Ecuador Internacional

Julian Assange and Ecuador’s Election

Wall Street Journal - Mary Anastasia O’Grady 27/03/2017

WikiLeaks’ founder is rooting for the leftist incumbent’s party. No one else should.

Depending on how things go in the April 2 presidential runoff election in Ecuador, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange may soon be looking for a new home.

In 2012 Mr. Assange was granted asylum at Ecuador’s London embassy, where he went to avoid deportation. He is wanted in Sweden for questioning on sexual-assault charges but might eventually be sent to the U.S., where he could face severe penalties for posting classified material on the WikiLeaks website.

If former banker and political outsider Guillermo Lasso of the opposition party CREO wins, he has promised to evict Mr. Assange. Should Lenín Moreno—President Rafael Correa’s handpicked candidate—prevail, Mr. Assange’s asylum lodgings are likely safe.

The Assange question may be what brings developed-world interest to this election in a small, struggling Andean nation of 16.5 million people. Yet there are more important reasons to pay attention. Ecuadoreans have a chance to throw off the yoke of populist authoritarianism that Mr. Correa and his PAIS Alliance party have imposed since he took office in 2007. The outcome will have implications for the wider struggle against tyranny in the region.

In Brazil, Argentina and Peru, where democratic institutions have held up, antidemocratic demagogues have been turned out of office in recent years. But it’s too late for Venezuela and Bolivia, both of which are now full-blown dictatorships.

Colombia has lost its proud republican tradition of institutional checks on the executive. Last year President Juan Manuel Santos dismissed the results of a national plebiscite, declared amnesty for drug-trafficking FARC terrorists, and gave them seats in Congress.

Now is Ecuador’s moment of truth.

Mr. Correa has a thirst for power, an affinity for Twitter and a bullying manner. He was an acolyte of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013. During Mr. Correa’s decade in power, civil liberties and the rule of law have disintegrated in Ecuador.

In 2015 Mr. Correa changed the constitution to allow indefinite re-election of a president after 2017. This change ought to have required a national referendum. But since he didn’t have popular backing, he used his control of Congress to get it rubber-stamped. It doesn’t take much speculation to conclude that Mr. Correa is hoping to add his name to a growing list of Latin American dictators: Peron, Castro, Chávez, Ortega, Morales.

Mr. Moreno is Mr. Correa’s proxy in this election. A Moreno triumph is important if Mr. Correa is to be protected from the wide array of corruption investigations that his opponents are demanding.

Mr. Moreno would also act as a placeholder for Mr. Correa until the 2021 election, as Dmitry Medvedev was for Vladimir Putin from 2008-12. Legalized indefinite re-election would take care of the rest.

Mr. Moreno is an underwhelming candidate. Despite his stint as Mr. Correa’s vice president from 2007-13, he is a charismatically challenged politician. Yet his biggest problem may be the poor handling of the economy by Mr. Correa, who has a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois.

Mr. Correa has ruled with an iron fist but has been constrained by Ecuador’s dollarization in 2000, which remains wildly popular. It keeps him from printing money, forcing him to finance a lax fiscal policy with debt. This has been an expensive strategy because Mr. Correa’s government borrows at steep rates with short maturities.

Most of the debt issued in 2015 and 2016 costs upward of 10% annually to service. And budget shortfalls mean that debt continues to swell. Billions of dollars in loans from China are not transparent and not part of official debt. But they are serviced with Ecuadorean oil shipments, putting further strain on the fisc.

The economy did not grow in 2015, and last year it contracted by 2.3%. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that it will shrink another 2.7% this year and will not grow again until 2021. Given Mr. Correa’s many violations of the constitution, it is clear that if he wanted to run, he would find a way. But he is smart enough to hand this mess over to someone else.

In a fair contest Mr. Lasso would win easily. Mr. Correa is going to extremes to make sure that doesn’t happen. It took him three days to admit his candidate did not get the 40% of the vote he needed to win outright in the first round on Feb. 19. He finally gave in, probably because the army general charged with securing the vote made a stink about government shenanigans with ballot boxes. Mr. Correa fired the general on March 5.

The president is using the resources of the Ecuadorean state, including its large media holdings, in a dirty campaign. If he gets away with it, he will be set up to join the unholy pantheon of Latin dictators—and WikiLeaks will survive.

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