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Ecuador: Is Yaku Pérez Really the “Other Left That’s Possible”?

The recent elections in Ecuador show a new political phenomenon arising from the rejection of the most reactionary aspects of recent politics in the country. Yaku Pérez, who may make it into the second round of the presidential vote, is far from a genuine Left alternative.

Milton D'León

February 18, 2021
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ecuador elections
Image: Marcos Pin Mendez/AFP/Getty Images

The Ecuadoran election results of February 7 confirmed the important social support Correísmo retains, having secured 32.7 percent of the vote — with its candidate, Andrés Arauz, coming in nearly 13 points ahead of the second-place finisher. Correísmo refers to the opposition around former president Rafael Correa, a social democrat who served from 2007 to 2017. But the highlight of the day was the surprising totals that reflect the development of new political phenomena: the votes for the ecologist Yaku Pérez, of the indigenous party Pachakutik, and the businessman Xavier Hervas, of the social-democratic Izquierda Democrática (Democratic Left).

Pérez — against all odds — managed to scratch out 20 percent of the vote, and at this writing he is still vying with neoliberal right-winger Guillermo Lasso to advance to the second round. With a technical tie (the difference is 0.36 percent) and a suspicious turn in the count since Wednesday (which Pachakutik has denounced as fraud), it became necessary to reach an agreement to recount many of the ballots. Lasso later broke the agreement.

Whoever makes it to the second round, the votes for Pérez and Pachakutik are the highest since the party was founded in 1995 (in 2013, it garnered 3 percent of the vote; in 2017, 6 percent). It took first place in the entire Andean and Amazonian region, except for in Carchi (the one province where Hervas won), where it got 20 percent, and in Pichincha (which Lasso won), where the party got 17 percent.

Historically, Pachakutik’s support has come primarily from the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), which exerts a strong influence on the indigenous and mestizo populations of the Andes and the Amazon. But according to analysts, this time many of its voters were young and urban, and the party won notable percentages in the capital city of Quito; in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s second-largest city and a traditional bastion of the right wing; and in Cuenca, the country’s third-largest city, where Pérez won 42 percent of the vote overall.

Combined with the very good showing of Hervas, who unexpectedly placed fourth, all this reconfigures Ecuador’s political map. No party will have the 69 seats required to constitute a majority in the 137-seat National Assembly. The traditional right wing was hit hard, losing 21 of its 33 seats; it now has 12. Correísmo remains the largest minority, with 47 deputies. Pachakutik jumped from five to 27, and Izquierda Democrática from four to 18. The remaining seats will be held by smaller groups.

Thus, no matter who constitutes the next government, Ecuador is promised an arduous set of parliamentary negotiations to legislate anything — unless the government wants to govern by decree.

The Political Phenomenon behind the Election Results

The surprising vote totals for Pachakutik and Yaku Pérez are part of a political phenomenon that responds to two fundamental issues. On the one hand, it reflects the rejection of the most conservative and reactionary features of Correa’s governments: authoritarianism, environmental destruction in the name of economic growth, and the refusal to act against sexist and homophobic oppression. On the other hand, it reflects the rejection of the neoliberal policies promoted by President Lenín Moreno and upheld by Lasso, policies that caused a sharp increase in poverty and unemployment and led to thousands of deaths due to the pandemic, in addition to a huge expansion of the foreign debt.

The October 2019 rebellion against Moreno’s fiscal austerity was a watershed in the political situation and once again put the indigenous movement center stage, with its historical organization, CONAIE, and its political expression, Pachakutik. Unlike previous rebellions (as in the essentially indigenous uprising in 2000 against Jamil Mahuad), it was the first time in decades that the indigenous struggle converged with combative urban youth who had come out to protest austerity and repression.

This unity, which took place in the streets, shook the Moreno government. But CONAIE’s conciliatory leadership refused to deepen the struggle by demanding his resignation and instead agreed to set up a “negotiating table” to discuss economic measures. “We never asked for the removal of President Lenín Moreno, no matter how useless and incapable of governing he is,” Pérez declared at the time, thus allowing Moreno to stay in office — when the mobilization of indigenous workers, youth, and the poor could have taken him down.

Moreno had to back down on the austerity policies and paid a heavy political price for the murder of dozens of protesters, but he managed to stay in government, disarm the mobilization, and later ratify his agreements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Then, in 2020, he added to his disrepute with the disastrous management of the pandemic, ending his term with a 90 percent disapproval rate. His candidate in the election won only 1.6 percent of the votes, and his party secured only 2.7 percent of the vote for the National Assembly. It won no seats.

In 2020, an important internal conflict unfolded within CONAIE and Pachakutik over the electoral candidacy among the leaders most directly linked to the October 2019 uprising: one one side were Leonidas Iza (a leader of the indigenous movement’s left wing, the Indigenous and Peasant Movement of Cotopaxi), and Jaime Vargas (the CONAIE president); on the other was Pérez, representing the more “political” and conciliatory wing that includes the neoliberals and promotes the liberal idea of “fighting poverty by generating wealth.” In the end, it was Pérez who became the presidential candidate, signaling a profound political shift from the meaning of the 2019 rebellion and the consequences of the pandemic. Things had gone from a “progressive” alternative “from the left” to “neoliberalism vs. Correísmo.”

In short, the traditional political class has lost its prestige, and people are fed up with that “two-party” system. This phenomenon was, to a lesser extent, also expressed in the vote for Hervas, a “modern, entrepreneurial, democratic” businessman who comes from “outside politics” and who, at least in his speeches, distances himself from neoliberal policies.

Who Is Yaku Pérez?

Carlos Ranulfo Pérez Guartambel, who in August 2017 changed his name to Yaku Sacha (meaning “water” and “forest” in Kichwa), defines himself essentially as an ecologist, although he also echoes other social issues such as the rights of women, sexual diversity, and the fight against corruption. He was president of the Andean Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations and of the Confederation of Peoples of Kichwa Nationality.

A lawyer who studied in indigenous justice and environmental law, he led the government of Azuay Province from May 2019 to October 2020, although his political career began much earlier as a councilman in the municipality of Cuenca, Azuay’s capital, in 1996.

He proposed several popular anti-mining referendums that were blocked by the courts during the governments of both Correa and Moreno. Finally, this January 7, along with the general elections, a popular referendum was held in Cuenca, and 80 percent voted against that industry.

Given his profile, many see Pérez as a figure of the Left who aims to break the “Correísmo-traditional right” polarization. If we take this as an expression of the new political situation, there is something to it. But the political strategy, ideology, and methods of Pérez and Pachakutik fall far short of that definition. He defines himself ideologically as a “humanist and defender of human rights and nature.”

His orientation of voting for the Right in the 2017 runoff, when he said he preferred “a banker to a dictatorship,” continued during the last electoral campaign and continues now in the middle of his fight to make it to the second round. At first he denounced a conspiracy between Lasso and Correísmo to leave him out, but once there was an agreement to recount the votes, he called for everyone to unite against Correísmo. It remains to be seen whether the rank and file and electorate follow his call for a vote for Lasso, but what is certain is that it clearly shows the “light” and accommodating character of his leftist aura.

This strategy of alliances with neoliberals, “entrepreneurial businessmen” such as Hervas, and at the time also with Correísmo (between 2006 and 2009, Pachakutik was part of Alianza País, Correa’s party), has even led him to justify the institutional coup against Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, which was promoted in the last decade by the traditional Right and imperialism in the region.

He then went on to rejoice over the coup d’état in Bolivia, using the argument of corruption and electoral fraud, as expressed in a video that went viral on social media and even caused a controversy within CONAIE itself. With the greatest cynicism, Correa has tried to take advantage of these positions, having gone so far as to affirm that it was an “invention of the U.S. embassy.” Correa has little moral authority to make such affirmations, since he claimed while in office that opposition to his policies and all indigenous, popular, and youth protests were financed by imperialism.

An “Environmentalism” Subordinated to Capital

Pérez does not question any of the pillars of Ecuador’s dependent capitalism, such as dollarization, extractivism, and the existence of large, concentrated national and foreign capital. He merely proposes compliance with environmental standards, changing the energy matrix, and, at most, a wealth tax.

In August 2020, Pachakutik adopted the political program “Minga for Life,” a document of class conciliation that aspires to a “humanized” and “regulated” capitalism. The “minga” is an indigenous tradition of voluntary, cooperative work for the common good. But Pérez does not emphasize the program’s most progressive aspects, such as the suspension of debt payments and an audit of the foreign debt, but he does raise the points closest to a capitalism of “wealth redistribution” and “social justice,” pushing them further to the right with daily statements proposing, for example, that foreign banks reduce the interest rate, or that taxes be eliminated on the importation of agricultural machinery. During the campaign, he has not even questioned Moreno’s latest surrender agreements with the IMF, which has plunged the country even deeper into debt. He even proposed a directly neoliberal measure: negotiating free trade agreements with the United States.

Lasso himself said during the campaign that he would vote for Pérez against Arauz if such a scenario arose, and he reaffirmed that after the agreement on recounting votes, “everyone’s rival is Correísmo.” Conversely, it is most likely that Pérez, if he does make it to the second round, will further moderate his speeches to capture an even wider electorate and “reassure” the ruling class and imperialism.

In this context, his main slogan — the fight for water and the environment — has many limits. The aforementioned popular referendum against large mining companies, his greatest achievement, would preclude mining companies from a business valued at some $500 million, marking an important difference with both neoliberals and Correa’s supporters, who give carte blanche to large companies.

But all that is limited to Azuay Province; it does not affect the business of multinational mining companies nationwide. Nor does it interfere with other areas affected by extractivism, such as oil — which is also highly polluting. In fact, Pérez has already made clear that he has no intention of altering any agreements signed nationally with oil or mining companies, but will only enforce the environmental clauses.

Although Pérez proposes a national popular referendum as one of his first government measures, it would have the same limitations as the provincial referendum, and it has come under strong internal criticism. Pérez and Pachakutik want to regulate capitalism to make the system a little less destructive, while introducing terminology such as “self-management,” “social,” and “cooperative.”

Since his time as provincial governor, he has promoted a barter system between different communities for products, a return to communal agricultural production, self-cultivation, and other forms of “popular economy.” Along with this, he also speaks favorably of “participatory budgeting,” in which neighbors decide — based on a budget assigned by the government — among a variety of possibilities for how to distribute part of those resources.

Goals like these aim to reform some aspects of the system, focusing the main form of struggle on the courts, elections, and other channels of capitalist democracy, and appealing to peaceful popular mobilization as a tool of pressure.

The fight against corruption has the same reformist character. It is a demand shared along practically the entire political spectrum, including sectors of the Right. It calls for increased penalties for the corrupt and for them to return what they have stolen, as if corruption were not inherent to the capitalist system. It can be solved only by changing the economic structure in which a handful of big banks and companies appropriate the social production of material wealth.

The Ecuadoran elections were a severe blow to neoliberalism, but the challenge posed by the new situation opened up after the October 2019 uprising continues to be creating a genuinely revolutionary working-class alternative.

First published in Spanish on February 16 in La Izquierda Diario.

Translation by Scott Cooper.

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