Is U.S. support for Lasso a strategic mistake?
By Luis Ortiz
In the nearly two years since Guillermo Lasso, a millionaire and conservative banker, won the presidency in Ecuador, the region has changed considerably. Left-wing leaders have won election after election, including in neighbouring Colombia, which had been the United States’s primary strategic ally in the hemisphere for decades. This far-reaching geopolitical shift to the left has made the US-Ecuador relationship of utmost importance to Washington – as well as to Quito.
Multiple high-level US officials have travelled 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 seeks to further strengthen bilateral relations.
“Ecuador has emerged as a model in Latin America and the Caribbean for its ongoing efforts to strengthen democratic governance and human rights,” Senator Bob Menendez, who co-sponsored the bill, said at the time.
But the situation on the ground tells a different story.
In recent years, Ecuador has undergone a sharp decline in most measures of development and public wellbeing and has been backsliding towards lawlessness. Poverty and inequality have been on the rise following years of steady improvement, while the country’s security situation has worsened dramatically.
Ecuador’s homicide rate in coastal cities has risen dramatically and Guayaquil, the country’s second largest city, is now included the list of the world’s 50 deadliest metropolises.
Ecuador has also now reached appallingly high levels of prison violence. Eleven large-scale gang-related massacres in the country’s penitentiary system, with 416 inmates brutally murdered since February 2021, have shocked the country and the 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”, though it did little to dampen enthusiasm in Washington for the new administration.
As a result of this deteriorating situation, Lasso has become extremely unpopular. In the most recent polls, his approval rating ranged between 12 and 14 percent.
In February, the main opposition party won all the key races in Ecuador’s local elections, including the mayoral elections in Quito and Guayaquil, Ecuador’s two largest cities, and now also holds governorships in the most important provinces, where approximately 70 percent of the population resides.
In the same elections, Ecuadorians voted on eight referendum questions, all of which were promoted by Lasso, including changes to the constitution. Voters rejected all of his proposed reforms.
In the last few weeks, several corruption scandals have dealt further blows to Ecuador’s beleaguered president. Lasso’s brother-in-law, Danilo Carrera, is being investigated for a large-scale corruption scheme of falsified contracts in the energy sector.
The prosecutor general has also opened an investigation into alleged links between one of Carrera’s close associates and an Albanian drug-trafficking ring and the Lasso government’s attempt to shut down an investigation into this organised crime network.
The president’s brother-in-law has also long been suspected of having hidden assets in the US, including holdings in Florida. Lasso himself has faced accusations, dating from before his election in 2021, of overseeing a complex web of offshore companies in jurisdictions that have allegedly enabled him to dodge taxes. He also features prominently in the Pandora Papers.
Since 2017, it is an impeachable offence for Ecuadorian public officials to hold assets in tax havens. Despite potentially being in breach of this prohibition, Lasso has managed to remain in office – and on the White House visitor logs.
The Ecuadorian president has rejected the accusations of corruption. Carrera has also denied any wrongdoing and has filed a lawsuit against a journalist, who has reported on the scandal.
Lasso has also sought to publicly intimidate the journalists investigating corruption allegations, calling them “media terrorists”, “mercenaries of news entertainment”, and “spoiled brats [who] should be stopped instantly”. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders has condemned his “violent diatribes” against the press.
When summoned by Ecuador’s National Assembly, Lasso refused to attend legislative hearings to present his version of events.
A day after the prosecutor issued a warrant to search the presidential palace in relation to a corruption investigation, the government removed the police investigators assigned to the case, a measure which was denounced by the National Assembly and the National Court of Justice.
Yet, until now, the Lasso government has received nothing but accolades from the US authorities. “We admire the strong voice for democracy that you have shared with the Ecuadorian people, but also for people throughout our hemisphere”, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during his visit to Ecuador in October last year. “You and I are united not only in our values but in our vision of the future, one that’s both free and democratic”, President Joe Biden said after meeting the Ecuadorian president in December.
All this has been duly accompanied by the US foreign policy establishment lavishing praise, with Eric Farnsworth, the vice president of the Council of the Americas, calling on the US to unequivocally help Lasso’s Ecuador, a “strong democracy in a troubled neighbourhood”.
The appeal was heard by Republican Senator Marco Rubio who, undeterred by the proliferation of corruption allegations, flew to Ecuador in late February in a show of support for the beleaguered Lasso government.
But the truth is that, under Lasso, Ecuador has been moving backwards. Institutions and the rule of law have been crumbling and corruption has thrived and penetrated Lasso’s inner circle. In light of these troubling developments, the Biden administration should stand by its commitment to fighting corruption, even when it comes to a perceived ally.
It should denounce Lasso’s attacks against the media and his attempts to intervene in the investigations into the alleged wrongdoing by his close associates. The US Department of Justice and the Treasury should investigate claims that Lasso, his brother-in-law and various other associates hold assets in US jurisdictions.
If the US continues to blindly support the Ecuadorian president, it runs the risk of being perceived as an enabler of corruption and authoritarianism by Ecuadorians and others in the region. And as the crisis in the country deepens, Washington may wind up on the wrong side of history.
Luis Ortiz is a political analyst and development consultant, and former counselor for Ecuador, Colombia, and Chile at the Board of Directors of the Inter-American Development Bank (2009–2017). He is the director of “Voces,” a podcast on Latin American politics sponsored by Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy, and a columnist at El Faro (Central America) and La Línea del Medio (Colombia).
Credit: Al Jazeera