Like Hugo Chávez, Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa has used vast oil wealth to boost his personal popularity and camouflage the effects of his disastrous economic policies while steadily weakening his country’s democratic institutions. Correa has not gone as far as Chávez in his erosion of political freedom, but he has been quite aggressive in his persecution of independent journalists. Last July, for example, a columnist for El Universo, the main opposition newspaper, and three of its executives were sentenced to three years in jail for libel, after they published an article that called Correa a “dictator” and accused him of ordering soldiers to open fire on a Quito hospital during a 2010 police protest. The four men and El Universo were also told to pay $42 million in damages. On February 16, the Ecuadorean Supreme Court upheld this verdict.
Less than two weeks later, however, Correa announced that he was pardoning the men and their newspaper and forgiving the massive fines, which would easily have bankrupted Ecuador’s chief opposition media outlet. Insisting that he “never wanted this trial” and “never wanted anyone arrested,” the Chávez acolyte nonetheless hailed the case as a great victory over the “dictatorship of the media,” declaring that “the abusive press has been defeated.”
The biggest lesson for U.S. opinion leaders is the power of moral pressure. When the verdict against El Universo came down last summer, it unleashed a hurricane of criticism from foreign newspapers and human-rights groups. When Ecuador’s highest court upheld that verdict, the outside criticism intensified once again. This pressure surely played a key role in Correa’s eventual decision to issue a pardon. What if Western journalists and NGOs devoted similar energy to supporting independent journalists and democratic figures in Venezuela or Cuba? What if they got similarly exercised about the gradual suffocation of democracy in Nicaragua? For that matter, what if they stayed focused on Ecuador and shined a spotlight on Correa’s other misdeeds?
Mistake no mistake: While the pardons marked a triumph for press freedom and basic justice, the government in Quito has not relented in its broader campaign to suppress dissenting voices. Just ask Correa himself. Speaking recently to the New York Times, he likened his fight with the Ecuadorean press to Civil Warera censorship in the United States. “We are in a battle,” Correa said, arguing that “the communications media” are controlled by “the elites that have destroyed Latin America.”
Of course, that is merely self-serving spin. The truth is that Correa’s thuggish attack on press freedom is just one element of a larger attack on democracy. “This struggle for free speech in Ecuador as well as in Venezuela is pretty basic,” José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch told the Times. “It’s driven and motivated by an effort to concentrate power and to intimidate and harass critics by representing them as promoters of lies.” That effort was bolstered by Ecuador’s May 2011 constitutional referendum, which expanded government control over the media and the courts.
Since 2007, the year Correa took office, Ecuador has dropped from 56th place to 104th place in the Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders. Freedom House believes that overall freedom in the country is declining, as evidenced by “the government’s intensified campaign against opposition leaders and intimidation of journalists, its excessive use of public resources to influence a national referendum, and the unconstitutional restructuring of the judiciary.” As for economic freedom specifically, Ecuador’s ranking in the global index published by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal fell from 108th in 2007 to 156th in 2012.
Beyond these problems, Ecuador is also beset with rising drug violence. That is partly a result of geography: Its location between Colombia and Peru makes it a major transit point for South American drug trafficking. According to the Los Angeles Times, roughly one-fourth of the annual cocaine output in the two neighboring countries ultimately moves through Ecuador. Last month, Ecuadorean police arrested a prominent trafficker with ties to gangs in both Colombia and Mexico. Elyssa Pachico, an expert on criminal activity in Latin America, fears that organized crime “may yet turn into a national crisis” if authorities don’t respond adequately. Unfortunately, it is unclear how much Ecuadoreans can trust their president when it comes to drug-trafficking outfits. In May 2011, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies published a report accusing Correa of soliciting financial aid from the Colombian FARC during his 2006 presidential run.
Whether or not he still has significant links to the FARC, Correa has been faithfully copying the Chávez playbook and making his country more and more like the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” Despite backing down from his lawsuit against El Universo, he remains unapologetic about his war with the opposition media. After Correa announced the pardons, Inter American Press Association president Milton Coleman said, “What the Ecuadorean people cannot lose sight of is that there will continue the precedent of a president coercing his country’s press with legal threats.” Indeed, foreign journalists must remain vigilant about supporting their Ecuadorean counterparts.