By Diana Vela Almeida y Melissa Moreano Venegas
Banker Guillermo Lasso has won the presidency of Ecuador in the midst of a political dispute dividing the country’s Left. It is as participants in this struggle that we ask ourselves, how can we build agreements, alliances and, above all, a mutually transformative social and ecological base to confront the devastating effects of neoliberalism?
With an unexpected result, Guillermo Lasso, representative of the oligarchy, won the presidency of Ecuador on April 11. This news was astounding given the neoliberal devastation that the country is currently experiencing. Lasso’s party was an indispensable ally of the outgoing government of Lenin Moreno who, together with the economic and media elites, configured an economic crisis as or more devastating than that of 1999, and a health crisis that has turned Ecuador into one of the epicenters of infections and deaths from Covid-19 in Latin America.
His victory is undoubtedly not only a defeat for progressives, but also for the Ecuadorian Left in a broader sense. The Left were unable to create strategic coalitions and establish counter-hegemony to the neoliberal fabric that has been consolidated in the country, despite the latest popular uprising of October 2019. This national uprising was among the most widespread historical protests against the austerity measures and the fiscal policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that Ecuador has ever experienced. However, in the next four years Guillermo Lasso will likely continue with a comprehensive program of austerity, state corporatization and privatization of the public sector, will sustain the mandate of the IMF and will vehemently promote free trade agreements in the country.
This is also a great defeat for the Left throughout Latin America, who looked forward to the new consolidation of progressivism in the region. On the contrary, special deference on Twitter from the president-elect of Ecuador to the right and far-right governments of Sebastián Piñera, Iván Duque and Jair Bolsonaro says a lot about Lasso’s geopolitical alignment in the region. This is yet one more example of how right-wing governments continue to legitimize themselves discursively through a supposed fight against corruption, an excessive state, and in favor of economic freedom; in spite of their catastrophic social policies. We are left to ponder on how such a paradoxical outcome can result.
Who holds political power should not be a minor issue for environmentalists. The pandemic has shown us that in the process of recovery and strengthening of the public and the collective, it does indeed matter greatly who leads the governments of the region. This is important because the way in which certain political projects are defended or opposed by social organizations also depends on who it is we are struggling against and the responses that are generated. The popular resistance witnessed how the governments of Bolsonaro in Brazil (2019-), Moreno in Ecuador (2017-2021), and Áñez in Bolivia (2019-2020) accumulated crimes against humanity and violent deaths due to police repression of popular protest. These governments have also led their countries to the necropolitics of austerity measures: slow violence and death through enormous inequality, obscene benefits to economic elites, and a predatory advance against nature.
Election season and fractures on the Left
The electoral season showed the consequences of the deep political rift that exists between a progressive Left and a Left in fierce opposition to it, a conflictive fracture inherited from Correa’s decade in power (2007-2017). This legacy is translated into public opinion through two reductionist and Manichean labels within the Left: “correísmo” and “anti-correísmo”. The problem is that this perverse dichotomy has obscured any serious analysis of the ten years of progressivism in Ecuador and, more dangerously, misconfigures the possibilities of building anti-capitalist emancipatory struggles among all within the Left. This is because, for each side, there is an enemy even worse than the capitalist model: the “other Left” within the dichotomy. In the process, the broader vision for struggle gets lost in a bitter feud that allows dangerous right-wing players, like Lasso, to slip in the void amongst the Left.
Indeed, the electoral count for the presidential second round can be read as the result of a rather unusual ballot configuration that had offered three options: the right wing, the correista progressivism, and the null vote promoted by an anti-correista “third way”. Along with the wide margin of null votes, the electoral results also indicate a growing trend in recent years of the popular vote moving towards the right-wing. Both segments of votes became decisive for Lasso’s election.
What remains is to understand electoral results within broader political processes, and in what appears to be the strengthening of the neoliberal narrative in marginalized groups and fragmented social organizations.
Why did these fractures occur in the broad Left that came to forge one of the world’s most progressive constitutions back in 2008? Probing this question is necessary because we believe that these fractures must be contextualized to disobey the Manichean public opinion, otherwise there is no place for fair assessments, nor nuances, and neither does it promote the recognition of errors or blunders by any of the parties. Understanding this is also vital for ecologism because this suffocating dynamic denies us the possibility of imagining horizons of ecological struggle that take account of political complexity, the long-haul struggle against the destructive logics of neoliberalism, and the dispute for anti-capitalistic common sense.
The ten years of Rafael Correa’s government are controversial because they signified the possibility of economic democratization through the redistribution of national rents, paying attention to historical debts resulting from social inequalities. They also involved the construction of sovereign geopolitics through support for Latin American integration, the renegotiation of illegitimate foreign debts and abusive oil contracts. At the same time, the Correa´s years also represented the deepening of dependence through the expansion of oil extractivism, the beginning of mega-mining extractivism and the promotion of agro-business in the country. The expansion of extractivism in the country expanded zones of sacrifice and infringed on the lives of marginalized populations, whose resistance was violently criminalized.
Correa also strengthened the role of the state and the recovery of the public sphere in a country that for many years had experienced its devastating absence. This was achieved through the consolidation of operational and budgetary capacities for planning, execution, regulation and control at all levels of government, but which, at the same time, sought to impose a state-centered, unilateral and technocratic vision of the country within a plurinational state with diverse territorialities. Correa’s strong state approach sought to nullify or assimilate social movements, including the Indigenous movement, unions and anti-extractivist organizations. It is likely this outcome that has resulted in an irreconcilable rupture of the country’s Left.
On the other hand, the so-called anti-correismo has legitimate reasons to reject Correa. In particular, the feminist movement faced Correa’s Catholic conservatism for years, and the indigenous movement and the communities affected by extractivism accumulated lived experiences of delegitimization and violent dispossession.
At various points, the convergence around a fervent anti-correismo has made both, a certain oppositional Left and the opportunist Right, strangely strategic bedfellows. A clear example happened in 2018 with the broad backing of a popular consultation that ended up deinstitutionalizing all organs of control in the country. This consultation proposed several key issues, including the restructuring of the Council for Citizen Participation and Social Control, the body responsible for appointing authorities to state control posts such as the Attorney General’s Office, the General Comptroller’s Office, the Judicial Council and the National Electoral Council. This institutional transformation assured Moreno a corrupt and disastrous governance. And, to win the support of an electorate with an environmentalist stance, the consultation included two questions for opposing mining and oil exploitation that never materialized.
A more recently was the 2021 presidential campaign where ecologism had an important weight in the national political debate. The ecologism that prevailed in the elections was one located in an ambiguous space between Left and Right, and that overlooked that the ecological struggle must also combat systemic social exclusions and historical inequalities.
Ecologism in Ecuador originated in the 1980s and 1990s from broad popular demands, it gave life to a movement that questioned hegemonic environmentalism, addressed the ecological debt, and made visible the impacts of extractivism and agribusiness from a socio-ecological justice perspective. However, after years of open confrontation with Correa and following an anti-extractivist turn, the movement concluded that a progressive government (à la Correa) was equivalent to a neoliberal right-wing government. From this position, this brand of environmentalism liaised implicitly with an agenda that promoted financial deregulation, the privatization of the public and the reduction of the state; a position that disregarded all kinds of ideological limits in order to eliminate opponents rather than engage in a difficult but necessary deliberation.
We believe that, in some way, this ambiguity also meant the loss of the programmatic and ideological axis of the 40 year plus anti-neoliberal popular struggle, which had been reborn in the popular uprising of October 2019. This confusing, depoliticized and highly volatile positioning has favored the rapid co-optation of the environmental agenda by national elites, as it aligns itself with a script well-known for neoliberal austerity: the less state, the better. This is where we want to be clear: the struggle is to have more of what is public and collective, never less.
The place of ecologism
The proposal to minimize the role of the state continues to gain influence despite the severity of the pandemic and the importance of recovering state capacities to guide public policy at this very urgent hour. The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us something significant: that the main challenge of the 21st century for Latin America is to guarantee the reproduction of life, the strengthening of the public and the collective spheres to ensure decent living conditions, the guarantee of human rights and the preservation of nature. As feminist thinkers Cinzia Arruzza and Titi Bhattacharya say, in the current state of devastation, the state is a critical tool towards the construction of the commons.
Moreover, a demand to reduce the state’s public capacities is in contradiction with the same positions of a large Latin American initiative that has woven the Ecosocial Pact of the South (Pacto Ecosocial del Sur). This initiative for ecological transformation advocates precisely for higher inheritance taxes, the annulment of foreign debts, the active role of the state in creating a system of care, universal basic income, among others. Meeting these demands requires a regulatory and operational state, not a state completely surrendered to the interests of capital or reduced to its minimum expression.
The depoliticized and ambiguous environmentalism that lacks an understanding of the social and economic challenges in the country and region is a manifestation of how neoliberalism continues to permeate the spaces of the Left. It does so by co-opting environmentalism in the most insidious of ways. Indeed, environmentalism and neoliberalism team up through certain red flags such as market-oriented solutions and atomized private actions outside of public and collective organization, while distancing themselves from geopolitical conditions, demands for sovereignty, and socioeconomic policies.
In contrast, the Left-popular ecologism represents the possibility of proposing a political, social and economic model that prioritizes the reproductive conditions for life. We argue that the environmental project of any country ought to be more related to the construction of economic, social and political relations and, as David Harvey mentions in The “New” Imperialism, to understand how these produce ecological relations as well. An ecological project should not simply be the symbolic idealization of an idyllic and protected “nature”, where anti-capitalist struggle and existing power asymmetries along class, settler colonialism, gender, and racial lines are nowhere to be found.
Certainly, environmental issues cannot be separated from necessary criticisms of extractive capitalism and the unequivocal rejection of a neoliberal agenda. Ecuador is a country with many geopolitical constraints due to its location in the international division of labor and, both endogenous and exogenous, historical power relations marked by colonial legacies. It is therefore necessary to openly ask, as Estefanía Martínez does: whether ecological positions –which challenge the domination of nature through strengthening alternative life models– can really emerge without confronting the logics of capital that reproduce this domination. In this context, recovering the anti-capitalist horizon is ever more urgent to escape perverse dichotomies.
Navigating contradictions and building alliances
It is from this struggle within the Left that we ask ourselves, how are we able to build agreements, alliances and, above all, a mutually transforming social and ecological base?
At this juncture, the election of the leadership of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), to be held next May, can be understood as a “second presidential election” vital for the popular struggle. The political positioning of the CONAIE leadership will be key in the next four years as this organization has proven to be the key main political actor with the capacity for mobilization in the streets. In addition, its political arm, Pachakutik, is the second largest political force in the National Assembly.
The internal context of CONAIE is complex. Its leadership would be disputed between various cleavages of the ideological spectrum. We believe that it is not our place to talk about internal disputes of the Indigenous movement, but as feminists and leftist ecologists, it is our feeling to position ourselves towards a central element that has played a critical role in the domestic politics: ecologism.
What has become overwhelmingly clear is that the environmental issue is no longer a tangential or one of minor interest within political and economic decisions of any country. One example of this is the enormous planetary reversal produced by the entry of a virus of zoonotic origin into world capital flows, one expressed by the profound ecological alterations that we are experiencing today. So, facing the ecological crisis requires politicizing the discourse and the geopolitical and historical context; but it is not enough to consider the environmental as isolated from the social-popular. This is a criticism and a challenge for all the Left.
The search for a post-extractivist economy based on the protection of nature, Good Living, agroecology, sustainable tourism and recycling, needs to be organized around the struggle to dismantle the structural conditions of dependency of the global economic model. This means blatantly rejecting policies such as the privatization of the public sector, financial deregulation, dismantling of the cooperative system, tax cuts and neoliberal austerity. Isn’t the ecological also economic and social?
To challenge the neoliberal resurgence in Ecuador, a grand coalition of the ecologist and popular Left is needed that can sustain the struggle in institutions, in the streets, in the workplace and at home, since the attack from the right will be aggressive. The latest October 2019 reminds us that the neoliberal response is always violent and repressive.
Such a broad coalition between the Left requires opening spaces for sustained dialogue and absolute respect, creating a dialectical space without subordinations. The challenge is to break with the worst of Correa’s authoritarian politics, recognize it and confront it, but also avoid reducing the complex political exercise to morality, lecturing or confrontation without laying the groundwork for building a collective common sense.
A process of mutual reconstruction is important because the making of collective meaning goes beyond the capacity of the state in the anti-neoliberal, feminist and anti-racist environmental struggle. Moreover, the transformation will always require multiscalar and conjoined struggles to ensure proposals are not delocalized from historical and geographical contexts. The Ecosocial Pact of the South, for example, implies a sustained regional, anticolonial and geopolitical strengthening process, something that progressives in Latin America strongly promoted.
A regional convergence of these challenges is also urgent to ensure long and lasting alliances that serve as support for popular struggles. The struggle of the ecological Left requires acting in strengthened regional blocs. It is not enough to generate an ecological transformation through specific agendas in the construction of a national project, but as a regional pan-Latin American convergence of social and environmental justice. This possibility has sadly vanished for now in Ecuador with the electoral triumph of Lasso.
May this extensive and painful loss serve us to build a thorough, balanced and committed reflection that neither the state nor the Indigenous nor environmental movements are monolithic. A position of solidarity and commitment is related to understanding political agents with all their contradictions and conjunctures with their geographical and historical complexities. This position certainly does not exempt us from scrutiny from the political content of the projects born on all fronts of the Left. Political transformation will always be complex, problematic, and imperfect.
Diana Vela Almeida is a postdoctoral fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and a member of the Critical Geography Collective of Ecuador. @DianaVelaA.
Melissa Moreano Venegas is a full-time professor at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar- Quito and a member of the Critical Geography Collective of Ecuador. @mel_moreano.
Featured image: Popular uprising October 2019. Credit: Iván Castaneira.