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In Ecuador, the US risks being on the wrong side of history


In the nearly two years since Guillermo Lasso, a millionaire and conservative banker, won the presidency in Ecuador, the region has changed significantly. Leftist leaders have won election after election, including in neighboring Colombia, which has been the United States’ main strategic ally in the hemisphere for decades. This far-reaching geopolitical shift to the left has made the US-Ecuador relationship of paramount importance to Washington – and to Quito as well.

Several senior US officials have traveled to Ecuador and Lasso himself was given a warm welcome at the White House in December. On the eve of that visit, the US Congress passed the US-Ecuador Partnership Act, which aims to further strengthen bilateral relations.

“Ecuador has become a model in Latin America and the Caribbean for its continued efforts to strengthen democratic governance and human rights,” said Senator Bob Menendez, who co-sponsored the bill.

But the situation on the ground tells a different story.

In recent years, Ecuador has experienced a sharp decline in most measures of development and general well-being and has regressed toward lawlessness. Poverty and inequality are rising after years of steady improvement, while the country’s security situation has deteriorated dramatically.

The murder rate in Ecuador has risen from 5.8 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2017 – one of the lowest rates in the Western Hemisphere – to 25.5 in 2022. As of today, two Ecuadorian cities are considered the deadliest in the world.

Ecuador has also now reached alarmingly high levels of prison violence. Eleven large-scale gang-related massacres in the country’s penitentiary system, brutally killing 416 inmates since February 2021, have shaken the country and region.

Drug cartels have also infiltrated the police and military. In December 2021, Michael Fitzpatrick, the US ambassador to Ecuador, publicly denounced the country’s “narco-generals”, although it did not dampen Washington’s enthusiasm for the new administration.

As a result of this deteriorating situation, Lasso has become extremely unpopular. In the most recent polls, his approval rating has ranged between 12 and 14 percent.

In February, the main opposition party won all major races in Ecuador’s local elections, including mayoral elections in Quito and Guayaquil, Ecuador’s two largest cities, and now also holds the governorship in key provinces, home to about 70 percent of the population .

In the same election, Ecuadorians voted on eight referendum questions, all of which were promoted by Lasso, including constitutional amendments. Voters rejected all of his proposed reforms.

In recent weeks, several corruption scandals have dealt further blows to Ecuador’s beleaguered president. Lasso’s brother-in-law, Danilo Carrera, is under investigation for a massive corruption scheme involving counterfeit contracts in the energy sector.

The Attorney General has also opened an investigation into alleged links between one of Carrera’s close associates and an Albanian drug trafficking ring and into the Lasso government’s attempt to halt an investigation into this organized crime network.

The president’s brother-in-law has also long been suspected of having hidden assets in the US, including possession in Florida. Lasso himself has faced allegations, predating his election in 2021, of overseeing a complex web of offshore companies in jurisdictions that allegedly enabled him to evade taxes. He also features prominently in the Pandora Papers.

Since 2017, it has been a criminal offense for Ecuadorian government officials to hold assets in tax havens. Despite potentially violating this ban, Lasso has managed to stay in office — and in the White House visitor logs.

The Ecuadorian president has denied allegations of corruption. Carrera has also denied all allegations and filed a lawsuit against a journalist who reported on the scandal.

Lasso has also attempted to publicly intimidate the journalists investigating corruption allegations by calling them “media terrorists”, “news entertainment mercenaries”, and “spoiled brats (who must) be stopped immediately”. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders has condemned his “violent tirades” against the press.

When summoned by Ecuador’s National Assembly, Lasso refused to attend the legislative hearings to present his version of events.

A day after the prosecutor issued an order to search the presidential palace in connection with a corruption investigation, the government removed the police investigators assigned to the case, a move disapproved of by the National Assembly and the National Court of Justice.

Yet the Lasso government has so far received nothing but accolades from US authorities. “We admire the strong voice for democracy that you have shared with the Ecuadorian people, as well as people across our hemisphere,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his visit to Ecuador last October. “You and I are united not only in our values, but also in our vision of the future, a vision that is both free and democratic,” President Joe Biden said after meeting with the Ecuadorian president in December.

All this was duly accompanied by praise from the US foreign policy establishment, with Council of the Americas vice president Eric Farnsworth calling on the US to make Lasso’s Ecuador, a “strong democracy in a troubled neighbourhood”, to help unequivocally.

The appeal was heard by Republican Senator Marco Rubio who, undeterred by the proliferation of corruption allegations, flew to Ecuador in late February to show his support for the beleaguered Lasso government.

But the truth is that Ecuador has declined under Lasso. Institutions and the rule of law are crumbling and corruption is flourishing and has penetrated Lasso’s inner circle. In light of these troubling developments, the Biden administration must maintain its commitment to fighting corruption, even when it comes to a perceived ally.

It should denounce Lasso’s attacks on the media and his attempts to intervene in the investigations into alleged misconduct by his close associates. The US Department of Justice and the Treasury should investigate allegations that Lasso, his brother-in-law and several other associates hold assets in US jurisdictions.

If the US continues to blindly support the Ecuadorian president, it risks being seen by Ecuadorians and others in the region as an instigator of corruption and authoritarianism. And as the country’s crisis deepens, Washington may end up on the wrong side of history.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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