BOGOTA, Colombia — Ecuadoreans this weekend — including those in South Florida — are expected to do something that would have been unthinkable just a year ago: End the political career of Rafael Correa, the socialist firebrand who led the nation for a decade and was once considered the region’s most popular president.
On Sunday, voters are being asked to weigh in on seven broad questions in a referendum, including one that reinstates term limits on the presidency, which Correa got rid of in 2015.
If the measure passes, as polls suggest, it will radically change the political landscape in a country where many thought — and some feared — that Correa might become president for life.
And it may be another sign that South America’s once-ascendant left — built on the backs of charismatic leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales — may be in retreat.
When Correa, a 54-year-old U.S. trained economist, stepped down eight months ago, his return seemed inevitable. His handpicked successor, Lenín Moreno, had won the presidency promising to continue his boss’ policies.
The opposition feared that the mild-mannered Moreno — Correa’s previous vice president — would dutifully serve his four-year term and then step aside for the charismatic Correa, who might then hold onto power for decades, as his ideological allies in Venezuela and Boliva are attempting to do.
Instead, Moreno flipped the script, reaching out to Correa’s enemies in the business community, loosening controls on the media and cracking down on corruption. In December, the administration sentenced Jorge Glas, the vice president Moreno had inherited from Correa, to six years in jail for taking bribes from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.
Moreno, 64, a motivational speaker who has used a wheelchair since he was shot in a botched robbery in 1998, has promoted the referendum as a way to root out corruption and protect the country’s delicate democracy. That stance has placed him squarely in opposition to his old mentor.
“Things wear down and that’s why it’s so important to alternate. That’s why it’s important to change,” he told a crowd of supporters in Ecuador’s capital Wednesday night. “So that we don’t have officials who stay in the government forever, and so we can give these marvelous young people … a chance to run the country, we have to say ‘yes to life.’”
For Correa, who has never lost an election, Sunday’s referendum is the ultimate “betrayal” by his one-time underling.
He’s accused Moreno of using the vote — which he has called illegal — to try to dismantle Correa’s “Citizens’ Revolution,” the powerful leftist movement he built from 2007-2017 that controlled all branches of government.
Moreno enacted the referendum by decree in November, after the Constitutional Court dragged its feet on approving the initiative, and to Correa and his allies that makes the entire process illegitimate.
And while Correa’s political future is getting top billing, there are six other questions on the ballot.
Voters are being asked to eliminate the statute of limitations on sex crimes against minors, halt mining in protected areas, eliminate a capital gains tax on real estate and limit oil exploration in the Yasuní — an area that’s home to one of the hemisphere’s last indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation.
But there are three questions aimed at Correa and his power base. Along with reinstating term limits, Ecuadoreans will be asked to bar people charged with corruption from ever holding public office, a move that could sideline some of Correa’s allies, including Glas.
In addition, they’re being asked to sweep away the “Council for Citizen Participation and Social Control,” a powerful body that can fire and hire the attorney general, electoral authorities and judges. Crucially, if the measure passes, Moreno will be able to handpick the members of the council, who will hold power for a year, until permanent members are elected.
As Correa has crisscrossed the country trying to sink the referendum, he’s warned that the council measure represents a dangerous power grab.
“No patriot can vote yes (on that question), it’s a coup d’etat. It ends the division of powers,” he told local radio. “This is not about being from the left or the right or being a Correista or an anti-Correista, this is about being a patriot.”
Ecuador is perhaps best known for the Galapagos Islands and being the nation that defied Washington by giving WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange refuge in its London embassy. But before Correa was elected in 2007 — and brought a semblance of stability — the country was famous for toppling its leaders.
As some of Correa’s ideological allies changed their laws to allow multiple re-elections, Correa followed suit, and his compliant congress voted in 2015 to allow indefinite re-election starting in 2021. The timing was a concession that allowed Correa to dodge criticism that he was trying to hold onto power, as it required him to step down and wait four years before re-election.
Correa has long argued that term limits are anti-democratic.
“They’re stealing your right to elect (who you want) and they’re stealing your right to participate in elections,” he said this week. For example, he added, “you can’t re-elect a mayor who has done a magnificent job.”
For many Ecuadoreans in the United States, Sunday’s vote is a chance to punish a man they saw following in the footsteps of his professed allies in Cuba and Venezuela.
While Correa won praise for reducing poverty, building roads and expanding health care and education, he also alarmed many by cracking down on the media and squashing political dissent.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported more than 645,000 Ecuadoreans living in the United States in 2001, and there are more than 105,000 registered to vote in Sunday’s election.
During the presidential elections in February — when Moreno was still seen as Correa’s creation — opposition candidate Guillermo Lasso won 57 percent of the vote in the United States, and in Miami he won with 85 percent.
“This vote is really important” for the Ecuadorean community in South Florida, said Johnny Farias, a member of the South Bay Community Council, whose family moved to the United States in 1972. “People felt cheated in the last election and this is a way to get payback.”
Emilio Palacio is a former newspaper columnist who fled to South Florida in 2011, after the Ecuadorean courts sentenced him to three years in prison and ordered him and three others to pay $42 million for publishing a scathing editorial about Correa.
He said he’s not yet convinced that Moreno is much of a departure politically from Correa but he admits that the president has “substantially changed the political climate” in the country.
And he sees Sunday’s vote as something of an exorcism.
“People still think that Correa is a danger,” he said. “And this referendum is necessary to get that ghost out of our heads.”
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For Correa’s supporters — and there are still many of them — Sunday’s election is a stab in the back.
Wladimir Iza, a longtime activist in Alianza País, the party that Correa built but Moreno managed to wrest from him last year, said the new president has abandoned those who put him in office.
“He promised to continue and deepen (Correa’s) political project,” Iza said. “But in eight months he’s changed everything and given away all the gains we had made. … It’s like he’s not fulfilling his own party’s platform but the platform of the opposition.”
Correa has promised to fight the referendum results, and keep fighting Moreno from a new political party he’s building. But the referendum, if it goes as expected, is a deep blow to his plans.
“Personally, I think Correa is dead politically,” said Palacio, the former columnist. “But in politics, the dead often come back to life.”
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