Immigration from Ecuador to the US has spiked as political and economic instability shake the country. The culprit: right-wing policies, which have reversed the massive gains made under “pink tide” president Rafael Correa.
Amid a spiraling crisis in Ecuador, tens of thousands of Ecuadorians have made the harrowing journey to the US southern border. (Jacob Garcia / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Until recently, Ecuador was a font of peace and prosperity compared to its neighbors. “Pink tide” president Rafael Correa (2007–2017) introduced progressive reforms that brought significant material improvements to the South American nation’s majorities. Out-migration fell, and many who had left the country returned to enjoy the economic boom.
Those gains have since been reversed. Renewed political instability and violence are shaking the country, and austerity is pummeling its economy.
Amid a spiraling crisis, tens of thousands of Ecuadorians have made the harrowing journey to the US southern border. They are refugees of right-wing rule, fleeing a dramatic downturn instigated by Correa’s conservative successors.
Like many in his cohort of left-of-center Latin American governments elected at the turn of the twenty-first century, Correa leveraged high commodity prices to deliver major social improvements. Between 2007 and 2017 — powered by a doubling of social spending — poverty plummeted (down 41.6 percent), inequality shrank (the Gini coefficient dropped 16.7 percent), and the homicide rate declined to historic lows (5.8 murders per 100,000 people).
Correa’s record was popular enough to propel Correa’s his chosen successor, Lenín Moreno, to power. But Moreno quickly betrayed that legacy, cutting a devastating deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). When the pandemic hit, Ecuador’s economy was already mired in recession, brought on by the austerity program. Ecuador suffered one of the highest per-capita COVID death rates globally in early 2020, thanks in part to IMF-mandated public sector health care layoffs and budget cuts.
Between 2007 and 2017 — powered by a doubling of social spending — poverty plummeted, inequality shrank, and the homicide rate declined to historic lows.
Correa’s two-term tenure was not without controversy. The government’s reliance on national resources revenue provoked mounting confrontation with Ecuador’s formidable indigenous movements, which organized to defend their territories from the social and ecological predations of extractivism. These conflicts fueled the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE)’s call for ballot abstentions in the 2021 presidential elections, which effectively secured the victory of conservative banker Guillermo Lasso against Correa’s party’s candidate.
Lasso continued Moreno’s harsh neoliberal program, with catastrophic consequences. Since Correa’s departure, Ecuador has experienced the worst economic performance in South America. GDP fell by 5 percent between 2019 and 2022.
Violence surged, too. The country is now fourth in the region for homicide rates, ranking between Colombia and Mexico at 25.9 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2022. In six short years, the progress of a decade has been undone.
Much of the rising violence is associated with organized crime, which has found recruits among the growing ranks of the newly unemployed and dispossessed. Ecuador’s dollarized economy has long made it attractive for money laundering, but the country has only recently become an important center for drug trafficking.
A recent New York Times piece suggested Correa was to blame for closing a US military base and cutting ties with the State Department’s anti-narcotics agency in 2014. In reality, it is Correa’s conservative successors whose policies have failed to respond to the changing geographies of illicit markets and instead fed the crisis.
Ecuador’s dollarized economy has long made it attractive for money laundering, but the country has only recently become an important center for drug trafficking.
Part of this shift is an indirect result of the 2016 peace agreement in Colombia, which facilitated the demobilization of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). As Ecuadorian sociologist Franklin Ramírez explains, the FARC’s withdrawal from the region along Colombia’s border with Ecuador opened space for dozens of smaller armed drug, paramilitary, and dissident groups to dispute territory and trafficking routes: “In the context of the weakening of the state in recent years, that border area has become particularly vulnerable and permeable to criminal groups that come and go from the country.”
Colombian president Gustavo Petro argues that the spike in drug trafficking in Ecuador is tied to the fentanyl-fueled collapse of the US cocaine market, which has redirected trafficking toward Europe and Asia. According to Petro, these shifts are also driving cocaine producers in the border region to turn to illegal mining, kidnapping, and extortion, stimulating insecurity.
The violence, which has taken the form of horrific prison massacres as well as political violence of the kind that took the life of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio in August, has thrived in the absence of a coherent state response. In the words of Ecuadorian historian Pablo Ospina, “An aggravating factor is the weakness, incompetence, and general indifference of the governments of Lenín Moreno and Guillermo Lasso, which have been completely overwhelmed not only by the security crisis, but even by the most basic governing tasks.”
The growing economic and social instability has displaced tens of thousands from their homes and, increasingly, toward the United States.
Ecuadorians have a long history in the United States, and a wave of migration in the 1980s established Ecuadorians as the second-largest Latin American population in New York City and State. But when the country’s 1998–1999 financial crisis uprooted a new generation of migrants, most headed instead to Europe.
By 2014, nearly two million Ecuadorians were living abroad. Most of them – over 450,000 —resided in Spain, where they came to comprise the largest Latin American population. The United States hosted over 428,000, and another 91,000 lived in Italy.
By then, however, significant numbers of Ecuadorians were returning to their country, fleeing the effects of the global financial crisis for the comparative welfare that was flourishing under Correa. As a result, Spain’s Ecuadorian population actually peaked in 2006.
Migration is taking place not only because of fear, or out of grief, or because of militarization and the immobilization that it generates, but also because of hunger.
Today, Ecuadorians are once again abandoning their country by the tens of thousands. More than 30,000 Ecuadorians had US asylum cases pending at the start of 2023, up from 10,000 in 2021. In the early months of 2023, Ecuadorians outnumbered Venezuelans braving Panama’s perilous Darién Gap to reach the US border. Immigration authorities have registered over 87,000 Ecuadorians at the US southern border so far this year, including a growing proportion of families with children.
“Migration is taking place not only because of fear, or out of grief, or because of militarization and the immobilization that it generates, but also because of hunger,” Ecuadorian feminist anthropologist and activist Ana María Morales told journalist Dawn Marie Paley in a recent interview. “Ecuador is being dismembered.”
In this dire scenario of displacement and instability, Ecuadorians were unexpectedly called to the polls last month. Lasso’s term doesn’t expire until 2025, but in a dramatic last act, the deeply unpopular president triggered snap elections. Facing certain impeachment, Lasso invoked the constitution’s “Muerte cruzada,” or mutually assured destruction provision, which allows the president to dissolve parliament and rule by executive decree for six months until legislative and presidential elections are held.
The first round of voting, on August 20, saw Luisa González, from Correa’s Citizen Revolution Movement, take first place with 33 percent of the vote against second-place challenger Daniel Noboa, who received 24 percent. González is an economic progressive but social conservative, firmly opposed to abortion rights. She represents a restoration of Correa’s program, contradictions included.
Noboa is the heir to a banana fortune and, though he styles himself as a political outsider, carries the torch for the right-wing politics that have wreaked havoc on Ecuador.
Noboa is the heir to a banana fortune and, though he styles himself as a political outsider, carries the torch for the right-wing politics that have wreaked havoc on Ecuador under Lasso and Moreno. The runoff will take place on October 15, with the winner serving out the remaining seventeen months of Lasso’s term.
In the legislative elections, Citizen Revolution fared best, winning 39 percent of the vote, but no party secured a majority, presenting a difficult scenario for whoever wins the presidency in October. The outcome of that vote is uncertain, but widespread disaffection suggests that the country’s renewed political instability is unlikely to subside soon.
While the national mood is somber, there is some cause for celebration. The August 20 vote also witnessed major social movement victories in two national referenda, one to stop oil drilling in the biodiversity-rich Yasuní National Park and another to ban metals mining in the Chocó Andino biosphere reserve. Those results confirm that any viable left project will have to overcome Correa’s conflictive relationship with indigenous and ecological movements and embrace the 2008 constitution’s promise of a pluri-national state that recognizes the rights of nature.
Under Correa, Ecuador hosted contentious debates over the meaning of buen vivir (good living) and the best strategy to overcome the legacies of colonialism and the constraints of dependency, imperialism, and inequality. Six years later, many Ecuadorans don’t see a future for themselves in their country at all.
To pull the nation out of its nosedive, progressive forces will have to go beyond restoration and take the transformations achieved under Correa to new, uncharted levels. For now, Ecuador stands as a bleak testament to the pitfalls of neoliberal dogma and the dangers of right-wing backlash. As reactionary leaders have demonstrated from Brazil to El Salvador and beyond, hard-fought reforms can be undone in an instant, and if the Right gets the chance, they will be.Original post