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In a crushing blow to former president Rafael Correa, his hand-picked successor Lenin Moreno overwhelmingly won a referendum that reverses some Correa’s policies and bars him from running again. Is this a left-right conflict or something else?

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G. WILPERT: Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno overwhelmingly won a series of referendum questions on Sunday. The questions, one of which prohibits the reelection of the president, consolidates Moreno’s break from his predecessor and political benefactor, Rafa Correa. But how to make sense of this referendum, and of Moreno’s split from the previously dominant Correa? Is Moreno moving Ecuador towards the right, in line with the political developments in the rest of Latin America? Or is he staying the course and simply distancing himself from Correa? Or is something else going on?
During his campaign for the presidency, the wheelchair-bound Lenín Moreno had presented himself as a loyal follower of the indomitable Rafael Correa.
L. MORENO: [In Spanish] Things have been done well, under a tenacious, firm, intelligent, and hard-working leadership, above all connected to the poorest of our homeland – by our companion, friend and leader, Rafael Correa Delgado. We are with this revolution!
G. WILPERT: However, shortly after his narrowly won election victory in April 2017, Moreno began distancing himself from Correa. The first sign was that he supported the prosecution of his vice president and close friend of Rafa Correa, Jorge Glas, on corruption charges, who was eventually sentenced to six years of prison for his involvement in the Odebrecht bribery scandal.
Moreno also began complaining that Correa had left the government with financial liabilities that were far higher than was previously known.
L. MORENO: [In Spanish] This year we will move ahead and for the next we will need between eight and 10 billion dollars per year, just to make payments on the debt that was left to us. [Correa] did not act responsibly and now we need to pay almost the same amount that we pay for health, education, social security and defense, together, just to pay a debt that, I insist [my administration] inherited.
G. WILPERT: Meanwhile, ex-president Rafa Correa publicly disputed Moreno’s claims from Belgium, where he had taken temporary residency.
R. Correa: [In Spanish] When criticizing the economic management, which was excellent, poverty and inequality were decreased. He [Moreno] is trying to legitimize neoliberalism. For example, using cases of corruption, which took place in many countries, and which we never tolerated, and to generalize, that we are all corrupt, which was the discourse of the opposition. He has made deals with the entire opposition, from extreme right to the extreme left, then instead of applying the program that won at the voting booth, he implemented the opposition’s. Precisely this popular consultation [referenda] that is being discussed in Ecuador is the program that lost at the voting booth. This is the most undemocratic thing there is.
G. WILPERT: Eventually, Correa and Moreno fought for control over the party that Correa had founded, known as Alianza PAIS, or Country Alliance, a fight that Correa lost in January when a court declared that Moreno’s faction is legally in control of the party.
Some now say that Moreno’s final break from Correa is the referendum, which took place on Sunday, February 4th. The referendum presented Ecuadorians with seven questions ranging from the completely non-controversial to the very controversial. Included were whether politicians who are convicted of corruption should be allowed to ever hold office again, whether penalties for sexual child abuse should be toughened, whether mineral mining should be restricted in Ecuador, whether a land speculation tax should be lifted, and whether reelection of public officials should be limited.
For some analysts, including ex-president Correa, the referendum questions and Moreno’s previous actions show a clear intent to move the country toward the right. For example, Canadian blogger Joe Emersberger, who writes regularly on Ecuador for Counterpunch and TeleSur, says the following about the conflict.
J. EMERSBERGER: I think Moreno’s just a throwback to the political establishment that dominated in the 90’s. They ran on fake agendas, often fake left agendas. The most notorious was Lucio Gutierrez. Then they make these alliances and then stab each other in the back, then make new alliances and stab each other again. They went through 10 presidents in seven years or something. It was ridiculous. They just constantly ran on fake agendas.
I see Moreno doing the same thing, making deals, cutting deals behind the scenes, and then presenting them as dialogue. I do see it as a left-right thing because I do see him as just shifting where it’s easier for him to go. Align with the traditional power brokers or the banks, the private media, rather than confront them like Correa did, which is hard. Since he’s come into office he’s immediately [inaudible 00:04:26] electronic money, which the private media and the banks are so dead set against. When the central bank was going to run it, it was going to destroy the economy and Moreno just said, “Okay, you guys can have exclusive control over it.” Again, he didn’t campaign on that, that was just something he came up with after he was in office.
Recently, he’s open to a free trade agree … On one interview recently, on January 21st with three journalists, he said he was open to a free trade deal with the United States.
G. WILPERT: However, Alberto Acosta, a former Correa ally, former foreign minister, and ex-president of Ecuador’s constituent assembly, which wrote its 2008 constitution, argues that the conflict between Correa and Moreno has nothing to do with the left-right divide, but is purely a power struggle for power in Ecuador.
ALBERTO ACOSTA: [In Spanish] It seems to me that the conflict that we are going through in Ecuador at the moment has nothing to do with a conflict between left and right. The main point of conflict is that the current president Lenín Moreno turned out not to be a puppet of Correa’s, as we all thought. He had presented himself as a follower of the poorly named “Citizens’ Revolution,” and during the campaign he repeatedly said he would deepen this Citizen’s Revolution. But, when he got to the presidency, he surprised everyone. He was not a puppet. He liberated himself from his mentor, just like Pinocchio, who liberated himself from Gepetto. So there is a confrontation between these two personalities, apparently. Behind this, no doubt, there are interests, deep interests, that are determined to weaken the influence of Correa and that Moreno be there spokesperson.
G. WILPERT: According to Acosta, the referendum was a means for Moreno to improve his legitimacy among Ecuadorians now that he has broken from Correa.
ALBERTO ACOSTA: [In Spanish] The big question is, what will Moreno do following February 5th [after the referendum]? That’s the big question. There’s a big unknown. He has several options. I can identify three. The first is to return completely to the corner of the International Monetary Fund and to the logic of neoliberalism. There are groups that are pushing for that.
The other is to continue with this type of management, which can continue a while longer, but which could end very badly, of financing the economy with foreign indebtedness, liberating it from more expensive debt, with cheaper debt, or wait until the price of oil rises, which is a risky bet.
And a third path would be to follow a heterodox adjustment. That is, to tax those who have more, who earn more, and to not hit the popular sectors. This would produce a change in synchrony with the constitution of Montecristi [of 2008].
G. WILPERT: If Acosta is correct, the Moreno-Correa conflict has not been a typical left-right conflict, as many on both sides claim. Instead, we will have to wait and see which political course Moreno charts now that he has completely liberated himself from Correa’s legacy and influence.

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Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he first taught sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded, an English-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.