In November 2006, leftist candidate Rafael Correa won the second round of the Ecuadorian presidential election with 57% of the vote, compare with his conservative opponent, Alvaro Noboa, who won 43%.
Despite the US’s failure to undermine Correa’s candidacy, as shown by diplomatic cables published by WIkiLeaks, further US cables suggest the US Embassy in Quito believed it could hold sway over the new government.
A December 2006 cable reported: “We are under no illusions that USG [US government] efforts alone will shape the direction of the new government or Congress, but hope to maximize our influence by working in concert with other Ecuadorians and groups who share our views.”
The cable identified a number of “red lines” that, if crossed, would threaten “core interests” and should therefore “trigger an appropriate USG response”.
Attacking political elites
The first “red line” set by the embassy was Correa’s move to dissolve the unpopular Ecuadorian Congress.
Congress was the cornerstone of Ecuador’s corrupt “party-ocracy”. At the time, it had a public credibility rating of only 6%.
Correa’s supporters had demanded that a constituent assembly be called to rewrite the country’s constitution and reform its political institutions, a move which would mean the dissolution of Congress.
The US Embassy viewed Correa’s assembly plans as a threat to US interests, in the same way it had viewed previous president Alfredo Palacio’s assembly proposal. In working covertly with Correa’s opponents against the assembly, as it had done during Palacio’s term, the embassy again demonstrated the hypocrisy of its stated claims to be concerned with “promoting democracy” in Ecuador.
Before Correa’s inauguration in January 2007, the embassy encouraged members of Congress to put forward their own reforms to head off the threat of more radical change presented by the constituent assembly.
A cable from December 2006 reported that the embassy would “open channels of communication with the incoming Congress to encourage dialogue and compromise to promote stabilizing reforms”, such as the introduction of congressional elections by district.
“If the new Congress acts quickly and boldly,” the cable said, “it would gain badly needed credibility and undermine momentum for the risky, potentially destabilizing constituent assembly.”
By the end of the year, congressional deputies appeared to have followed the embassy's advice. A cable from December 22 reported on a meeting between the then-US ambassador Linda Jewell and deputies from the Christian Democratic Union party (UDC), one of the parties receiving “technical assistance” funded by the US Congress-backed National Endowment for Democracy.
The cable said that leader of the UDC, Carlos Larreategui, told the ambassador that Correa’s economic policies were the “road to ruin”.
Larreategui outlined a strategy “to oppose Correa's Assembly”, which he said had been agreed upon by the UDC, Alvaro Noboa’s Institutional Renewal Party of National Action, the Gutierrez brothers’ Patriotic Society Party and the Social Christian Party.
According to their strategy, the 70-member alliance would “immediately set about passing its own alternative political reforms” after taking office. Their intention, as a later cable put it, was to “thwart the incoming government of president-elect Rafael Correa from imposing its own reforms via referendum and constituent assembly”.
As tensions between the Correa government and Congress rose, the ambassador wrote: “It is not in our interest to be seen as a protagonist in the brewing showdown, should it lead to instability.”
She planned to meet with the president of Congress on January 11 to “signal USG support for Congress as an institution, without commenting publicly on the assembly”.
Other cables show that the US Embassy continued to work with Correa’s opponents to try to stop the constituent assembly.
On his inauguration in January 2007, Correa issued a decree stating that there would be a referendum on April 15 on whether to convoke a constituent assembly. In February 2007, Congress passed its own law approving a referendum on a watered-down version of the assembly outlined in Correa’s decree.
Congress’s version of the assembly would not have the same powers to reform the country’s institutions. In particular, it would not have the power to dissolve Congress.
In response, Correa modified the congressional law in line with his original decree, and submitted it to Ecuador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) for approval.
In face of mounting protests against Congress, the TSE approved Correa’s version of the assembly. Not to be defeated, congressional deputies then voted to illegally depose the TSE’s president Jorge Acosta.
In response, the TSE issued an order expelling from Congres the 57 members responsible for trying to unseat Acosta.
On March 19, US diplomats met with Lucio and Gilmar Gutierrez who were planning to form a Congress of the expelled deputies in Guayaquil. According to a cable reporting on the meeting, the Gutierrez brothers said that the “rebel” congress would consider trying to impeach Correa.
The embassy advised, however, that Congress would score more points against Correa by unilaterally revoking its resolution against Acosta.
The cable reported that the US Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) “emphasized the value of having the Congress regain the legal high ground; if Correa then declines to follow suit, the political equation changes and public opinion might start gradually tilting against him”.
The DCM further advised: “It is also important that the opposition offer a positive change agenda, not just a series of anti-Correa blocking tactics.”
In March, the embassy reported that the “usually fractious Ecuadorian private sector has begun to develop what could become a cohesive response to what it perceives as threats from the Correa administration”.
According to the cable, president of the Banco de Guayaquil, Guillermo Lasso, told the ambassador that he had formed a group called Ecuador Libre to “analyze the risks that Correa administration might take”.
The right-wing Lasso had previously served in two Ecuadorian administrations, leading the free trade negotiations with the US during Gutierrez’s presidency. The banker went on to challenge Correa unsuccessfully for the presidency last year.
When Ecuador Libre’s analysis had been shared with members of the business community, Lasso said, they had initially been “nervous” about doing anything. But then, “one by one they called him to sign up to an effort to counter Correa's policies”.
Lasso said their approach would be to “challenge the Correa administration on key principles, and not to defend particular interests”. Public relations efforts would “stress the importance of economic, political and individual freedoms”.
Lasso requested that the US government “echo the private sector's appeal for individual freedoms should the private sector come under fire from the government”.
Well-funded corporate intervention
The cable reported on another meeting with Gloria Alarcon, president of the Guayaquil Chamber of Commerce, and Miguel Pena, president of the Guayaquil Chamber of Industries. Requesting secrecy, Alarcon and Pena told the embassy’s Counsellor for Economic Affairs of plans to “address Correa’s call for a Constituent Assembly”.
The business community intended to identify suitable candidates to support in the assembly elections, who would “have a lot of money” for their campaign. They were also planning to use radio spots and TV ads to “raise questions in the public mind about Correa's objectives for the Constituent Assembly”.
According to the cable, some of the embassy’s private sector contacts wanted the US to “do their heavy lifting” and “take a leading role in challenging Correa's policy”. However, US diplomats had told them that achieving consensus within their sector and “offering responsible alternatives” was “a necessary pre-condition before any international engagement can be truly effective”.
The US Embassy’s efforts to help opponents of the assembly were ultimately fruitless. Substitutes who replaced the expelled congressional deputies accepted the TSE’s ruling. The referendum on Correa’s version of the constituent assembly went ahead in April 2007 with 82% of Ecuadorian’s voting in favour.
Meanwhile, polls showed that 93% of Ecuadorians viewed Congress as “bad” or “very bad”. In November 2007, Congress was dissolved by the constituent assembly and replaced under the new Constitution by the National Assembly of Ecuador.
[This is the fourth part of an ongoing series analysing about 1000 US diplomatic cables from Ecuador published by WikiLeaks, much of which has not been reported on before.]