Ecuador’s Water Rights Presidential Candidate

Ecuador’s first round of presidential elections took place on Sunday, February 7, leaving three finalists for the second round (yet to be defined, by a vote count): a self-appointed socialist, Andrés Arauz Galarza; an indigenous environmentalist, Yaku Pérez; and a banker, Guillermo Lasso. Yaku Pérez has shown in the days following the election that there is a manipulation to construct electoral fraud and leave him out of the second round of the presidential race. The struggle is at the heart of Latin America’s historic effort to change politics and drive deep social change against extractivist politics. 

This was when the National Electoral Council, with 99.42%, began to manipulate the results to remove Yaku Pérez (list 18) from the Second Round.

It may be a small country, roughly the size of Arizona— but Ecuador has for decades perked  the imagination of advocates of the left as part of Latin America’s “socialist revolution.” During his ten years (2007-2017) as president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa was announced along with Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, Lula da Silva, among others, as part of the “revolutionary” presidential cadre that did not bow to the US empire. Correa fought against the International Monetary Fund (IMF), led various programs to nationalize natural resources, sought to build government programs to tackle poverty, and appeared to embrace multiculturalism. However, on a closer look, the reality was much more complicated. 

Correa also engaged in relentless warfare against any leader of a social, indigenous, or NGO movement who dared to question“tactics revolutionary his government’s.” Government programs required open coffers that largely depended on extracting natural resources—oil, mining, large hydroelectric dams—on indigenous lands. That placed him in direct opposition with at least 25% of the population, not to mention the growing number of environmental institutions, academics, and activists who saw the oil revenue dependence as a top concern for the country’s future. The criminalization of activists became an everyday occurrence. State surveillance increased exponentially.  The government started spending millions on propaganda, trolls, and hackers. At the end of his term, Correa—to obtain liquidity, like any classic neoliberal regime—decided to mortgage 50% of the national gold and place it in the hands of none other than Goldman Sachs. Correa was sentenced in absentia in 2020 for corruption to eight years in prison and currently lives in Belgium.

The Chinese empire came to replace the US empire, and the country became as indebted to a foreign power as before, or worse. It is not surprising, therefore, that Ecuador’s current President Lenin Moreno—Correa’s vice president, who ran under Correa’s Alianza País and is now considered a “traitor” to the revolution—fell back to borrowing from the IMF and bowing down again to the neoliberal demands of that undemocratic system of foreign governance. The confluence of state repression, neoliberalism, and fossil fuel extraction on indigenous territories, led to some of the largest and most violent civil society protests in its history in October 2019.

Now, Ecuador’s 17 million inhabitants are at a significant crux again. On the one hand, they have Andrés Arauz, who hand-picked by Correa, ran as a “true leftist” and won 32% of the vote under the rubric “Trabajo, Futuro y Dignidad.” He’s also offering to give out $1,000 for 1 million families if elected.  

Photo: Pachakutik Plurinational Unity Movement. Yaku Pérez on his bike.

On the other hand, there’s Yaku Pérez Guartambel, an indigenous leader and environmentalist who won 20% of the vote and was arrested no less than six times during Correa’s government for defending water rights against open-pit mining. As governor of Azuay province, his policies to fight the pandemic, particularly in food production and distribution, has been regarded as a regional achievement. He ran as a candidate under the Pachakutik Plurinational Unity Movement, Ecuador’s only indigenous political party, not without controversy, as several leaders of the October 2019 protests disputed that position. A saxophone player and avid bike rider, Pérez’s candidacy is in clear opposition to Latin America’s “old left.” Unlike Evo Morales, the policies brought forward by his candidacy go beyond nationalizing natural resources; he seeks a new “sustainable economy based on biocentrism.”

Guayaquil’s Bank owner Guillermo Lasso, also the founder of the right-wing movement CREO, has been a candidate for Ecuador’s presidency in 2013, 2017, and 2021. An economic ally of Rafael Correa and Lenin Moreno—his fortune has increased by almost 3000% in recent years. Several of his former employees are officials in the National Electoral Council that is supposed to process the election impartially. Today, the electoral manipulation denounced by the indigenous movement and Yaku Pérez benefits the banker, who has no chance of beating Correa’s candidate at the polls.

One fact to highlight, the Pachakutik Plurinational Unity Movement—which was born in 1995 as a political arm of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), after the indigenous uprisings of 1990—has had its most success historical these elections: the indigenous caucus in the National Assembly will be composed of at least 27 assembly members—the second largest national political force.

Most fascinating about the election in Ecuador is that it reflects a continental movement that has left the “socialist revolution” behind to embrace policies that place environmental sustainability, food sovereignty, human rights, and natural rights first.

It’s a movement that seeks alternatives in local economies by rejecting “globalized development” or the idea of endless economic growth. With growing roots in anti-patriarchy and anti-racism, its movement leaders have criticized the “socialists of the XXI century” for decades for their inability to imagine a post-extractivist world. It’s a movement across borders that sees no future in a fuel-based economy.

Most telling about Ecuador’s pathway is the outright rejection of Cuenca’s citizens—the 3rd largest city in Ecuador—who voted against large-scale mining in a referendum this past election. The referendum is an unprecedented step in protecting 4,200 water sources that directly affect Canadian, Argentinian, Chilean, and Peruvian mining transnational corporations.

There is a constant in the will of the people of Ecuador, a break with the neoliberal regimes and with the so-called socialism of the XXI century—which curiously coincide in their methods of electoral manipulation and their economic practices. Today, more than 68% voted against Correa’s project, who headed public attempts to disqualify Yaku Pérez. The majority of Ecuadorians, from the middle sectors impoverished during the pandemic, and the historically forgotten poor, want another country. They do not want to acquiesce to the large groups of bankers and businessmen. They do not want more land and water privatizations, repression, and waste of public resources. It is not just a change in the energy matrix. What Yaku Pérez candidacy offered is a different country.