Andrés Arauz: Ecuador’s Presidential Front-Runner on COVID, Austerity & Ending U.S. Interference

StoryFebruary 16, 2021
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Ecuador’s presidential front-runner says the country is facing a “double crisis” of COVID-19 and austerity. “We need a renewal in our politics,” Andrés Arauz tells Democracy Now! The left-wing economist secured nearly 33% of the vote in the first round of Ecuador’s presidential election on February 7 but fell short of the 40% needed to win outright. He will face right-wing banker Guillermo Lasso or Indigenous candidate Yaku Pérez in a runoff election on April 11, depending on the results of a recount after both candidates secured just over 19% of the vote. Arauz has pledged to end austerity measures imposed by Ecuador’s outgoing right-wing President Lenín Moreno and is close to former President Rafael Correa, who led the country from 2007 to 2017 and has been credited with lifting over a million Ecuadorians out of poverty. Arauz served in Correa’s administration as director of the Central Bank and later as a minister. Arauz says he would seek to work with the Biden administration, if elected, and rejects attempts to interfere in Latin American affairs. “We need to talk about peace, democracy, development as the key issues in Latin America,” says Arauz. “We do not want foreign interference in our region. … We hope the Biden administration will stay away from trying to create division within the region.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Ecuador is preparing to hold a partial recount of its February 7th presidential election. The left-wing economist Andrés Arauz placed first, securing nearly 33% of the vote, a third of the vote, but fell short of the 40% needed to avoid a runoff. Arauz has pledged to end austerity measures imposed by Ecuador’s right-wing President Lenín Moreno, who did not seek reelection.

It remains unclear who Arauz will face in a runoff election on April 11th. Guillermo Lasso is currently in second place with 19.74% of the vote. Lasso is a right-wing banker running for president for the third time. And Indigenous candidate Yaku Pérez, who ran partly on an anti-extraction platform, has 19.38% of the vote.

The front-runner, Andrés Arauz, has been described as a protégé of former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, who led the country from 2007 to 2017 and has been credited with lifting over a million Ecuadorians out of poverty. Arauz served in Correa’s administration as director of Ecuador’s Central Bank and later as minister of knowledge and human talent. He just turned 36 years old, would be Ecuador’s youngest president, if elected. Correa considered running for vice president under him on a ticket, but Correa was prevented from doing so because he faces an eight-year jail sentence on alleged corruption violations imposed by the Moreno government. Correa is now living in exile in Belgium.

The election comes as Ecuador is facing an economic and public health crisis. At least 15,000 people have died in Ecuador from COVID-19, the actual number of deaths believed to be far higher. Ecuador recorded an excess toll of 40,000 deaths last year. Millions of Ecuadorians have fallen into poverty over the past year.

We’re joined now by the Ecuadorian presidential candidate Andrés Arauz, who’s on a short visit to the United States. He is joining us from New York City.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.

ANDRÉS ARAUZ: Hi, Amy. It’s good to be here. Thank you very much for the invitation. And I’m glad to be sharing here with the Ecuadorian community in New York and also with possible investors in the financial community here in New York City.

AMY GOODMAN: Because the Ecuadorian community here in New York can vote, is that right?

ANDRÉS ARAUZ: Yes, Ecuadorians can vote abroad, and then they can also elect representatives to our national parliament. That was one of the innovations of the 2008 Constitution, among many others, such as including rights for nature and concept of buen vivir, or good living.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the problems Ecuador faces, why you ran, what it means to be, as you call yourself, a heterodox economist. You’re the presidential front-runner. We’ll talk about who you might face in the runoff. But the dramatic crises that Ecuador is facing right now, from the economy to the pandemic?

ANDRÉS ARAUZ: Well, we’re facing a double crisis right now, basically, one, of the pandemic, where the government was absolutely negligent regarding its management. We have the highest death toll, after Peru, in the world. This is a very serious case. Our numbers do not match. The Ecuadorian efforts at fighting the pandemic have been null. There have only been around 4,000 vaccines that have been delivered for a population of 17 million-plus. And basically, the public health system has been under the strain of austerity. There have been over 6,000 public servants in the health system that have been fired during the pandemic because of stringent austerity policies that have had a huge impact on Ecuador’s population, increasing poverty and inequality.

So, we have to face these two crises simultaneously. And we are proposing an aggressive investment plan, including emergency aid, similar to the paychecks that have been delivered here in the U.S., to the most vulnerable in the Ecuadorian population. But also, we intend to have an aggressive program to have the vaccine available for most of Ecuador’s population as a public service in the short term. This is very important for us to overcome these two crises in the very short time, because we are now facing what we call a lack of trust within Ecuadorian society, and we need to fix that as soon as possible; otherwise, this might become even a humanitarian crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: You have been described as Correa’s pick to be the next president of Ecuador. Can you explain what you agree with Correa in his decade presidency? You served, of course, in his administration. What you agree with and what you disagree with?

ANDRÉS ARAUZ: Well, we have had huge advances in terms of investment in infrastructure, higher-quality education, a public health system that has been crucial to fight the pandemic. We created and rebuilt over 52 hospitals around the country. If those hadn’t been available, the death toll would have been even higher. So, I think most of the Ecuadorian population agrees that the investment in the social sector, in infrastructure, in the productive sector of the economy, was very important to promote Ecuador’s development and to get closer to our paradigm of buen vivir, of good living.

However, there are many issues where we differ. For example, Rafael Correa was much more active in terms of establishing differences with the political opponents, with confrontation with the media, for example. We think that freedom of expression is a human right. And as a human right, there are human rights legislations that should be enough to cover, for example, issues with the media and freedom of expression.

Also, I think now we need a renewal in our politics. We are trying to promote a new generation of politicians and new and fresher ideas that have to do with creativity, innovation, the role of the digital economy, where we think we have huge opportunities for the Ecuadorian population, once we go through these parallel crises that have been hitting our economy and our population very hard.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you plan on renegotiating the debt? You have said that you would cancel the IMF debt. Massive protests took place last year against the Moreno government for their austerity measures?

ANDRÉS ARAUZ: Yes, we had an uprising in October 2019 after the government of Moreno basically, on one stroke, increased over 200% the price of gasoline and diesel. That was a huge hit to the Ecuadorian people, so the people came out to the streets. Now, there was huge repression, over 1,200 people that were jailed, many people that were killed, around a dozen or so. And this is not justifiable by any means in our country.

We are against the austerity policies that were pursued by the government of Lenín Moreno. We want to implement a heterodox economic policy, that will increase public investment, that will increase social protection for the population. And that will, in itself, create economic recovery in the short and the medium term. So, this is what we’re proposing, and including an emergency package for a million vulnerable families in the Ecuadorian population.

Also, incredibly, the pandemic has created a new problem, which is lack of internet access for about half of Ecuador’s student population, that hasn’t been able to continue their studies because of lack of internet. So we also need an emergency internet program, which implies large infrastructure investment, to cover the entire Ecuadorian territory with quality internet for Ecuadorians, especially for youngsters.

AMY GOODMAN: So, one of your opponents, the Indigenous environmentalist Yaku Pérez, ran on a platform calling for an end to mining and other extractive industries in Ecuador. He was arrested fighting mining projects during the Correa administration, in which you served. He was jailed under his administration. The world is facing a climate catastrophe. Do you support these calls to end mining? And also, how would you improve relations with Ecuador’s Indigenous communities, that were strained under President Correa?

ANDRÉS ARAUZ: Well, I think Yaku Pérez’s arrest at the time was a mistake. I think that made him famous. But, on the other hand, I think it was a bit too much in terms of the policies that were pursued at that moment.

I also think that the anti-extractivism agenda has to be perhaps a bit more sophisticated, a bit more detailed, because there are many issues that have to be covered, including, for example, industrialization of the mines, the development of the communities that are in the surrounding areas. We cannot have a neocolonial extractivist agenda, but we can perhaps pursue a development-oriented mining and oil and agricultural agenda that takes into account the needs of the local communities and makes them the main stakeholders in these projects. They have to be linked with an entire educational and technological agenda, so that the knowledge and the technology associated with those projects can remain in the country, and especially in those communities.

Now, I think we have a huge opportunity in Ecuador to propose unity of the progressive sector, the Indigenous sector and the social democracy sector, which if you take into account in Ecuador in the last election, it’s above two-thirds of the votes and also two-thirds of the parliamentary representation. So we have a large opportunity to unite the progressive forces of Ecuador and to propose an agenda that furthers the agenda proposed in the Constitution of Ecuador of 2008, which includes what we call a plurinational and intercultural state with the Indigenous movement.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to ask you about this runoff and whether you’re concerned about it. On Monday, the Organization of American States expressed, quote, “concern” about Ecuador’s election. How concerned are you that the OAS, that the United States could attempt to overturn this first election?

ANDRÉS ARAUZ: Well, we’re worried in the sense that there has not been a decision, a formal decision, on who the two final parties to the runoff are. We know that we’re going to be there. But by delaying the decision, there might be an attempt to delay the second round, as well, and even extend Lenín Moreno’s period at the government. That would be unacceptable for the Ecuadorian population. Everybody wants Moreno out. He has been totally negligent with the management of our country, with the administration. So we’re worried about that.

We’re also worried that the possible recount may create incidents, that would imply destruction of electoral material. And that’s not something that we want. We want a recount that is based on the Constitution, on the law. And if the recount does occur, we will need to be present, as well. It cannot only be just a discussion between the second and third places. We also need to be there to safeguard that our votes are being monitored, that they are being taken care of.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask you about Yaku Pérez’s position on other countries in Latin America. He is running as an ecosocialist but also has a long record of publicly criticizing many of Latin America’s former progressive leaders, including Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, also Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina. In 2016, he tweeted, “Corruption ended the governments of Dilma and Cristina; now all that’s missing is for Rafael Correa and Maduro to fall. It’s just a matter of time.” Yaku Pérez later supported the coup in Bolivia. He talked about Evo Morales as a “little dictator.” Can you talk about your positions on all of this?

ANDRÉS ARAUZ: Right. First, I have to clarify that he is not running on an ecosocialist platform. He’s basically running on an anti-progressive platform himself, even though the Indigenous movement is much more diverse, much more heterogeneous.

And the Indigenous movement largely also supports our candidacy. We have very good relations with the Indigenous movement in Ecuador, and several of our candidates are also from the Indigenous movement, including former president of the CONAIE, Ricardo Ulcuango.

So, I think the situation is a bit more sophisticated than that and a bit more nuanced. And we are trying to build consensus and agreement around that area. Right now is not a moment to strengthen the differences, but rather to strengthen the similarities, the points in common that we have with the Indigenous movement and with an agenda that has to comply with the Ecuadorian Constitution, which is a constitution that recognizes the need for a plurinational state, which means that there has to be degrees of autonomy for the Indigenous peoples, that has to include a relationship where the Indigenous languages have to be present in the educational system, and many other issues such as those. So, we are looking forward to finding huge agreements for our country, for the benefit of the Ecuadorian population. And this is precisely the moment where we have to focus on that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what is your position on Venezuela and President Maduro? You have the new Biden administration that talks about a presidency of Juan Guaidó. Your thoughts on this? Where do you stand when it comes to Maduro and the Biden administration’s position on Venezuela?

ANDRÉS ARAUZ: I stand with what basically the rest of the world has been saying, that we have to recognize the self-determination of the people of Venezuela. The EU has recently changed its position — I’m referring to the European Union. And most of Latin America has a clear agenda to keep peace in the region, right? So, we think we need to talk about peace, democracy, development as the key issues in Latin America. We do not want foreign interference in our region. We do not want war in our region. We need peace. And that should be the main, you know, settings on the main platform for the conversation about Venezuela or any other country in the region.

Now, we believe in regional integration. We believe in the unity of the Latin American peoples, where we have so much in common. And, you know, when you see a powerful bloc, such as the European Union, which are so diverse in terms of languages, the economic sectors, the cultures — and in Latin America, a very similar agenda, very similar culture, very similar languages; however, it’s taken us so long for full regional integration. So, that’s where we’re going to go forward with that. And we hope the Biden administration will be — will stay away from trying to create division within the region and, on the other hand, will try to create those spaces for regional integration in the region, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you believe the OAS can be a fair arbiter, a fair observer of the elections?

ANDRÉS ARAUZ: I think the OAS has basically two big spaces within itself. First, you have the political realm, with Secretary Almagro, which has been a total anti-leftist, with a clear anti-left agenda, anti-progressive agenda. He has been very vocal about that. And there is nothing there to hide.

But on the other hand, the OAS does have technical teams that have professional credentials in terms of election monitoring. And we hope that in this case, the election observers that come from the technical realm are the ones who will prevail in terms of the process.

AMY GOODMAN: What has to happen when it comes to the pandemic? Do you have access to vaccines in Ecuador? Talk about the devastation of COVID-19.

ANDRÉS ARAUZ: Well, first, we need to come out with the truth, you know? The government has not recognized the total number of deaths that occurred during the pandemic in 2020. Right now we’re seeing a surge in the number of cases. The hospitals are already full again. Ecuador is one of the countries with the lowest standard in terms of testing for the population. We need to have more testing and more aggressive testing throughout the country. We also need, of course, biosafety and biosecurity measures for the population, that has not been occurring so far.

And, of course, the vaccine. It so happens that the current president and the minister of health got a vaccine before the rest of the population and, of course, before our public servants at the health system that are on the frontline of the battle against COVID. So, this is absolutely grave. It’s very serious. There has been an uproar in the Ecuadorian population due to these practices by the Ecuadorian government.

And we need to get the vaccine. We have talked with Argentine President Fernández, who will guarantee that a large amount of vaccines, over 4.4 million doses, from Argentina, that are being produced there, will arrive to Ecuador in our new government. I hope the Ecuadorian government of Lenín Moreno does something about it soon enough, sooner than later. But if he doesn’t do anything about it, we will be acting very quickly, very swiftly, starting our government on May 24th.

AMY GOODMAN: And very quickly, we’re coming up the two-year anniversary of the Moreno government revoking the political asylum for Julian Assange, who was in the embassy for years in Britain. Now the Biden administration says they will continue to pursue his extradition. Your thoughts on the significance of what Julian Assange represented?

ANDRÉS ARAUZ: Look, when the asylum was revoked, there were many human rights and civil rights that were violated, including overturning Assange’s citizenship as an Ecuadorian citizen. That is something that we will look into and then see how — if that situation changes, how we may act upon that internationally. However, I think Assange’s human rights have to be respected. And now with the first decision in the U.K. courts, it is something to really think about, what is happening to a human being such as him. I think we’ve seen —

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

ANDRÉS ARAUZ: We’ve seen from President Obama a different perspective on that, and we hope the Biden administration does that, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrés Arauz, we’re going to have to leave it there, Ecuadorian presidential candidate, if elected, would become the youngest president of Ecuador. I’m Amy Goodman.

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