Last August, the Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Emilio Alvarez Icaza, criticized the state of democracy in Ecuador. Alvarez pointed out that Ecuador’s democracy enjoys electoral democracy but as a whole, democracy is weakened by repression of freedom of expression and freedom of association. Alvarez condemned in strong terms, the fact that cartoonists and other media outlets are outlawed if they criticize the president.
Of course Alvarez’s declarations were only the tip of the iceberg in a country where formal democracy works as a façade better than in any other country in the region. However, Ecuador has been under the radar, hardly detected by the international community. Furthermore, the regional anti-democratic environment that has prevailed in the last two decades has sustained this abysmal state of democracy in Ecuador.
Last December the officially controlled National Assembly approved fifteen constitutional amendments that established that all public offices could be reelected indefinitely. This applies also to the president but only after May, 2017, which effectively excludes Rafael Correa from running in the next presidential elections. However, Correa could run indefinitely after 2021.
The constitutional amendments also included other measures that could be considered authoritarian by any textbook. The Armed Forces would be in charge of internal security, which effectively opens the door for militarization of dissent. Another amendment defined “information” as public service. This means that any information that appears in the media could be defined as a constitutional violation if it does not serve the public. This could criminalize criticism of the president and his policies since the latter “serve the public”.
Moreover, even this draconian “social contract” was not enough for the Correa government that has been in power since 2007. Last March a group of Correa supporters issued a petition asking to abolish that clause in the constitutional amendment that prevents the president from running in the 2017 election. The Ecuadorian Constitutional Court decided that this could be possible through a referendum, arguing that such a petition represents an “expansion of (citizens’) rights” This is illogical as the principle of limitation of presidential reelection is precisely aimed at preventing abuse of state power.
But the reality is that judicial norms and constitutional rights have been deeply deteriorating in Ecuador for a long time, at the expense of citizens’ rights. On September 14th, the Inter-American Institute for Democracy (IID) and the Inter-American Federation of Lawyers organized an event on Capitol Hill focusing on the complicity of the judiciary in the violation of human rights in Ecuador.
Reports indicate that the criminal judicial system is used by the Government to “harass, intimidate, persecute, silence and prosecute students, indigenous persons, people who denounce corruption, business owners and political dissidents.” In one case, a march organized by indigenous groups protesting what they considered to be violations to their habitat, was framed by the governments’ prosecutors as “organized terrorism”. The protesters were detained for several months without any evidence. It was only four years later that the National Court of Justice dismissed the charges.
In another case, a political dissident was sentenced to 18 months in prison for applauding demonstrators during the anti-government police uprising in September,2010. Likewise, members of an indigenous group that blocked the Pan-American Highway were sentenced to four years in prison. In another case where judges did not find evidence against a TV station that criticized the president, it was President Correa himself who ordered the dismissal and replacement of the judges. The new judges sentenced the owners of the TV station to eight years in prison.
What is happening in Ecuador is what has already been happening in Venezuela for a long time. The intimidation and subversion of the judiciary is characteristic of totalitarian regimes for whom the law represents an order they seek to destroy.
Latin America is experiencing changes now. For a decade and a half countries such as Brazil and Argentina were dominated by governments that enabled violations of democracy in the region. But most recently, the Brazilian foreign minister, Jose Serra replied, “Venezuela does not deserve any respect as it is an anti-democratic regime that destroyed the country”. Serra added that Ecuador and Bolivia have a lot to learn in the field of “democracy making”. The three countries withdrew their ambassadors from Brasilia.
As we already anticipated, democracy begins to have a voice again in the region and Brazil’s attitude is encouraging. Yet, it is not enough.
The problem in Ecuador (which also harbors Wikileaks founder Julian Assange from extradition over sexual assault charges) reflects the seriousness of the problem. We also need more activity on the part of the White House, publicly or behind the scenes. Publicly, we are hearing that Cuba is obtaining more benefits and that President Barack Obama wants to make the normalization process with Cuba irreversible as part of his legacy. For decades, Cuba has supported and encouraged anti-democratic regimes.
The next president must reset his or her policy in Latin America and protect democracy. At the end of the next president’s term he/she should be able to brag that his/her legacy has made democracy irreversible. That would be more honorable than boasting about reconciliation with a dictatorship.