When Ecuadoreans go to the polls to elect a new president on February 19, they will choose between President Rafael Correa’s former Vice President, Lenin Moreno, and seven other candidates from across the political spectrum. Voters would do well to ask themselves not only who they want to govern their county, but how they want it to be governed.
Under President Correa, Ecuador has enacted a series of measures granting the government sweeping powers to punish its critics and curb public debate of its policies. The next president will have the opportunity to roll back these measures, or exploit them to further debilitate the country’s democracy. Each of the eight candidates should make clear where they stand.
One of the most problematic measures is a 2013 presidential decree that empowers the government to shut down nongovernmental organizations if it determines they have “move[d] away from the objectives for which [they were] created” or “compromise[d] public peace.”
The Correa administration has used this measure to target the country’s environmentalist movement. In 2013, it shut down the Pachamama Foundation, a prominent environmental group, alleging that several of its members had participated in a demonstration against oil drilling in the Amazon region in which an indigenous man—not a member of the organization—whacked a foreign diplomat on the head with the flat edge of his spear.
Last month, the Interior Ministry sought to shut down another environmental organization, Ecological Action, claiming that the group’s postings on social media regarding a mining project had promoted violence. In December, there were violent clashes between security forces and members of the Shuar indigenous community that led to the death of one policeman and the injury of seven security agents. Yet the Interior Ministry report calling for closing Ecological Action provided no evidence that the group had participated in or encouraged the violence. And after the Interior Ministry’s report provoked an international outcry—including condemnation by UN experts—the Environment Ministry was obliged to reject it.
The government has employed the decree against other sectors of civil society as well. The free-speech group Fundamedios had a close call in 2015. The Communications Ministry opened an administrative process to dissolve Fundamedios on the grounds that it had engaged in “political” activities by publishing tweets with links to blogs and news articles criticizing the government.
After a strong international reaction, Fundamedios managed to stay open. But even when such government efforts do not end with the targeted organizations’ closure, the threat of being shut down arbitrarily by the government remains.
The decree allowing these closures isn’t the only weapon in the government’s arsenal. A 2013 communications law grants the government similar powers to regulate and censor the country’s news outlets, including punishing them for coverage that officials consider to be incomplete, inaccurate, or damaging to their reputations.
The law’s most Orwellian provision is a prohibition on “censorship,” which establishes penalties for media that fail to cover issues that the government considers to be of public interest. In dozens of cases, the regulatory agency established by the 2013 law has ordered media and journalists to “correct” or retract news articles, opinion pieces and cartoons, or to apologize publicly for their content.
Fortunately, the Correa administration has not managed to silence political debate in Ecuador. But it has taken a toll on the country’s independent media outlets and civil society groups, who must constantly weigh the risk of retaliation by a government that is willing and—thanks to the measures enacted under this president—able to punish its critics.
President Correa was barred from seeking reelection this year by term limits designed to prevent the rise of autocrats. Nevertheless, thanks to a recent constitutional reform promoted by Correa, future presidents will be able to see indefinite reelection—including Correa himself should he run again. Ecuador’s democracy urgently needs to distance itself from authoritarian rule by guaranteeing a genuine transfer of presidential power. And more: it needs a president who will commit to reining in this power and ensuring that Ecuadoreans can speak their minds without fear.