to 24,359 during the same time period. Consequently, the process was stalled following the Moreno government’s turn to neoliberalism, and the gradual dismantling of the welfare state grown during those ten years.
The public healthcare sector received its biggest blow in March 2019, shortly after the signing of the new IMF agreement. Approximately 10,000 public sector workers were fired in preparation for the financial body’s reform package, among them between 2,500 and 3,500 personnel working in the healthcare sector.
More importantly, over 300 personnel working in the control and treatment of pandemics were also made redundant almost exactly a year before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the crisis, in November Moreno decided to expel over 400 Cuban doctors and medical personnel, much like his neoliberal counterparts in Bolivia and Brazil. He has also been reluctant to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba and purchase the interferon alfa-2B antiviral drug currently produced by the island nation to treat COVID-19. Thus, with the government infrastructure severely weakened through a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ technique, the healthcare sector has been predictably unable to cope with the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the structures of the state have been hollowed out with the elimination of 13 out of 40 institutions by April 2019, as well as $2 billion of cuts and austerity through the elimination, privatisation, and fusion of a number of state companies and public entities originally planned for 2019. The Moreno administration has severely cut social spending in other sectors, such as education, with the funding to 32 major universities and polytechnics reduced by over $100 million.
But the rapidly spreading pandemic has not stopped the government from putting its obligations to global finance above the health of its citizens. On 23 March, economy minister Richard Martínez indicated that the Ecuadorian government is planning to repay $324 million of its current debt to international lenders as the means of ‘fulfilling their obligations to investors’ despite the evident need for urgent investment in COVID-19 containment measures. In an ironic twist, mere days afterward, the heads of the IMF and the World Bank advocated debt relief for emerging economies, alongside over $12 billion in emergency funding and grants to assist countries battling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Punishing Correa and his allies
This immense crisis has provided the Moreno regime with opportunity to escalate his vendetta against Rafael Correa and other leaders of the Citizens’ Revolution and permanently purge his presence from the country’s political map. Even before this latest sentencing, the former president was already facing more than 25 ongoing legal cases with charges ranging from bribery and corruption to kidnapping. All of them have been consistently questioned and disputed by Correa’s legal team as lacking any substantial evidence or due procedure. The same has been said of the ‘Caso Sobornos’ (Bribery Case), which so far has resulted in the sentence of eight years for the former president.
In summary, the case alleges that Correa and Jorge Glas organised a system of political financing and bribery throughout the period of 2012-2016, with a total of $7.8 million being received from various private companies in exchange for government contracts of public works. Only two significant pieces of evidence have been presented by the persecution so far.
The first is a receipt for $80,000 from one of Correa’s assistants in the presidential secretariat, Alexis Mera, which bears no signature and no explanation whatsoever as to where the money came from or who the intended final recipient would be.
Maria del Mar Gallegos, the lawyer for Alexis Mera, has also pointed out that the media has played an important part in the construction of the ‘guilty before proven innocent’ narrative of the case. In an interview with Radio Pichincha Universal, she mentioned that ‘most of the media are polarised on the side of the Prosecutor’s Office, publishing what is convenient for them to make it believe that [the persecution] is winning the process’. She has further asserted that, until now, not a single private enterprise or entity have passed any cash payments to any of Correa’s ex-functionaries under investigation.
The former president’s response spoke volumes about both the intention behind the charges and their validity: ‘Well, this was what they were looking for: managing justice to achieve what they could never do at the ballot box. I’m fine. I am concerned about my colleagues,’ Correa said following the Tuesday decision. ‘Surely we will win internationally, because everything is bullshit, but it takes years. It depends on your vote to end this nightmare.’
In a widely publicised article, Correa’s lead lawyer on the case, Fausto Jarin, disputed and dismissed numerous aspects of the conviction, accusing the tribunal of violations of Ecuador’s penal code, refusal to admit key pieces of evidence, and outright falsehoods. Among the most absurd charges levelled at Correa was that he was ‘taking public resources for personal use’. In fact, he had borrowed $6,000 from a common presidential fund and then paid back the sum with interest.
Correa has not been the only one in the crosshairs of the legal hit squad headed by Moreno’s Attorney General, Diane Salazar Méndez. Repression has gradually intensified against other historical leaders of the Citizens’ Revolution, particularly the most competent figures who engineered the most successful aspects of the Correa administration.
The most prominent case so far has been that of Correa’s former vice-president Jorge Glas, already serving a six-year sentence for the disputed Odebrecht case of accepting bribes from the Brazilian construction company giant. He has been credited as the key figure behind creating a new productive matrix during the 2013-2017 period through mass investment into major energy projects, such as the Coca Codo Sinclair Hydroelectric plant, and the export of energy to neighbouring Peru and Colombia.
Virgilio Hernández, Gabriela Rivadeneira and Paola Pabón, the three leaders persecuted in the aftermath of the mass protests of October 2019, held several important positions in Correa’s administration. As the president of the economic commission, Hernández played a key role in designing several economic reforms and overseeing the country’s recovery in the aftermath of the 2016 earthquake. Rivadeneira is the former president of the National Assembly of Ecuador and the former executive secretary of the Country Alliance party initially founded by Correa, but hijacked by Moreno and his allies and effectively turned into a neoliberal political platform. Paola Pabón, the current governor of Pichincha and former member of the Constituent Assembly, came to prominence during the Correa administration for her campaigns for women’s rights and the decriminalisation of abortion.
In addition, Ricardo Patiño, the former minister of defence and foreign affairs responsible for organising the political asylum of Julian Assange, and Sofia Espin, a former member of the Constituent Assembly, have been forced into exile in Mexico in 2019.
The sentence of the ‘Caso Sobornos’ is not final and appeal has been filed by the legal teams of both Correa and Mera. However, it is increasingly difficult to imagine the Moreno regime returning to transparency and the rule of law without a mass social uprising against his repressive rule.
For now, Ecuadorians must endure the triad of disasters of the COVID-19 pandemic, political persecution and a pro-business neoliberal austerity regime. But these are the exact kinds of conditions that nourish the soil of popular discontent and allow mass movements to simmer until they finally erupt and, as has been seen again and again in Ecuador’s history, they take the neoliberal government down.
This article was originally published in The Grayzone.