As Lasso takes lead in Ecuador’s presidential race, he seeks votes from Miami exiles

Guillermo Lasso, presidential candidate for the party Creando Oportunidades, CREO, speaks to supporters during a campaign event in Quito, Ecuador, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017.
Guillermo Lasso, presidential candidate for the party Creando Oportunidades, CREO, speaks to supporters during a campaign event in Quito, Ecuador, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. AP

Guillermo Lasso barely survived the first round of Ecuador’s presidential race on Feb. 19, as ruling party candidate Lenín Moreno came within a hair of winning the election outright.

But now that the opposition has rallied around Lasso, a one-time banker and politician, the April 2 runoff looks like Moreno’s to lose.

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Quito-based Cedatos, which produces one of the more closely watched polls, has Lasso winning 52 percent of the vote versus Moreno’s 48 percent.

As he kicked off a new cycle of campaigning this week, Lasso, 60, answered questions about what his presidency might mean for Ecuadorian exiles in Miami, how he’s going to win the elusive diaspora vote and his fears of potential fraud.

Decade of change

Ecuadorians are going to the polls to replace Rafael Correa, a charismatic populist whose socialist “Citizens Revolution” has dominated the country for a decade. While Correa has been praised for building schools, roads and hospitals, the country has also become weary of his hostile attitude, and there are fears that his entrenched power is providing cover for corruption.

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But Lasso is entering the race with baggage of his own. He was a member of the economic cabinet of former President Jamil Mahuad (1998-2000) during a financial meltdown that decimated people’s savings and forced millions to emigrate — though his time in Mahuad’s cabinet doesn’t appear in his official campaign biography.

As a former banker in a country that still demonizes bankers, Lasso has struggled to win the hearts of those who were hurt by the crisis, particularly emigrants. During the first round of the election, Correa’s chosen successor, Moreno, won twice as many votes from the Ecuadorian diaspora as Lasso did.

In an email exchange, Lasso acknowledged the perception problem, but said it was largely a false image promoted by his opponents.

“During the last 10 years, government propaganda has tried to tie me to the banking crisis,” he said. “Nevertheless, at the beginning of Correa’s administration, they conducted an investigation into the 1999 financial crisis, in which they identified the true culprits, and among them were several Correa officials.”

While people implicated in the crisis (including Mahuad and banker Pedro Delgado) fled the country amid charges, Lasso said he has nothing to hide.

“I walk free in Ecuador because I had absolutely nothing to do with the events that sparked the crisis or the measures that were taken as a result of the crisis,” he said.

Lasso said he hopes to lure Ecuadorians living abroad back to the small South American country by generating jobs — he’s promised one million over four years — and encouraging new business ventures by cutting taxes and red tape.

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In a country where the legislature and judiciary are perceived to be under the sway of Correa, Lasso is promising more autonomy. He’s also pledged to do away with draconian media laws that free-speech groups say have neutered the press.

“We will also be the government that respects the rule of law, institutions and freedom of speech,” he said. “Ecuadorians abroad will be able to come back to a brighter future in their own country.”

Along with the outflow of economic migrants, Correa’s decade in power has produced a handful of political refugees.

Among those who have been granted asylum in the United States are Roberto and William Isaías, two brothers and bankers who were convicted in Ecuador of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars from their failed institution in the midst of the financial crisis. Ecuador has asked for their extradition, but the U.S. government has denied the petition and ruled that the charges in Ecuador are without merit.

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Asked if the brothers would be welcome back in Ecuador, Lasso was noncommittal.

“A president cannot interfere in the judicial system,” he said. “However, I will promote and respect due process. Our proposal is to depoliticize [the judiciary] and ensure the independence of institutions.”

There can be “no more political calculations” when it comes to judicial rulings, he said.

Tense vote

The first round of Ecuador’s election was a nail-biter. Moreno needed 40 percent of the vote to win outright, and two days after the last ballot had been cast, the National Electoral Council (CNE) said it was still to close to call.

Amid social-media-fueled warnings and rumors that fraud might be in the works to push Moreno over the threshold, hundreds of people gathered outside the electoral body to defend their vote.

Even as international observers reported no evidence of systemic fraud, Lasso said the CNE had lost the trust of Ecuadorians as an impartial judge.

“Historically, the CNE has favored the administration,” he said.

As an example, he said the CNE had approved five government-backed referendums in the last decade (including one doing away with term limits for incoming presidents), while it has rejected five referendums proposed by the opposition.

The first round of the election was “hurt by the lack of transparency,” Lasso added.

“The fact that the CNE recognized that there would be a second round, a full four days after the end of voting, was a civic victory,” he said.

Although Lasso didn’t win the first round outright, he said it’s clear the nation is hungry for change. The majority of the votes were split among the seven opposition candidates running against Moreno.

“Sixty percent of the people voted to change the government,” Lasso said.

Whether or not Lasso can harness that change remains to be seen.

“What we are committed to,” he said, “is that Ecuadorians who yearn for a prosperous future will be able to find it in Ecuador.”

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