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The War on Latin America’s Left

Rafael Correa
Todd Chretien

Former Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa on the coup in Bolivia, the campaign to criminalise Latin America's Left and the need to fight back against the far-right agenda on the continent.

Interview by
Nicolas Allen

Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador from 2007 to 2017, ranks among the Pink Tide’s greatest leaders. Coming to power in a country ravaged by poverty and crippled by austerity and privatisation programmes, Correa oversaw a transformation of Ecuador. In his decade-long tenure, Ecuador’s minimum wage more than doubled, billions were invested in health care, and poverty was cut in half.

His story is not unlike that of the recently ousted Evo Morales. Morales was not just Bolivia’s first indigenous president, but its most successful. Since his first election in 2005, the lifelong trade unionist presided over the most consistently high economic growth in Latin America, while also slashing poverty and illiteracy. Yet this did not win him the support of all Bolivians. After three weeks of armed demonstrations fanning out from the country’s eastern provinces, last weekend the army high command told Morales to go.

The coup’s organisers hail from traditionally reactionary sections of Bolivian society: the key coup leader Luis Fernando Camacho, a businessman from the Santa Cruz province, arrived in La Paz last weekend promising to “bring God back into the presidential palace.” Like Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, Camacho combines Christian rhetoric with open racism toward indigenous people and intense anticommunism. Such themes are the cutting edge of a bid to criminalise the social movements and progressive leaders who have come to prominence in Latin America in recent years.

Reacting to events in both Bolivia and Ecuador, Correa spoke to Nicolas Allen about Donald Trump’s interference in Latin America, the continued challenge to neoliberal hegemony, and how popular mobilisation can resist the far-right upsurge.


Let’s start with Bolivia, the most pressing problem. How do you understand what is happening there?


When the police are rioting and the military “suggest” the president resigns, it’s very clearly a coup d’état. In Brazil or Argentina or China, we’d call this a coup, but some people don’t like to call things by their real names. Yes, President Morales did resign. But if someone holds a gun to your head and says very politely, “give me your wallet,” and you give it to them, does this mean it wasn’t robbery, but agreed by mutual consent? Clearly, what happened in Bolivia was a coup.


As well as the military, the domestic security forces, and certain sectors of Bolivian society, it seems the Organisation of American States (OAS) was also a factor in this coup?


The OAS states toe the US line, and they usually act in concert. We’ve seen how the OAS has reacted to not just the Bolivian crisis, but also the one in Ecuador. When the Ecuadorian people rose up against President Lenín Moreno’s betrayals, insisting on the need for early elections (as the constitution allows in times of crisis), the OAS stated that Moreno must complete his four-year term.

It preferred deaths, injuries, and arrests to a vote that Moreno would clearly have lost, like the servant of Washington that he is. OAS general secretary Luis Almagro even went to Ecuador to congratulate Moreno on his democratic spirit, right as he was robbing democracy from us. But the OAS didn’t say Morales ought to finish his term. How can we explain such a double standard?

Latin America must reflect on the OAS’s role. There is no doubt that Washington carries a predominant, hegemonic weight in the OAS, and obviously Almagro is a spokesman for Washington. Don’t take me for an anti-gringo, I love the United States deeply — I lived there for four years, and I have two degrees from US universities. But I have to say that the OAS acts like a loyal watchdog, as the colonial ministry for the United States. It is merely an instrument for defending US interests and has demonstrated this very clearly during the Bolivian crisis.


It’s tragic for Evo Morales’s administration to be defeated like this. What is your evaluation of his government — is it a model for the region?


Of course, it is something extraordinary. What was Bolivia like before Evo Morales? What this government accomplished is impressive — it had some of the best macroeconomic indicators on the planet. It raised one-third of the population out of poverty, it radically reduced illiteracy, and had among the lowest unemployment rates in the region.

But those who overthrew Morales believe in prosperity for some and not for others. If you offer our elite a chance to be more prosperous but equal with everyone else, they’ll say no. Their power is based on inequality — that’s how they dominate us and guarantee their own well-being.

This is difficult to understand because we tend to compare contemporary Latin America with the contemporary United States; but it would make more sense to compare our situation to the era of slavery in the United States, when Abraham Lincoln had to face a civil war in order to abolish slavery, when the Confederate states seceded.

When Lincoln was killed, John Wilkes Booth yelled, “Sic semper tyrannis!” For the slaveholders, Lincoln was a tyrant — and things are the same here today. They want a kind of exclusion that maintains poverty and keeps South America as the most unequal continent on the planet. When they talk about freedom, they only want rights for themselves. To that end, they’ll go to whatever lengths to eliminate you.

That’s what happened in Bolivia. The economic indicators, the progress, the prosperity, the equality were spectacular. But the Bolivian elite’s assumptions are profoundly racist. That an indio has done all this and granted rights to the poorest, to those with dark skin, to the indigenous (or as they call them, the cholos) — all this is unacceptable for them. So, they use their mass media to hammer Morales and whip up the real powers in society, like the armed forces.


As you say, in many countries — from Brazil to Argentina and Ecuador — it’s become common to talk about popular figures like Evo Morales as “tyrants,” cynically employing a democratic rhetoric. In this sense, the coup in Bolivia today isn’t the same as the ones in the 1970s — it speaks the language of democracy, of the rule of law, of fighting corruption, sometimes we even hear the term “lawfare.” How would you read the strategy of the “democratic” right at the regional level?


First, Latin American elites don’t believe in democracy. Democracy is fine so long as it aligns with their interests, but when there’s a risk that something might change, then they will do anything to fight it. They don’t believe in equality either. Some of the elites applauding the coup may even have been sympathetic to a president who wanted to create better schools for their servants’ children. But they could also assassinate this same president if he tried to create schools for these children equal to the ones for the elites.

Second, US governments believe in democracy at home, but also think they need to replace foreign governments if they don’t align with US foreign policy. Even if these governments are even more democratic than the United States itself, they need replacing with bloody dictators. That’s how things were in the 1970s.

Today, these types of dictatorships are no longer possible in South America. It was possible in Honduras in 2009, but it is more difficult elsewhere. So, there are new strategies — so-called soft coups that exploit popular dissatisfaction to try to destabilise governments. But in Bolivia, we see a coup that has involved an insurgent armed force, the police rioting, and the army command suggesting that a democratically elected president resign.

This is what we’ve had to deal with during these recent years of historic change in Latin America, where we’ve seen a series of progressive governments that have not aligned with US policies. Washington takes these latter for its enemy — and it is destabilising them, ever more brazenly. When it can’t do this, because of our popular support, it tries to liquidate them by means of lawfare. This criminalisation of politics explains what happened with Lula, with Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, and with my vice president Jorge Glas. Such things are impossible in a state based on the rule of law, but they are fine when they are used against left-wing leaders.


Evo Morales is seeking asylum in Mexico. Do you think it would have been possible for him to seek asylum in Ecuador?


There are a number of imbalances here — the US influence, the blockade of Venezuela, the [Ecuadorian government’s] handing over of Julian Assange, and its granting of a new US military base in the Galapagos Islands. I’d welcome a US military base in Manta if they give Ecuador a military base in Miami. But I’ve had no reply to this proposal as of yet.

People like Lenín Moreno persecute us and try to annihilate us as peoples along with our reputations by accusing us of corruption and repression. They create political myths trying to eliminate our political movements, knowing that we are the primary electoral force.

How could Evo Morales risk going to Ecuador, even temporarily, when Lenín Moreno is so beholden to the United States that he won’t even allow Morales to pass through Ecuadorian airspace? He did this to demonstrate his submission to Donald Trump, but I think even Trump will laugh at an underling like Moreno. Luckily, López Obrador is there in Mexico, and he opened his country’s doors to Morales, pursuing its nearly century-long tradition of respect for human rights.


Ecuador now has a tense peace, following the recent uprisings against Moreno’s neoliberal policies and cuts to government subsidies. How do you see the current situation, after the government’s deals with various social sectors?


This is not peace, but pacification. Peace is based on truth and justice. This government is keeping control through terror, for fear that I will win. When you say there is dialogue with some political forces who participated in the protests, the fact is that the main group involved in the dialogue was the CONAIE [Indigenous Confederation]. But the CONAIE leadership always supported the government, so this was just pantomime. They weren’t just sympathisers — they had government ministers. But once the government was weakened, the grassroots rebelled and overwhelmed the leadership.

One good thing about our constitution is that you can avoid chaos by bringing elections forward, as a safety valve. So, the government agreed to dialogue in order to repeal certain measures. All this came only after eleven people were dead, along with 1,300 wounded, 1,200 detained, and the biggest protests in our contemporary history. We saw the most brutal repression we can remember since the military dictatorship, if not much worse. And yet the government wants to act as if the increase in fuel prices was the only problem.

A little while ago, I met a CONAIE industrial advisor, Paco Dávalo, who said that the government would fall the following Monday. But on the Sunday, CONAIE decided to enter a dialogue with the government, so that I wouldn’t have the chance to demand that the government resign. They only agreed to negotiate and repeal the price increases after a great deal of pain and death.

This enraged a big part of the indigenous base, as well as the people in general. This is a time bomb, especially if they follow through on the deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The people demanded that the IMF get out, that Moreno get out, that the defence and interior ministries get out. But the agreement with the IMF requires Moreno to free up fuel prices, that he increase VAT, and to take other measures that could be the detonator for fresh protests.


Can your party Revolución Ciudadana recover a role in institutional politics?


At the last elections we saw that we are the country’s biggest political force — we had the biggest popular vote even though we couldn’t run candidates in every province. We had to join a new political alliance because we were robbed of our historic Alianza País. Even five days before the elections, we had still not been allowed to register a new party, and even afterward, many people didn’t know that our political project Revolución Ciudadana participated in the Compromiso Social — Electoral List 5.

But in the three most populated provinces, we came in second place in one and first place in the other two. So, we have many supporters, and these difficulties won’t prevent us from participating. Because of this, they have issued injunctions and arrest orders so that I cannot return to my country. I have kept my political rights intact and I could run for vice president further on, but they are not going to allow it. If this were a real democracy, if they played by the rules, the field would be open for us to take power.


The continental political map is shaking, for instance, in Brazil but also in Chile. What do you think about the popular rebellion there? Are you optimistic?


There is hope. The Chilean people rose up, but I also feel a lot of pain for the tragedy they have suffered and the cost in human lives. I feel for the twenty-one-year-old psychology student Gustavo Gatica, who lost his sight in both eyes when a police officer shot him right in the face. They blinded him — and when I think about this, it’s hard for me to sleep. I offer my full solidarity.

That pain is also the basis of hope for the Chilean people — and it rose up not just against a thirty peso rise in the subway fare, but against over thirty years of exclusion. They are bringing down a “successful” economic and political model that really never was that. In fact, Uruguay was more successful, but only after ten years of a leftist government — and that doesn’t serve for [the Right’s] propaganda purposes. Chile has the highest per capita income of any country in the region, but it is also the most unequal. The reality on the ground is completely different from what [GDP] indicators say.

Faced with such injustice and such exclusion, people rebelled. I do not know what the solution will be. Unfortunately, Chile still operates under the 1983 constitution written under Augusto Pinochet. Many people are proposing a constituent assembly. What is clear is that Chile will never be the same again.

And there are other hopeful signs as well. For example, the release of Lula was great news, as was Alberto Fernandez’s victory in Argentina and the popularity of other leftist leaders. In Brazil, Bolsonaro’s popularity is destroyed — if Lula were allowed to be a candidate, he’d be president. They robbed him of his freedom but also robbed Brazil of democracy.

The other good news is the governmental agreement in Spain — a very important country for Latin America. A progressive coalition between the PSOE and Unidas Podemos will constitute a progressive government well acquainted with Latin America, especially thanks to Podemos. Spain and Europe will have to pay closer attention to Latin America and that will be an important factor in preventing so much abuse, so much lawfare, so many constitutional breakdowns, so many coups d’état.

I believe there are hopeful times but, unfortunately, there are both advances and setbacks. Remember, Evo won the elections — the only discussion is about how much he won by. There is an OAS report that says there were irregularities but no fraud. So, this was not the real trigger for so much violence and for Morales’s removal. The United States was behind it.

Latin America must realise that we cannot accomplish anything with the OAS anymore — we need our own space to discuss our problems with the United States and Canada, but we must do so in a bloc where we can meet among ourselves to resolve conflicts and make decisions. That real space, that serious forum, is the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, CELAC.


The fact that Lula is free, for now at least, raises the prospect of a reconfiguration of CELAC and of steps toward regional unity. . .


Yes, the conservatives can throw up obstacles, but they cannot change the course of history. In the late 1980s they foisted neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus on us, but Latin Americans never accepted it. We, the progressive governments, thus came out of a lost decade, a decade of administering the debt crisis. If we compare 2002–2014 to those times, it was Latin America’s golden age. We have never seen so much growth or so much poverty reduction.

We also had growth in the 1960s and 1970s. But not in such a healthy fashion, with falling inequality and poverty and a growing presence in international affairs. In [the 2002–14 period] we were widely admired — ninety million Latin Americans were raised out of poverty, mainly because of the policies of progressive governments. Then after ten years, fourteen years in power, they can always find a misplaced comma and say, “look, there is corruption” and fool people. They say that everything went wrong and that they could do better. But they came to denigrate us, not to improve the situation. And after six months, or a year, in power they have achieved nothing better. The people now realize that they were better off before. You can no longer fool all the people all the time. The conservatives have to compare themselves to our results.

Look at what’s happening in Argentina, or think what would have happened in Brazil if Lula had been a candidate. Look what happened in Bolivia: Evo got 48 percent of the vote. Or look at me in Ecuador — they have to persecute me because I would beat them in any election. The people are with us. So, they can continue to delay the course of history, but they won’t be able to change it.


It is difficult to speak in macro terms, but one interpretation today holds that neoliberalism is weak and its claws have a weaker hold on the region. Whether in the streets and at the ballot box, there is a more open questioning of things. What do you think about this argument?


For some time, people have started to realise how they’ve been deceived. For example, in Ecuador, taxes and tariffs were lowered in order to improve banks’ external sources of financing, but the resources available for public banking, social security, and the central bank were cut off. The Lenín Moreno government reinstated some subsidies that we removed because they were ineffective — but it did so only in order to say that that they are humanitarians and I am not.

Even those who believe politically in neoliberalism have to say that this is an inappropriate way to install it in Latin America. Neoliberalism is meant to be based on the free market, but a series of conditions are required for the free market to work efficiently, which are especially implausible in the Latin American context. Above all, amid the huge inequalities there is a lack of competition. The level playing field on which basis neoliberalism is supposed to work is precisely what we lack in Latin America.

Someone could say, “yes, I believe in neoliberalism.” But first, we’d need to generate equal conditions in education, health, university, and technical training. And these things must come from the state.

Conceptually, that is what neoliberalism requires. But when it comes to implementation, they are creole neoliberals — that is, they are neoliberals only when it suits them. When they win, they privatise the profits, and when they lose, they socialise the losses. They say everything is the government’s fault, that we do have neoliberalism, but it is infected with large doses of corruption. But in fact, they are using political power to benefit certain groups under the guise of competition. That’s what Lenín Moreno is doing in Ecuador: cutting taxes for powerful groups and for importers and raising fuel prices that harm the entire Ecuadorian people.


In Brazil under Bolsonaro, we see the rise of a more vicious far right, as with Camacho in Bolivia. There is also an incipient far right in Ecuador and Argentina. How should we understand this phenomenon?


I think the far right has always been there, but it has had to hide away because these people lost power. But now they’ve returned with a thirst for vengeance. They use brutal, crude rhetoric, and bombard the media with it — after all, the media belong to them, too.

People accept this for a while at least, because it seems like a solution. For example, Bolsonaro emphasised the issue of insecurity. Yet the issue of security was a big theme raised by the Left, because the only way to combat it is with human development, not by giving bigger guns to the police.

In Bolivia, Camacho — who was, by the way, an unknown like Bolsonaro, a far-right religious fundamentalist — is supposedly a defender of democracy. But he opposes new elections because he knows that Evo will win. The elites can’t stand the fact that an indigenous president did more for Bolivia in thirteen years than they accomplished in more than a century. They are tremendously racist. They are showing themselves for what they are, because now they face a battle for power, whereas before they did not have to fight for it.


It seems to me that there is an important question here about militarisation and the role of the army in post-dictatorship Latin America.


Our nations, our republics, were born from military origins — their first leaders and presidents were the officers who fought for their independence at the head of armies. From the outset there has been a strong presence of the armed forces.

This helps explain why Latin America imploded. Since independence, the same political and administrative divisions were maintained, for better or worse, that existed during the colonial Viceroyalty of New Granada, the United Provinces of the South, and the Central American Provinces. But every military caudillo wanted his own country.

Unfortunately, the military’s excessive power has stayed with us — and it remains a threat to political power. It is difficult to confront it, because the military become the arbiters of democracy, withdrawing or granting their support. If you don’t have the support of the military, and you have an immature democracy with an oligarchy, the fascist elites can do all sorts to you.

In Ecuador, that is why the highest-ranking military officials opposed me creating a special citizens’ security law. They received payments of 5,000 dollars paid for by lower-ranking soldiers, so the officers could have a special supermarket with toys for Christmas and everything. They even had a schedule for the different ranks: Monday was for the commanders and the colonels, their wives and families, etc. Tuesday was for lieutenant colonels and other senior officers, and so on. The privates went on Saturday, and by then there wasn’t anything left.

They had miserable salaries, but they instilled a paternalistic mentality, the five-year-old son of a general is convinced that he is superior because he receives an electric toy as a gift. The military had its own educational system, their own financial and housing system, their own industrial system. They had their own separate republic apart. When they retired (often very early), they joined the reserves, collecting astronomical pensions. What is the point of that?

It’s very difficult when you fight against this — they have guns and power and very little democratic sentiment. But if we want to have genuine republics and true democracy, we can’t continue putting up with the excessive weight of the military.


I want to ask you about corruption, which is connected to the question of lawfare you referred to earlier. How can we address this question from the left?


Unfortunately, corruption is socially accepted — psychologists call it cognitive dissonance. It is one thing to express your values in opposition to corruption and quite another thing to practice them. Everyone tolerates it.

Corruption is a pandemic in Latin America. We eradicated institutionalized, tolerated corruption, but when you fight corruption you find combinations and secret accounts in Andorra, and you have to fight tax havens. We banned tax havens for public officials.

But “anti-corruption” is a perverse and persistent strategy, like lawfare. They don’t kill you like in the 1970s but kill your reputation by talking about corruption.

If you want to find something wrong in a ten-year government, then you can — whether it be a misplaced fine or something else you want to call attention to. Governments free from corruption only exist in the United States. There’s corruption in Spain, in Germany, in the Vatican. My governments did not tolerate corruption. But with their control of the media, elites can exploit the cases that inevitably do crop up. And whether the culprit is in government HQ or in a ministry, the media will blame the president.

They whipped up a scandal around me, analysing my travels, all my emails, my computers, and everything, but they have not found anything. Instead, they just keep repeating that the president is corrupt, or that he tolerated corruption even if we really eradicated it. The same can be said about Lula, with Cristina, or with Evo Morales.

Over time, people have realised that there has been more corruption in the last two years than in my government over ten years. But at first, these accusations demoralise even our own activists. Faced with corruption, activists distance themselves for a while, they become inactive, demoralised. But they then recover over time, even if they have suffered some damage.

About the Author

Rafael Correa was president of Ecuador from 2007 to 2017.

About the Interviewer

Nicolas Allen is a Jacobin contributing editor and the managing editor at Jacobin América Latina.

About the Translator

Todd Chretien is an organiser, author, translator, and high school Spanish teacher. He has contributed to several books, including Socialist Strategy and Electoral Politics.