Ecuador: WikiLeaks cables show how US used 'democracy promotion' to push corporate interests

August 31, 2014
Graffiti opposing the US military base in Manta, which has been closed by the Rafael Correa government. WikiLeaks cables reveale

Ecuador's pro-US neoliberal president Lucio Gutierrez was ousted in 2005. Since then, relations between Ecuador and the United States have deteriorated, with the Andean nation’s increasing rejection of US hegemony.

The government of Rafael Correa, first elected in 2006, has broken from the neoliberal doctrines Washington has imposed on Latin America. It has embraced regional integration, moving closer to its neighbours and further away from the US.

Diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks show how hard the US fought to control Ecuador's future post-Gutierrez.

They show a key element of US efforts to control Ecuador’s political and economic direction in the post-Gutierrez years was the US Embassy’s “democracy promotion” activity.

So-called “democracy promotion” came to prominence as a method for maintaining US hegemony in the 1980s.

Professor William I Robinson says a shift occurred when Washington policy-makers realised the traditional method of supporting authoritarian client states tended to produce just the sort of movements for radical change the US wanted to avoid. An example was the rise to power of the left-wing Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

As the Quito cables illustrate, the goal of this strategy is not the promotion of genuine democracy, in the sense of popular participation in the running of society.

Rather, it is the creation and maintenance of what Robinson calls “polyarchy” in his 1996 book Promoting Polyarchy. This means “a system in which a small group actually rules and mass participation in decision-making is confined to leadership choice in elections carefully managed by competing elites”.

The overarching aim of “democracy promotion” is preserving the global capitalist order. Under this order, countries in the global South play a subordinate role to those in the North and governments serve the needs of transnational business before their people.

By targeting civil society groups in developing countries, such as political parties, trade unions and NGOs, “democracy promotion” programs are intended to foster a network of like-minded elites and promote consensus around key economic and political issues.

This consensus translates into government policies that toe the US economic and political line, while radical ideas are filtered out.

Planning Ecuador’s future

In Ecuador, the US wanted to counteract the influence of Latin America's burgeoning social movements, which were demanding participatory forms of democracy and alternatives to Washington’s neoliberal economic model.

“Democracy promotion” is inherently paternalistic, and the US Embassy’s condescension towards Ecuador is apparent throughout the cables.

In the months after Gutierrez was ousted, US government-funded “democracy promotion” group USAID led US Embassy staff in a “democracy action planning process”. The aim was to identify and prescribe solutions for Ecuador’s “democracy problems”.

It is clear from the cables that the embassy regarded this activity as key to the future of Ecuador, but did allow the Ecuadorian people some agency. A cable from May 23 said Ecuadorian society was “launching its own debate about possible democratic reforms, which will affect the realm of possibility”.

A few months later, the new US ambassador Linda Jewell echoed these comments, writing: “the Ecuadorian people and government themselves continue to debate possible democratic reforms, which will affect the parameters for potential change.”

No doubt many Ecuadorians would have agreed with the embassy’s assessment that Ecuador was a corrupt and undemocratic state run by “entrenched elites who have a stake in maintaining the status quo; a corrupt system that enriches them”.

However, US “democracy promotion” was not motivated by any desire to empower the Ecuadorian people. Rather, the US wanted reforms because Ecuador’s political and economic systems “threaten U.S. interests directly where they impinge on U.S. anti-narcotics programs, cheat U.S. investors, and drive Ecuadorians to emigrate to the U.S.”

Consequently, the embassy had a very clear idea of what sort of “democracy” Ecuador should adopt. In May 2005, a cable labelled protesters who were calling for reforms threatening to US interests as “extremists”.

Their demands that the unpopular Ecuadorian Congress be dissolved, a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the US rejected, the US military base at Manta be closed and Ecuadorian involvement with Plan Colombia ended, were described as “anti-democratic and hyper-nationalistic”.

Free trade

In a June 2005 cable reporting on the progress of the embassy’s “democracy action” plan, Kenney wrote that the embassy was continuing to “work to create the best-case scenario for Ecuador, while also preparing for the worst-case scenario”.

The best-case scenario, according to the ambassador, would be Ecuador “becoming a country to invest in and with a highly educated population”.

The worst-case scenario “could include Ecuador defaulting on its loans, the Ecuadorian Navy forbidding the boarding of ships (allowing drug and human smugglers to act with impunity), and the removal of security forces from the northern border, jeopardizing Ecuador's security situation and having a dire impact on Plan Colombia”.

Moreover, Kenney declared that the “most promising immediate opportunity for Ecuador is the US-Andean free trade agreement”. An FTA was the “only sure way to break up the elites' stranglehold on power” and thus “perhaps Ecuador's best hope to improve the lives of all Ecuadorians”.

As the cable acknowledged, neither the Ecuadorian government nor the Ecuadorian people were convinced of this. The US-Andean FTA was one of the Bush administration’s attempts to impose the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) model on Latin America.

NAFTA has enriched a few transnational corporations, but the wholesale removal of trade barriers between the US, Canada and Mexico created up to one million job losses in the US, led to the closure of around 300,000 family farms in Mexico and forced down wages and working conditions in both countries.

The cable said the embassy was crafting a “public diplomacy strategy” to spread its message of market-friendly reforms. The embassy hoped to win hearts and minds by using benign-seeming US groups, such as the Peace Corps, to “reach more Ecuadorians with a non-political message”.

The embassy was also considering “distributing literature and exhibiting videos of [US government] aid projects in the consular waiting rooms, taking advantage of these captive audiences”.

Countering 'leftist dogma'

Having completed its appraisal of Ecuador’s democracy, Jewell warned in September 2005 that “the danger of democratic backsliding is very real, whether in the form of a tradition of strongman military or civilian solution or a more populist Bolivarian movement”.

Subsequent cables outlined the embassy’s strategies for promoting its vision of Ecuadorian “democracy”.

A key tactic was building a “network of Ecuadorians committed to change, who agree on the problems to be addressed and a general approach for solutions”.

The ambassador wrote: “We have already begun building this network, discussing fundamental problems with close embassy contacts and likely allies.”

Some of these contacts had already started “a new radio show dedicated to changing attitudes”. The ambassador proposed that the US help others “looking to establish a think-tank geared to increasing scholarship and policy promotion on an agenda focussed on democracy, stability, and economic liberalization”.

A long-term goal for the embassy was to “change Ecuadorian attitudes, improving perceptions of democracy, of economic liberalization, of responsible foreign policy and of the U.S.”

Commenting that the political terrain in Ecuador was “ripe for populist appeals, leftist rhetoric and classic anti-American dogma”, the US ambassador wrote: “We must be more visible in taking public credit for the many things we do for the people of Ecuador.”

Further, she suggested the US “support studies geared to generating understanding of the price Ecuador pays for its lack of reform”. For example, “a study comparing the telecommunications sector of a country that has privatized/liberalized the sector, with the sector in Ecuador”.

The purpose of this was “the generation of unassailable sound bites for Ecuadorians to use in promoting reform”.

In the area of education, the ambassador assessed that while Ecuadorian access to education was on a par with similar countries, “Leftist dogma pervades curricula from basic education up through the universities”.

The embassy would promote education reforms that would “create a base of Ecuadorian human capital that is more economically competitive and better prepared to participate in a democracy as responsible, engaged citizens”.

“Action points” included: “Explore opportunities to expand English-language programs as a vehicle to improve youth understanding of U.S. democracy, market economics and to improve teacher quality.”

Jewell later reported that the embassy had expanded its “reach and influence” to Ecuadorian school children. Interaction with these pupils had given the embassy “a good insight into the best ways to convey our message to these future leaders,” she wrote.

Furthermore, the embassy’s public diplomacy officer had helped establish US university alumni clubs in Ecuador. This was part of a strategy of “bringing together Ecuadorians with U.S. experience into coherent groups that can influence public debate on Ecuador's future”.

“These clubs create influential networks within Ecuador and with the U.S. to address issues of mutual interest,” wrote Jewell. “These are powerful multipliers and people who know us well.”

Opposing a constituent assembly

In 2005, then-president Alfredo Palacio announced plans for a referendum on whether to organise a constituent assembly to reform Ecuador’s political system and rewrite its constitution.

Rather than welcome this opportunity for the Ecuadorian people to participate in decision-making about the future of their country, the US embassy opposed the plan.

A December 2005 cable warned that if the referendum went ahead, “the voters will decide whether Ecuador enters a new period of uncertainty threatening important USG [US government] interests”.

The assembly “could become hostage to radical elements intent on symbolically asserting sovereignty by rejecting the FTA [free trade agreement], expropriating Occidental Petroleum, and reviewing the status of the Cooperative Security Location at Manta”.

The ambassador had “made USG concerns about an assembly abundantly clear to Palacio” and said the embassy would “continue to urge caution, while seeking to shield USG interests from this latest populist storm”.

This position placed the US Embassy on the same side as Ecuador’s corrupt Congress and biased Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which repeatedly blocked Palacio’s attempts to move forward with the proposal.

The constituent assembly was not convened until November 2007, after the election of Correa on a platform that included a constituent assembly and after further confrontations between the new president and Congress.

[This article is the second of a series exploring diplomatic cables from the US Embassy in Ecuador published by WikiLeaks. They are based on research of around 1000 WikiLeaks cables from the end of the Gutierrez administration onward, most of which have not been reported on in the English-speaking press before. Read part one here.]

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