Translated from El Espectador
One only has to land in the new airport in Quito, or travel along the impressive new highway system that reaches the gateway of the Amazon in Puyo to understand why so many Ecuadorians and members of the international community see Rafael Correa’s administration as a success story. The magazine Dinero, which is not particularly sympathetic to leftist governments, went even further: it dedicated a cover story to Correa and titled it “The Ecuadorian Miracle.”
Many have, with good sense, said much about the economic, social, and political achievements of the “citizen revolution.” It has expanded access to and substantially improved education and health. Correa has increased taxes, renegotiated oil royalties, and increased infrastructure spending, but has avoided the inflation and instability gripping Argentina and Venezuela. Moreover, he has won the support of the majority of Ecuadorians in three presidential elections over seven years of governance.
What is much less known, especially outside of Ecuador, are the shadows of this “miracle.” Shadows that progressively grow darker and project into the future now that President Correa, contradicting his earlier statements, has decided to follow the path of the Latin American “strong man” (e.g. Uribe, Menem, Fujimori, Chávez, etc.) by pushing a constitutional reform that allows for his reelection in 2017.
Like Uribe in Colombia, the Ecuadorian government has sought to weaken critical voices to concentrate power in the executive: voices of disagreeing judges, dissenting journalists, indigenous and environmental organizations, as well as human rights NGOs. In so doing, the Administration has shown the same efficiency that built the highways, seriously threatening Ecuador’s rule of law and human rights commitments. So shows a study released this week by Dejusticia, the Due Process of Law Foundation, and the Peruvian Institute of Legal Defense about the Administration’s cooptation of the judiciary and the persecution of opposition judges, activists, and journalists.
The study, conducted by the renowned researcher Luis Pásara, documents the erosion of the separation of powers and civil rights. The Administration’s first step aligned the judiciary with the executive. As the institutional framework of the notable 2008 Constitution protected judicial independence, the Administration drove a reform in 2011 that subjected judges to an authority of political origin, the Judicial Council. Since its creation the Council has become the judge of judges. It has dismissed dozens of judges that ruled against official positions, arguing that they had committed “inexcusable errors” in their legal interpretations. Through an analysis of 42 Council cases, the study found that civil servant complaints motivated 37 of them, resulting in the dismissal of 57 judges (in some cases the complaint was against more than one judge).
As warned by a 2012 international monitor headed by former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón and hired by Correa’s own government, the doctrine of “inexcusable error” leaves at the Administration’s discretion judges’ posts by permitting the Council to impose its interpretation of the law. This is precisely how two judges lost their posts in the National Court that disagreed with the government in a tax case and a judge that dissented publicly with the ruling that sided with the Government in the controversial case of the newspaper El Universo’s complaint. When one adds President Correa’s public criticisms against dissenting judges, live on his Saturday television program, the Council’s decisions sends the clear message to judges that they should align with the government, violating the principle of judicial independence and the right to an impartial judiciary anchored in human rights treaties.
A coopted judiciary risks being used to silence democratic opposition. This is what is happening in Ecuador, as we have seen in recent years in interviews with think tanks, human rights organizations, and social movements independent from the government. DPLF’s, Dejusticia’s, and IDL’s study analyzed twelve instances where the Government has used the judiciary impose criminal punishments for “terrorism” and “sabotage” to dissenting voices. Criminal charges, which despite being so ambiguous and discretionary that they do not meet basic requirements of international human rights law, the judiciary has used in dozens of other cases to punish protest and bring indigenous leaders, students, journalists, opposition politicians, and human rights NGO leaders to court.
The courts sentenced three indigenous leaders to twelve years in jail for “organized terrorism” as a result of a protest against the 2010 Water Bill and another three for “obstruction of public passages.” After a public intervention by President Correa, the courts sentenced twelve students from Central Technical High School (Colegio Central Técnico) on a charge of “rebellion” for a 2013 protest against the change of their school’s name (the scuffle with the police resulted in only minimal damage). The best-known cases are the sanctions against journalists and opposition media. One only needs to remember the 2011 sentence against an op-ed in El Universo that sentenced the contributor and three editors to three years of prison and a US$30 million fine for “libelous injury”; the sentence was revised on appeal, but it still sanctioned the contributor with six months of prison and a US$600,000 fine. This is a clear violation of the right to free expression.
As such, any account of the “Ecuadorian miracle” ought to include not only include its bright economic achievements but also its shadowy human rights and democratic shortcomings. Especially because these shadows now reach the entire region, given that the Ecuadorian government continues its campaign to weaken the Inter-American Human Rights System, the last resort for judges and critics that have no other recourse in their countries. They certainly do not have it in Ecuador.
*César Rodríguez Garavito is the International Director of the Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia), as well as an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Los Andes.
Photo credit: Cancílleria Ecuador