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Ecuador’s political instability, explained

Corruption charges are the latest problem for President Guillermo Lasso, who has failed to curb violence in Ecuador.

Seated behind several small microphones and in front of an American flag, President Lasso wears a black suit and lavender tie and touches his chin with his hand.
Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso attends a meeting with US Senators Bob Menendez and Tim Kaine at the Carondelet Palace in Quito on April 10, 2023.
Rodrigo Buendia/AFP via Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

On Wednesday, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso dissolved the country’s National Assembly ahead of a vote to impeach him on allegations of corruption, including ties to organized crime, tax evasion, and corruption in the energy industry.

Lasso’s move — though technically constitutional — tees up potentially massive political upheaval and wrangling. Snap national elections will be held; he will rule by decree until Ecuadorians choose a new government.

The move comes the day before Lasso was to present his defense in the impeachment case against him; opposition lawmakers contended that Lasso is criminally negligent for failing to cancel a contract between FLOPEC, a state-run energy concern, and a private company, allowing the company to embezzle from FLOPEC. Lasso has denied any wrongdoing.

It’s the second time that the National Assembly has attempted to remove Lasso from office since his term began in 2021. A previous attempt in June 2022 fell short of the 92 votes needed to end his presidency, motivated by “the serious political crisis and internal commotion” caused by weeks of protest against the increased cost of living and poverty in the South American nation.

CONAIE, the nation’s primary Indigenous rights organization, called an extraordinary session Wednesday “for analysis and collective decision making.” CONAIE’s official Twitter account referred to Lasso’s move as a “scenario of dictatorship,” and its leader, Leonidas Iza Salazar, called it a “self-coup.” CONAIE was a major driver of protests in 2022 that led to the first impeachment attempt.

Lasso claimed Wednesday in a tweet that his decision was aimed at calming the “internal commotion that Ecuador is enduring.”

The political upheaval comes as Ecuador faces increasing levels of violence and inequality under Lasso’s watch — arguably the greater driving forces behind the push to remove him from office, experts said. While the corruption allegations are serious and concerning, Lasso was deeply unpopular before those allegations gained traction, and for reasons that more intimately impact ordinary people’s lives.

In the face of the second impeachment and what appears to be his diminishing control over the country, Lasso attempted to shore up support from right-wing legislators and the Ecuadorean public, unsettled by the massive increase in violent crime, by projecting a tough-on-crime image.

These new policies could lay the groundwork for a crackdown should Lasso’s decree the impeachment outcome yield a popular uprising of the kind that generated last year’s impeachment proceedings, particularly given the potency and organizing power of CONAIE, the nation’s primary Indigenous rights organization.

Corruption charges are just the latest problem for Lasso

Lasso has pursued neoliberal policies, like cutting fuel subsidies and deregulation in the oil and mining industries. “Lasso believes in the market, he’s a banker,” Carlos de la Torre, director of the University of Florida Center for Latin American Studies, said. “So of course, his economic policies are not great for the majority.”

Lasso’s market-first economic ideas have won him friends in the US but have contributed to his deep unpopularity in his own country. “Lasso’s popularity has never been above 20 percent,” Marc Becker, a professor of Latin American history at Truman State University, told Vox. “I’d call him a lame-duck president since he’s been elected; he’s never been able to do anything.”

That unpopularity exploded into an uprising in June of 2022, driven primarily by CONAIE organizing. Lasso initially slashed fuel subsidies as part of a loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund, and eased regulations on the mining and oil and gas industries in an effort to cut government spending and revive Ecuador’s economy, which had been sputtering since the mid-2010s.

Lasso’s policies pushed poor and Indigenous Ecuadorians to go on strike; a cut to fuel subsidies was untenable for people already struggling, and increased mining and petroleum extraction threatened Indigenous land.

“There is this perception that it is a government just for the rich, just for the bankers, just for the bourgeoisie, just for foreign capital,” de la Torre said. “And to an extent, it’s right, it’s true — that’s the priority of this government.”

The strikes and protests, which began June 13, lasted for two weeks until negotiations with the government brought them to an end. They had a massive impact on the country, shutting down traffic, cutting oil production in half, and sometimes turning violent in clashes with authorities.

“The Indigenous movement has the capacity to do this — to mobilize the communities, to take over the cities, and to do these long marches, or strikes, or occupation of public space, that can last for weeks because they literally come down from the mountains,” according to Guillaume Long, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “They come with their communities, they come with food, they come with the mentality that they’re going to have to survive there, sometimes for several days, sometimes for several weeks.”

The rapid escalation in violence under Lasso is also a major factor in his unpopularity. Ecuador became a major hub for drug smuggling and human trafficking after former President Rafael Correa allowed visa-free entry to Ecuador, but the extreme violence and proliferation of violent gangs have skyrocketed in the past five years, Long told Vox.

“Every day there’s a massacre” in Ecuador, he said. “That’s everyday news in Ecuador, and that’s deeply shocking to Ecuadorians — that’s what lies, to a large extent, behind the lack of popularity of the current government.”

Though the Lasso government has made some superficial steps toward reducing crime, years of underfunding Ecuador’s police forces as well as the proliferation of drug trafficking and gang violence will take years to combat, Long said.

But the allegations against Lasso have brought condemnation from at least one American politician — Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), who wrote a scathing letter to President Joe Biden urging him to rethink the US’s relationship with Ecuador.

“Ecuador is now in the midst of a political and social crisis that is driven, in large part, by credible allegations of corruption at the highest levels of government,” Grijalva wrote in his April 12 letter. “Investigative journalists have uncovered what appears to be a web of corruption that ties key associates of Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso to organized crime figures,” including the president’s brother-in-law and business associate Danilo Carrera. Gijalva’s letter also accuses Lasso and Carrera of “using US jurisdictions to hide assets and avoid taxes, in violation of Ecuadorian law.”

Though a December 2022 visit between Lasso’s delegation and President Joe Biden appeared friendly, it’s not clear how Wednesday’s dissolution of Parliament will sit with the US establishment. “The Biden administration remains very, very close to Lasso,” Becker said before the impeachment hearing began. “From my perspective, I’d say that says two things: One, it says the corporate nature of the Democratic party in the United States is ideologically aligned with Lasso’s neoliberal agenda. And the other thing I’d say is, over the last 250 years, I don’t see any significant variance in US policy toward Latin America.”

What will happen to Lasso — and to Ecuador?

The national election authority must now move to hold elections within six months; Ecuador’s electoral court has one week to decide on a new date. In the meantime, Lasso has already made his first ruling, a change to the tax code.

“Politically, Lasso’s government is increasingly isolated,” Long said. His party, CREO, has only a dozen seats in the National Assembly, though it has made a coalition with nine other parties. It also enjoys some support from the Pachakutik Plurinational Unity Movement, an Indigenous party that was once the political arm of CONAIE. It’s possible, then, that Lasso may garner enough support to save him from impeachment yet again, despite his unpopularity and political weakness.

There’s the potential for another uprising, both de la Torre and Long told Vox; however, the upcoming elections might dampen the enthusiasm for such a measure given that there should soon be an institutional opportunity for change. But Lasso’s dissolution of Parliament also means he won’t be held accountable through the impeachment process for the economic distress and brutal violence that many Ecuadorians are feeling, at least for now.

From a financial standpoint, further instability, including Lasso’s departure, could affect the terms of the country’s economic situation. Ecuador has defaulted on its foreign debt 11 times, including a dramatic and volatile default under Correa in 2008 — a scenario that international investors aren’t eager to relive, and which could cut off Ecuador from external sources of funding.

Regardless of what happens in the next six months, Lasso has only further tarnished his legacy with his decision to dissolve the National Assembly. “I think he’ll go down as being one of the most disastrous presidents in Ecuador’s recent history,” Becker said. “And that’s saying something.”

Update, May 17, 1:40 pm ET: This story, originally published April 30, has been updated with news of the impeachment hearing and Lasso’s dissolution of the National Assembly.