Selena Flores inched her wheelchair through a crowd of chanting and banner-waving supporters in the hope of catching a glimpse of the man she calls her “brother in pain” — presidential front-runner Lenín Moreno.
Moreno, 64, has been paraplegic since a bullet tore through his back in 1998 during a botched robbery. Now polls suggest he’s narrowly leading Sunday’s heated presidential runoff in Ecuador. If he wins, he would be the first Latin American president in a wheelchair.
And that’s energizing a group of people — the disabled — who say they’ve been ostracized for generations.
“I mean if Lenín becomes president, what can’t we do?’ said Flores, 48, on Thursday, who has been paraplegic for 27 years as a result of a traffic accident. “He’s an inspiration to all of us.”
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But first Moreno has to win Sunday’s bitter and contentious race.
Moreno is President Rafael Correa’s former vice president and handpicked candidate, and he’s promised to continue his former boss’ “Citizens Revolution.” During Correa’s 10 years in office, the fiery and charismatic leader has turned the small South American nation into a standard-bearer for Latin America’s left as he’s poured the nation’s oil wealth into infrastructure and populist reforms.
Moreno’s rival, former banker Guillermo Lasso, 61, is promising pro-business policies and tax cuts to jump start an ailing economy. Lasso says the country needs a change to escape the corruption and authoritarian tendencies of the current administration.
In a way, Moreno’s wheelchair has been central to his political career.
As Correa’s vice president from 2007 to 2013, Moreno became a high-profile advocate for disabled rights. He helped launch a program called Manuela Espejo, where brigades of young people went searching for disabled shut-ins.
He pushed for inclusive labor laws, wheelchair accessible crosswalks and monthly $50 stipends for those unable to work or who are taking care of disabled relatives. Now, almost 500,000 people are registered with the National Council for Equality of those with Disabilities. The push made Moreno a national icon and burnished his international credentials. (He was a U.N. Special Envoy on Disability and Accessibility before throwing his hat into the ring for president.)
And his advocacy has brought him a loyal following. Flores said that before she received her free wheelchair under Moreno’s program, she spent 17 years dragging herself around on the floor and rarely leaving home.
“He’s helped bring us out of our isolation,” she said. “We’re no longer the shame of our families. We’re not just a statistic.”
But some worry that the programs for the disabled are more about politics than policy — that the disabled have become another captive bloc of the ruling Alianza País party, exchanging their votes for handouts.
On a recent weekday at Moreno’s campaign headquarters in this colonial city in southern Ecuador, people were lining up to register for subsidized homes and disability aid that the campaign has promised — if Moreno wins.
Amparo Leon, the director of an occupational therapy and job placement service for the disabled that recently closed, said the government deserves credit for shining a spotlight on the disabled, but that it needs to live up to its own hype.
While Ecuador has been praised internationally for its inclusive laws — one out of every 25 jobs, for example, are supposed to be reserved for the disabled — they’re not always followed.
“We have some wonderful laws on the books that need to be made reality,” Leon said. While the physically disabled and those with hearing problems have seen their employment prospects improve, “there’s still nothing for people with intellectual and psychological disabilities,” she said.
Carlos Chica, 38, was standing with three other blind friends, getting jostled by the crowds as they waited for a chance to cheer on Moreno. Chica said that although he receives $50 a month in government welfare, he felt as though the administration didn’t know what to do with people like him.
“If Moreno wins the presidency, he needs to help make programs that will put us to work,” he said. “There are jobs for deaf mutes and for people in wheelchairs but not for us. I’m selling candy on buses but we need real work.”
If Ecuador’s promises to the disabled remain a work in progress, then Moreno is the man to complete them, said Liliana Guzmán, a ruling party congresswoman, who coordinates the Manuela Espejo program in the Azuay province.
“Before Lenín, the disabled were considered a shame by their families and they were practically kept hidden away,” she said. “It took a man with a disability to help include them in society and stand up for their rights.”
But Moreno’s health issues are also one of his biggest liabilities. He’s often complained about being in pain, and when he stepped down from the vice presidency in 2013, he cited health reasons. Some fear he may not be able to complete a four-year term, which would leave Moreno’s running mate and current Vice President Jorge Glas — considered a Correa hardliner — in charge.
Narcisa Lopez, who was chanting a campaign slogan that included the line, “Thank you Lenín for including us!” said she was bed-bound with acute arthritis before free stem cell treatments through a government program helped her regain her mobility.
Asked about Moreno’s health, she said he’d already proved he has the stamina to make it through a grueling campaign. She had no doubt he would serve his full term.
“Everything above his waist is working just fine,” she said. “Most importantly, he has a good head on his shoulders.”