How Venezuela can learn from a neighbor about freedom

Published 6:27 pm Wednesday, February 20, 2019

By John Tures
Political science professor at LaGrange College

Imagine a South American country, bordering Colombia, which suffered a decade of party instability and corruption, ushering in the election of a leftist president whose populist rhetoric and autocratic style may have appealed to some, but did little to boost democracy in a country where mineral rights dominate and poor peasants struggle.  And it has a yellow, blue and red flag. Think it is Venezuela?  Think again.

This country in question has actually improved its democracy score from Freedom House, despite sharing many qualities with the failed state of Venezuela.  This country could perhaps teach their Venezuelan neighbors a thing or two about freedom and good governance. You might be surprised to learn that this democratizing country is Ecuador.  Long derided for a combination of ineffective rulers and political instability in the 1900s, Ecuador’s new liberalization has been not only recognized by non-governmental organizations like Freedom House, but also this author.

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I traveled to Ecuador for the International Studies Association (ISA) conference in 2018 at FLACSO in Quito. But whether you were downtown in the capital, or out in the countryside near Mitad del Mundo, people were eager to talk politics, a far cry from the last two countries I had visited, which were sliding toward authoritarianism with leaders exhibiting one-party rule via populism, and fear.  Cab drivers couldn’t stop talking about their views on elected leaders.  Signs for and against the president were omnipresent. 

I even happened upon an indigenous people’s gathering not far from the biggest market in Ecuador. The people seemed as free as the Western tourists who were visiting for the conference.

It wasn’t always that way in Ecuador, even in recent years. After a series of ousted leaders, removed by the military or legislature for corruption or ineffective governance, Leftist President Rafael Correa prevailed at the polls in 2007 and sought to impose control not too different from the high-handed style of Venezuelan leaders Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, his allies.  He forced a series of restrictions on groups who disagreed with his rule. 

The media, civil society, indigenous groups, teacher’s unions and environmental associations who protested corruption and tyrannical tactics found themselves behind bars. Anti-terrorism legislation was manipulated for usage against unarmed protesters. The country was ready for authoritarianism.

But then Correa’s vice-president was elected.  For a man with a first name “Lenin,” there was not much optimism in a change from Correa.  But President Moreno has been responsible for the country’s democratic rebound.  And here’s how he did it.

Moreno reversed many policies of his former boss. He allowed more press freedoms and released many previously detained many environmental and indigenous protesters. This even included deregulating the press, once tightly administered by Correa. 

He also endeared himself to a skeptical public with the passage of an anti-corruption bill that even netted a former vice-president for a scandal connected to a foreign corporation from Brazil, another source of friction between new president Moreno and his former boss Correa.

“You know what know I about Ecuador,” a fellow Boy Scout parent told me as I wrote this.  “That’s where all of the roses are from.” In a world where democracy seems on the decline, it’s nice to read about a country where liberty and rule of law are blooming. But along the Equator, freedom is a fragile thing. The ruling party still controls the elections. The country is still dependent upon mining and agriculture, and still faces neighbors run by populist dictatorships. 

But if Moreno’s success persists, perhaps the seeds for democracy might once again grow in South America.