Ecuador News Round-Up No. 13: Ecuador Storms the Mexican Embassy and Citizens Reject ISDS

April 26, 2024

Results from Ecuador’s Referendum

On April 21, Ecuadorian citizens went to the polls to vote on an 11-question referendum, 5 of which related to amendments to the Ecuadorian Constitution. President Noboa encouraged voters to approve nine questions related to crime and security, suggesting these as the only way to deal with the historic security crisis. The questions proposed increasing criminal sentences, extraditing Ecuadorians to third countries, militarizing law enforcement, seizing criminally obtained assets, and allowing authorities to use seized weapons, among others. The other two, questions D and E, concerned the economy, proposing a return to treaty-based investor–state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms, and the introduction of fixed-term and hourly employment contracts, respectively.

Ecuadorians voted “yes” on the nine security questions and “no” on the two economic ones. With 72.25 percent of votes in favor and 27.75 percent against, Question A, which permits the armed forces to conduct operations alongside the police without requiring a state of emergency, garnered the most support. The other security questions, including stricter weapons checks by armed forces in areas close to prisons, the extradition of Ecuadorians, and tougher prison sentences, received between 59 and 69 percent approval. Voters rejected Question D by 65.18 percent, while the “no” vote on Question E prevailed with 69.53 percent.

Opponents of Question E, on fixed-term and hourly employment contracts, had argued the proposed changes would make work more precarious. Question D, meanwhile, was criticized because investment and trade agreements containing such provisions have resulted in costly lawsuits against governments acting in the public interest.

President Noboa, business interests, and right-wing parties favored a “yes” vote in the referendum, while Ecuador’s largest labor unions and Indigenous organizations, along with left and center-left parties, came out strongly against the need for the referendum to be held at all, and for a “no” vote on questions D and E in particular. As a result, sectors of the Ecuadorian left say the results represent an important victory, with the leaders of the progressive Revolución Ciudadana party (RC) stating they “put the breaks” on Noboa, who lost on the only questions the opposition actually campaigned against. The president and his supporters, meanwhile, also claimed victory, though they did not come out to celebrate.

Overall, the results offer more breathing room for Noboa, who, at 150 days in office, is nearing the end of his honeymoon period. Noboa hopes to ride this renewed wave of public support to the February 2025 presidential elections, in which he plans to run — likely as a “tough-on-crime” candidate.

Meanwhile, the public’s overwhelming rejection of the economic questions is a blow to the government’s neoliberal economic agenda. Noboa expected citizens to vote “yes” on all questions, betting they would fail to tell the economic proposals from the security questions. But voters remained vigilant, protecting their rights and pushing back against the current administration’s attempts to open Ecuador to lawsuits by foreign companies.

Noboa may also be experiencing political fatigue after the referendum, as his victory on the security questions came at a significant political price, including international isolation, if we consider the storming of the Mexican embassy to be part of Noboa’s referenda campaign. As discussed below, this was likely an electoral ploy to garner support before the vote. He has also further strained his relationship with the left, saying academic critics of the referendum “sound more like HPs [short for “sons of bitches”] than PhDs.” Moreover, the president’s violent crackdown on mining protests has worsened his already contentious relationship with the Indigenous community.

As the Organization of American States Electoral Observation Mission to the 2023 presidential elections warned, many Ecuadorians have experienced voter fatigue, and the referenda saw a 10 percent drop in turnout compared to similar elections. For years, Ecuadorian politics have been caught in a polarizing correísmo vs anticorreísmo dynamic, and while Noboa campaigned for president as an “anti-nothing” pro-Ecuador centrist, his referendum campaign and storming of the Mexican embassy put him firmly in the anticorreísta camp. By replicating the cycle, he has contributed to a wide sense of political fatigue.

Three of the approved questions will amend or reform the constitution. The changes will enter into force with their appearance in the official gazette once the electoral authorities issue final results. The six remaining questions require action by the National Assembly, which has 60 days from the issuance of final results to debate and approve the referendum-related proposals. While the major parties have said they will work to comply with the referendum’s outcome, this may prove challenging for Noboa, who has seen his loose legislative coalition collapse, and tensions with a potential new ally rise (see “Domestic Fallout,” below).

Violence Spikes and the State of Emergency Ends (Though Not Really)

In recent weeks, Ecuador has experienced a new spike in violence that contradicts the government’s narrative that its extreme security measures — including the declaration of an “internal armed conflict” against gangs, mass arrests, and military deployment to fight organized crime and manage prisons — have made the country safer. Between March 24 and 31 alone, 137 violent deaths were recorded, including 80 in just three days. Among the victims was Brigitte García, Ecuador’s youngest mayor, whose murder shocked the country and made international headlines. Two other mayors were murdered in April: José Sánchez of the Camilo Ponce Enríquez municipality, and Jorge Maldonado of the southern canton of Portovelo. A prison director was also murdered on the day of the referenda.

Police arrested Fabricio Colón Pico, a leader of the Lobos gang, the day after Noboa’s referenda. Colón Pico, along with another high-profile gang leader and several other inmates, had escaped prison on January 7 and 8 amid riots, causing embarrassment for the government.

On April 7, Noboa’s state of emergency, which had restricted certain rights, established a curfew, and deployed the military, expired. During its 90-day duration, security forces conducted 270,000 operations, resulting in the arrest of 18,000 people and the deaths of 20 alleged gang members. Human rights organizations have repeatedly raised concerns about human rights violations and other abuses by the military and police. At the Regional de Guayaquil prison, inmates rioted on March 27 over alleged mistreatment by the military, leaving three inmates dead and another six injured.

The day of the state of emergency’s expiration, Noboa issued decree 218, declaring the “persistence” of the internal armed conflict. Even though Ecuadorians will no longer be subject to curfews, the decree barely modifies the state of exception, as the military and police will continue to manage prisons and carry out operations throughout the country. The decree also empowers the ministers of defense and interior to request that the president declare a state of emergency.

The Return of Power Cuts

The week of Noboa’s referenda, the ministry of energy and mines announced it would begin rationing energy and instituting rolling blackouts for an undetermined period of time. Aside from its inadequate planning and insufficient investment in energy production, Ecuador has been hit hard by a severe drought resulting from the onset of the Niño phenomenon and one of the warmest winters in 30 years. Ecuador generates 80 percent of its electricity through hydroelectric plants.

The Lasso administration had also announced planned blackouts back in October, which contributed to the former president’s tanking popularity. Noboa declared an end to these electricity cuts on February 23, but by March, the National Electricity Operator warned that more planned blackouts were necessary, and unplanned mass blackouts began. More mass blackouts took place on April 14, with the government and electricity companies saying these and previous electricity cuts were due to maintenance, not the energy crisis. Amid a wave of complaints, the ministry of energy and mines publicly acknowledged the energy crisis and announced planned blackouts on April 15.

Even though the ministry blamed drought, rising temperatures, historically low water levels, and lacking maintenance for the blackouts, Noboa — without proof — pointed to “sabotage” of the energy grid by opponents of his referenda, and vowed that there would be investigations. He requested the minister of energy and mines’ resignation, declared a state of emergency for the energy sector, offered to subsidize 50 percent of April electricity bills, and ordered businesses and government offices to close for two days. He also filed a complaint with the Prosecutor General’s Office against the minister and other ministry officials, and other institutions dealing with energy, alleging that they had kept energy system information secret to provoke blackouts ahead of the referenda. On April 19, Noboa declared a 60-day national state of emergency and deployed security forces to guard energy infrastructure.

By blaming sabotage, Noboa has disregarded experts’ warnings to his and previous administrations about the dire state of the energy grid. Neighboring Colombia is facing similar issues, which led it to limit, and subsequently suspend, energy exports to Ecuador in late March and early April.

“There will be no easy solutions in the short term,” said the minister of transportation and public works, who is now also temporarily in charge of the ministry of energy and mines. He later added that there is no end date set for the blackouts.

Ecuador’s Kidnapping of the Former Vice President and Diplomatic Crisis with Mexico

Late in the night on April 5, Ecuadorian police trampled on one of the most fundamental principles of international law by raiding the Mexican embassy in Quito and kidnapping Ecuador’s former vice president Jorge Glas. Glas had been in the embassy since December, awaiting a decision on an asylum claim over alleged political persecution. The day before the raid, Ecuador had declared Mexico’s ambassador persona non grata in response to comments by Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador about Ecuador’s 2023 elections. Mexico granted Glas asylum the following day, and Ecuador responded by denying him safe passage and removing him from the embassy by force, assaulting Mexican diplomats and Glas in the process.

Ecuador’s raid is a violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which states that diplomatic missions are inviolable. Embassies are treated as the sovereign territory of the countries that occupy them. Violations of this principle have been extremely rare, and even brutal military dictatorships have almost universally respected it (there was one “hot pursuit” breach of an embassy in Uruguay in 1976) when dissidents and opponents sought refuge in embassies. Ecuador itself granted asylum to Julian Assange for seven years at its London embassy before the Lenín Moreno administration expelled him.

The Noboa administration’s actions were met with universal condemnation in the Western Hemisphere (and beyond) from governments across the political spectrum, including the US, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, and Honduras. The Organization of American States passed a resolution condemning Ecuador, while the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) convened a special summit that condemned Noboa’s actions and called for Glas’s asylum status to be respected. Mexico City has filed a case at the International Court of Justice requesting damages and for Ecuador to be expelled from the UN if it does not apologize. Mexico severed diplomatic relations with Ecuador and recalled its diplomatic staff. Colombian president Gustavo Petro suspended a planned bilateral cabinet meeting with Ecuador and asked the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) for human rights protections for Glas after Noboa said he “does not regret anything.” Venezuela closed its embassy and consulates in the country, while Honduras likewise called home its diplomats.

In addition, Ecuador’s electoral authority announced that it was closing the referenda vote to Ecuadorian migrants in Mexico after the Mexican government said it would no longer have security personnel at voting stations.

To justify the embassy raid, the Noboa administration argued that Mexico had violated both Article 41 of the Vienna Convention, by using the embassy in a manner incompatible with the functions of a diplomatic mission; and Article 3 of the 1954 Caracas Convention on Diplomatic Asylum, by granting asylum to a convicted criminal, as Jorge Glas has been convicted twice (even though Glas was a “free man” — in the words of the prosecutor general — when he actually filed the request for asylum). The Noboa government also argued that it had been carrying out an arrest warrant for Glas and that there was a “real risk” he would have “imminently” fled the country.

On the other hand, after a thorough, months-long analysis of his case, Mexico had determined that Glas had suffered political persecution. Mexico’s foreign minister denied that Glas was going to flee and pointed out that Ecuador’s interpretation of the two conventions is incorrect, as Article 22 of the Vienna Convention does not contain exceptions for the inviolability of embassies, and Article 4 of the Caracas Convention gives the country granting asylum the sole right to determine the nature of a person’s offenses and persecution.

In his short time in office, Daniel Noboa has been no stranger to diplomatic blunders. But such a blatant violation of the fundamentals of diplomacy has puzzled analysts as to Noboa’s motives and has called into question the foreign ministry’s competence (the ministry had, in a now-corrected post on X, confused the Vienna Convention with the Caracas Convention). Some have argued that, as he faced declining popularity and wavering support for his referendum, Noboa attempted to project the image of a strong and decisive leader who does not tolerate impunity. When asked if he wanted to “be seen as the tough guy” before the referendum, Noboa told Australian journalists, “Not necessarily … If Glas would have escaped using vehicles from the embassy and planes from the Mexican government, then I would have been too weak for everyone. Now that I caught the guy, I’m too strong.”

Domestic Fallout

The storming of the Mexican embassy, which Ecuador’s foreign minister said was directly ordered by Noboa, has been costly at home as well. It has killed Noboa’s teetering legislative alliance with the progressive RC party, the largest in the National Assembly. On April 6, the RC declared itself to be in formal opposition to Noboa, saying it would not vote for any of his proposals. The RC called for Noboa’s resignation and formally requested impeachment of the ministers of foreign affairs and the interior.

Before the embassy raid, Noboa had been able to pass bills thanks to a loose legislative alliance with the RC and the traditional Social Christian Party (PSC). But even before the embassy assault, the alliance had been on the verge of collapse after Noboa forced through a Value-Added tax increase and other measures. The PSC has since also left the legislative alliance, accusing Noboa’s National Democratic Action (ADN) coalition of poaching lawmakers who had recently left the PSC. Without the RC or PSC, Noboa can no longer form a new majority, even with the support of the remaining parties in the Assembly. He will have to individually negotiate legislative approval of each of his proposals going forward.

The government could seek closer collaboration, or an alliance, with the conservative, anti-RC Construye party, which said in October that engaging with the RC would be a red line it would not cross. However, friction between Noboa and Construye emerged after an electoral tribunal removed Construye from the registry of political organizations on April 18 for failing to present financial documents. Construye blames Noboa for this decision, saying he pressured the tribunal with the goal of removing Construye from the ballot in the 2025 presidential elections. The party’s leader called Noboa an “authoritarian populist” who “doesn’t know what to do with the country,” and the ADN alliance responded with similar jabs at Construye. An alliance between the two conservative forces seems unlikely at the moment.

Following a struggle in the legislature over jurisdiction between the ADN-run international relations committee and the RC-run oversight committee, the international relations committee began a probe into the storming of the embassy. While the probe is expected to be friendly toward the government, the RC, which has members on the committee, hopes to unearth more information about the raid, though the hearings have been declared confidential.

Brief History of Jorge Glas’s Cases

Jorge Glas is a close ally of former president Rafael Correa, under whom he served as vice president and then, briefly, under Lenín Moreno. Glas entered the Mexican embassy on December 17 while on probation, and without any outstanding warrants for his arrest. He told Mexican diplomats that he feared for his safety and personal freedom. The day before, a vague order issued by prosecutors to locate, “immobilize,” and transfer Glas to authorities had been leaked on social media. Glas’s lawyers say this order was issued illegally, without a court order or formal prior notification, to put Glas into custody without proper authorization and then charge him. Glas had good reason to fear, as the IACHR had granted him precautionary measures in 2019 and, due to the danger he faced in prison, in 2021 a UN working group on arbitrary detention urged the Ecuadorian government to safeguard his safety and well-being.

In 2017, Glas was accused of illicit association in the Odebrecht case, centering on the massive Brazilian construction company, and was sentenced by an Ecuadorian court to six years in prison. Last year, a Brazilian supreme court judge annulled evidence linking Glas to the case, after authorities admitted it may have been tampered with, and formally notified Quito of this decision in August, yet Glas’s conviction still stands. In 2020, Glas, along with Correa and other former Correa administration officials, was sentenced to another eight years for bribery in a separate case, the Sobornos case, even though this has been plagued by inconsistencies and lack of evidence. A third conviction against Glas was annulled by an appeals court in 2022 for violations of due process and of Glas’s right to a proper legal defense.

After serving five years in prison, Glas was freed in November 2022 when a judge granted him precautionary measures. This allowed Glas to serve out the remainder of his sentence outside of prison, as long as he stayed in Ecuador and reported regularly to authorities.

The cases against Glas were initiated in the context of the Moreno administration’s restructuring of the Ecuadorian state. Moreno had been a member of Correa’s party and was his successor, but, once in power, he turned against the progressive movement and its policies. Moreno took control of Correa’s party and foiled attempts at its reformation. He held a referendum — which was criticized by the IACHR — that, among other things, granted him extraordinary powers to overhaul the judiciary. After the referendum — held in the short period of time when Moreno enjoyed high approval ratings — passed, Moreno stacked the highest levels of the judiciary and other independent institutions with anti-correísta diehards. As a result, the cases against Glas, Correa, and others bear the familiar hallmarks of what many in Latin America call “lawfare” — the weaponization of the legal and judicial systems against political opponents.

Glas’s Current Situation

The most recent case against Glas, which led him to seek asylum in the Mexican embassy, is called the “Reconstruction” case. Glas is accused of misusing reconstruction funds following the 2016 earthquake that devastated the provinces of Manabí and Esmeraldas. As vice president, Glas headed the Committee for Reconstruction and Productive Reactivation of Employment, which was charged with administering a $3 billion fund. Prosecutor General Diana Salazar alleges that money from the fund was used for several projects — including bridges, roads, fishing docks, and improvements to ports — unrelated to the fund’s stated purpose of “reconstruction.” However, as a member of the Andean Parliament has noted, the law establishing the fund also intended it to be used for the economic revitalization of areas affected by the earthquake, and Correa has argued that Keynesian public investment in new infrastructure was one of the best ways to do this, even if some projects did not involve rebuilding existing infrastructure.

Two warrants were issued for Glas’s arrest following his entry into the Mexican embassy: one for failing to report to authorities as mandated by the precautionary measures, and another related to the Reconstruction case. Once in custody, Glas was not allowed to speak to his lawyers for four days. He was hospitalized after he overdosed on pain medications, and was later returned to the maximum-security La Roca prison. When Glas was finally able to talk to his lawyers, he told them he had been tortured and announced that he had begun a hunger strike.

On April 8, lawyers from the RC filed a habeas corpus petition with the National Court of Justice, arguing that Glas’s arrest was illegal and asking for his release. The Court declared that the arrest had indeed been “illegal and arbitrary,” but ruled that Glas would remain in custody to finish out his sentence. Glas’s lawyers have said they will appeal.

The day of the ruling, a judge authorized prosecutors to inspect Glas’s phones and iPad, which had been seized in the raid. Pointing to Article 76 of the Ecuadorian constitution, his lawyers say that information found on his devices cannot be used in legal proceedings, as his belongings were obtained illegally. They also claim that the chain of custody of the devices was “irredeemably compromised.” In addition, the IACHR issued a statement urging “Ecuador to adopt any measures necessary to protect the rights to life and personal integrity of Jorge Glas Espinel, a beneficiary of precautionary measures granted by the IACHR” in 2019.

Leaked US Diplomatic Cable Allegedly Shows Ecuador Lobbying Against Palestinian UN Membership

In an April 17 article, The Intercept reported that leaked US diplomatic cables reveal a US-led effort at the UN Security Council to block the Palestinian Authority’s request for full UN member status. Palestine is a nonmember observer state to the UN; it first formally requested full member status in 2011.

Ecuador currently holds a rotating seat on the Security Council, which has 10 rotating members and 5 veto-wielding permanent members, including the US. A cable dated April 12 reportedly advises US ambassadors to use talking points against Palestine’s membership when speaking to officials from other Security Council member countries. Another, reportedly written by US Ambassador to Ecuador Michael Fitzpatrick on April 13, describes his use of these talking points with Ecuadorian foreign minister Gabriela Sommerfeld, who he reported agreed with the US and would not support Palestine’s membership in the UN. Fitzpatrick wrote:

[Sommerfeld] added that she would also instruct Ecuador’s UN [Permanent Representative] Jose de la Gasca to lobby France, Japan, Korea, and Malta to not support any such resolution. Sommerfeld stressed it was important any proposed resolution fail to achieve the necessary votes without a U.S. veto, noting Ecuador would not want to appear isolated (alone with the United States) in its rejection of a ‘Palestine’ resolution (particularly at a time when the most UN member states are criticizing Ecuador over its April 5 incursion into Mexico’s embassy in Quito).

The Intercept quoted CEPR’s Guillaume Long: “This really shows the extent to which the Noboa administration is beholden to the United States. On top of this, it is quite shocking to see the United States, which condemned Ecuador’s April 5 storming of the Mexican embassy and its violation of international law … making the most of Ecuador’s isolation in the hemisphere to get it to do its bidding.” The Ecuadorian government denied the veracity of the cables and subsequently voted in favor of admitting Palestine as a full UN member. It is unclear whether the cables’ exposure affected Ecuador’s vote. Ultimately, the US vetoed the proposal.

Like the US, Ecuador has supported Israel throughout its deadly campaign in Gaza. Noboa appointed vice president Verónica Abad to be ambassador to Israel, a move that — while meant to keep her away from domestic politics — carries symbolic weight. Noboa also announced in December that he would seek an Israeli company’s help in constructing maximum-security prisons, and his government signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel in April to create temporary jobs for Ecuadorians in Israel’s agricultural sector. Critics say this program will promote further migration out of Ecuador, will bring little skill or technical knowledge back home, and that it is a way for Israel to replace Palestinian workers that it has killed, expelled, or prohibited from entering Israel since October 7.

Ecuador and the IMF Reach a Staff-Level Agreement

President Noboa’s attempts at securing IMF financing, including by proposing a budget with significant cuts, passing tax reform with cuts and a fiscal residence program for foreign investors, and increasing the value-added tax, have borne fruit. On April 25, the IMF announced that it had reached a two-year staff-level agreement with Ecuador, and will provide Quito with a $4 billion Extended Fund Facility (EFF) loan — a type of medium-term credit that includes structural reform conditions. The amount is more than the $3 billion Noboa said he had hoped to receive. The IMF’s management and executive board still have to approve the deal.

Ecuador has sought IMF financing since 2017, and austerity and other conditions attached to loans — coupled with the COVID pandemic — have contributed to declining economic growth, increasing poverty and inequality, and the worsening security situation. These factors have, in turn, led to historic rates of out-migration. Moreover, surcharges — fees on loans to highly indebted middle-income borrowers, on top of regular interest payments and fees — divert scarce resources from human needs and other priorities and create pressure for borrowers like Ecuador to take on more debt. It is unclear what conditions are attached to the new EFF loan, but Shamaila Khan of UBS Asset Management told Reuters: “Risk is, as with all IMF programs, being able to stick to the policies required.” Part of the EFF loan will most likely be used to pay off some existing IMF debt.

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