By Ryan Dube
The election of a market-friendly banker to Ecuador's presidency
will provide a new ally for the U.S. in Latin America, a region
awash with populist leaders whose priorities often don't align with
But Guillermo Lasso, who on Sunday handily beat his leftist
rival, will also need to court the Biden administration's biggest
rival, China. Mr. Lasso, who is 65, has the challenge of digging
his country out of its worst economic crisis in a generation,
product of a Covid-19 pandemic that has killed more than 17,000
"Lasso, if nothing else, is very pragmatic, and in Ecuador today
that demands close relationships with the United States and also
China," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American
Dialogue, a Washington-based policy group. "The country is in dire
straits, and taking sides or excluding one of the countries is not
Ecuador is now so saddled with debt to Beijing that public
coffers are nearly empty, forcing the country to restructure debt
with private creditors and take a $6.5 billion bailout from the
International Monetary Fund.
Under President Rafael Correa, who served until 2017 and guided
his country away from the U.S. and toward China, Beijing's largess
built everything, from dams to mines and hospitals. The debt load
is huge -- $18.4 billion, the third highest in Latin America and
behind two far bigger countries, Brazil and Venezuela, according to
the Inter-American Dialogue.
Mr. Lasso can count on some relief coming from the U.S., which
has agreed to help wean Ecuador off Chinese debt. In January, the
U.S. International Development Finance Corporation announced a
nearly $3 billion loan to Ecuador to refinance what the government
agency called "predatory Chinese debt." The program required
Ecuador to exclude China from investing in the country's 5G
Despite that restriction, Ecuador can't simply say goodbye to
"We share a lot of republican values with the United States, but
that doesn't mean we have to distance ourselves from other
countries," said Aparicio Caicedo, director of Ecuador Free
Foundation, a policy group set up by Mr. Lasso to develop his
government plan. "With China, we'll maintain a very good
Mr. Caicedo, who plans to join the incoming government, said the
new administration will review all of Ecuador's financing
agreements and renegotiate terms if needed. Last year, Mr. Lasso
had called for renegotiating China's loans.
Mr. Caicedo declined to comment on the U.S. loan intended to
block China's role in telecommunications infrastructure, saying he
hadn't seen the details.
But he also stressed the importance of the U.S., a country with
close cultural and economic ties, to Ecuador. "What is going to end
is this ideological vision of preferring China to the United
States," he said.
The Chinese embassy in Ecuador didn't respond to email or phone
calls seeking comment.
Javier Corrales, an Amherst College professor who tracks
Ecuador, said Mr. Lasso will have an opportunity to renegotiate
ties to Beijing but won't upend the relationship. "I don't think
he'll be interested in decoupling Ecuador from China," he said.
For more than a decade, China has taken on an outsize role in
the small country of 17 million people. Under Mr. Correa, a sharp
critic of the U.S., Ecuador expelled the U.S. ambassador and kicked
American military personnel out of a base used for antidrug
operations. Mr. Correa increased ties with Cuba, Venezuela and
other U.S. antagonists, while providing asylum to WikiLeaks founder
After cutting financing ties with the IMF, Mr. Correa turned to
China to fund his populist government's social programs and
infrastructure projects. Trade ballooned between the nations, and
President Xi Jinping praised the deepening ties while inaugurating
a Chinese-built hospital and hydro project during a 2016 visit.
But critics say the close ties have come with a cost. Chinese
loans had onerous interest rates and tied up oil sales for years.
Chinese infrastructure projects faced questions about the quality
of engineering. A lack of transparency resulted in a web of
corruption under investigation by President Lenín Moreno's
"It was basically cronies of Correa getting intermediation
contracts," said Evan Ellis, an expert on China's relations with
Latin American at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies
Institute. "Moreno tried to clean it up, and in the process he
realized that Ecuador had to diversify away from its dependence on
Mr. Correa and 19 other people, including his former vice
president, were convicted of corruption charges last year, though
they weren't related to any Chinese project. Mr. Correa, who lives
in Belgium, denies the accusations.
Mr. Lasso will likely seek to continue Mr. Moreno's efforts to
reduce Ecuador's reliance on China, said Mr. Ellis.
"(China) has such a big role that I think you'll continue to see
them building roads and bridges," he said. "But I don't think you
are going to see any new China-funded white elephants."
Mr. Lasso will inherit a country that some say is a powder keg.
In 2019, demonstrators upended Ecuador's cities by protesting Mr.
Moreno's plans to cut fuel subsidies. Last year, gross domestic
product contracted 7.5%. This year, the IMF expects growth of just
2.5%, one of the weakest on the continent.
Mr. Lasso was elected Sunday after defeating Andrés Arauz, a
36-year-old economist and protégé of Mr. Correa. His victory was
the first resounding defeat of a surrogate candidate of a powerful
former Latin American president. From Argentina to Bolivia and
Colombia, former presidents have sought to regain influence through
handpicked candidates that many people see as their puppets.
Mr. Lasso, a conservative Roman Catholic, has pledged to create
2 million jobs and open up Ecuador's economy to globe trade and
investments. Growing indigenous and environmental movements will
meanwhile oppose mining and oil projects. Political analysts say
he'll have a fragile coalition, making it difficult to advance his
"He'll need to figure out what to do with the new left," said
Mr. Corrales, the Amherst College professor.
Write to Ryan Dube at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
April 12, 2021 19:16 ET (23:16 GMT)
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