In the months leading up to Ecuador’s October 2006 presidential election, the US Embassy in Quito claimed to be impartial.
Rather than supporting one particular candidate, then-US ambassador Linda Jewell said the embassy only wanted to help facilitate “a fair and transparent electoral process”.
However, diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks show that behind the rhetoric of “democracy promotion”, the embassy sought to stop the election of “dark horse populist, anti-American candidate Rafael Correa”.
Correa’s support for a Citizens’ Revolution did not accord with the US’s vision for Ecuador. The US Embassy in Quito had worked to undermine Correa during his brief term as finance minister in 2005.
In an August 2006 cable entitled “Ecuador Election: What’s at Stake”, Jewell wrote: “While none of the candidates will return the bilateral relationship to the halcyon days when then-president-elect Lucio Gutierrez declared himself our ‘strongest ally in Latin America’, none of the top contenders would affect USG interests as thoroughly as Rafael Correa.”
Gutierrez may have been loved by the US government, but opposition to his neoliberal policies led to his overthrow in a popular uprising in 2005.
In regard to Correa, the embassy was specifically concerned about his promise to “cut off his hand before signing a renewal” of the US lease on the forward operating military base at Manta.
The embassy also judged that Correa was the “candidate most likely to get run out of office”, as he had promised to confront Ecuador’s unpopular Congress and powerful political parties.
However, the ambassador wrote, Correa “has staked out his harshest positions on economic issues, and his election would derail any hope for more harmonious commercial relations with the United States”.
Correa had promised to break with the neoliberal policies of his predecessors. Instead, he called for a more regulated economy and government control over the exploitation of Ecuador’s oil resources.
Moreover, he had said he would relegate the idea of a free trade agreement with the US “to the trashcan of history”.
The ambassador wrote: “We would expect Correa to eagerly seek to join the Chavez-Morales-Kirchner group of nationalist-populist South American leaders.”
A cable from November 2005 entitled “Ecuador Elections, One Year Out”, laid out the Embassy’s strategy to influence the presidential elections.
The cable cautioned that because of “political sensitivities” to US interference, “it would be neither politically wise nor programmatically effective to invest significant USAID resources in public presidential debates or other high-profile activities”.
An “election working group” had been formed by staff from the Embassy and USAID to come up with a more suitable strategy.
The embassy planned to “Monitor presidential campaigns for effects on USG interests, and build relationships with major presidential candidates and staffs”. Over the next year, embassy officials met frequently with Ecuadorian political parties, business leaders and academics to share views on the election and the prospects of a Correa victory.
To “encourage sound economic policies”, the November cable suggested “sponsoring forums for candidates to participate in to discuss economic issues/policies”.
The cable also suggested that “Focusing USG efforts on promoting voter education and public awareness about congressional candidates could help encourage Ecuadorians to elect more effective and responsible representatives”.
Several cables emphasised the importance of trying to influence Ecuador’s “lower classes”. Poorer Ecuadorians, according to the ambassador, “by virtue of their numbers, will select Ecuador's next government at the polls in October”.
She suggested that “effective Embassy outreach to the lowest classes could conceivably help blunt the appeal of anti-American candidates”.
In August 2006, the ambassador wrote, “there are few signs that Ecuadorians or their candidates understand the dangers of supporting ‘populist politicians who promise magic solutions that haven't worked anywhere.’
“We will be alert to signs that Ecuador's poorest voters break toward Correa in the final weeks of the campaign.”
Another cable written by the ambassador said the US planned to spend a total of US$884,000 on the presidential elections. This included $384,000 to “fund civil society civic education and debates and monitor campaign spending”.
A further $300,000 was allocated to fund “domestic observation and quick counts”, and $200,000 to Ecuador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
According to its website, the US Congress-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) spent more than $1 million in Ecuador in 2006.
The largest portion of this, $350,000, was allocated to the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. It was to provide “technical assistance” to Ecuador’s “largest and most representative political parties”, which opposed Correa.
The NED was founded during the Cold War in 1983 to give the veneer of legitimacy to “political operations” previously carried out secretly by the CIA.
While claiming to be “dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world”, the group is better known for destabilising democratically elected government that threaten US interests.
Recent examples include the Ukraine, where NED projects helped foment opposition to ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.
Concern over avoiding a backlash against open interference in Ecuador’s presidential election did not stop the US Embassy trying to work against Correa behind the scenes.
In August 2006, the ambassador wrote: “Beyond supporting a clean electoral process … we have few levers to influence Ecuadorian voters. Ecuador's media elite is hyper-sensitive to perceived internal meddling, so overt attempts to influence voter decisions is fraught with risk.
“Privately, however, we have warned our political, economic, and media contacts of the threat Correa represents to Ecuador's future, and have actively discouraged potential alliances which could balance Correa's perceived radicalism.”
In October 2006, banana billionaire Alvaro Noboa won the first round of voting with 27% of the vote. Correa came second with 23%, followed by Gutierrez's brother, Gilmar Gutierrez.
US diplomats tried to persuade the Gutierrez brothers and their Patriotic Society Party to back “right-of-center alternative” Noboa in the second round run-off, in order to defeat Correa.
In contrast to Correa, Noboa promised that if elected he would sign a free trade agreement with the United States and would not seek enhanced relations with Venezuela or Cuba.
Noboa also said he would negotiate a settlement with US oil company Occidental Petroleum, whose contract had been terminated and assets repossessed by the outgoing Palacio administration in May 2006.
The US ambassador met with the Gutierrez brothers on October 30 to “gauge potential Patriotic Society Party (PSP) support for Alvaro Noboa's candidacy”.
According to a cable about the meeting, the ambassador warned the Gutierrez brothers that “a Noboa victory, while possible, was by no means a certainty” and a “Correa victory would threaten progress made under the Gutierrez government to put Ecuador's economy on a solid footing”.
The cable reported that the ambassador had told Lucio Gutierrez that he could “protect this legacy by helping Noboa consolidate his lead in the polls, and break the cycle of political instability Gutierrez fell prey to by working together in the new Congress”.
The embassy’s deputy chief of mission added that the Gutierrez brothers “could make an enormous contribution by helping to counter Correa rhetoric and educate voters about the benefits of market-based economic principles and the FTA with the U.S.; PSP interests were clearly more aligned with Noboa”.
However, US overtures were to no avail. The Gutierrez brothers, according to the embassy, were too “consumed with their revenge agenda”.
Lucio Gutierrez was demanding legal action be taken against those who deposed his government in exchange for his party’s support in the second round of voting. According to the cables Noboa publicly agreed to this but refused to include Palacio among those to be prosecuted. This left the Gutierrez brothers feeling “miffed”, and they ultimately declined to endorse either Noboa or Correa.
[This article is the third of an ongoing series exploring diplomatic cables from the US Embassy in Ecuador published by WikiLeaks. The articles are based on about 1000 cables that have mostly not been reported on in English before.]