U.S. ‘Historically Antagonistic’ to Progressive Change in Latin America, Ecuador Chief Says

Abe Lowenthal, professor of international relations in USC Dornsife, recently chatted with Ecuador President Rafael Correa, one of hundreds of interviews for his upcoming book.
ByPamela J. Johnson

With one book just out and another expected next year about United States-Latin America relations, Abe Lowenthal has spent the past four years interviewing leaders of diverse perspectives south of the border.

The professor of international relations in USC Dornsife co-edited Shifting the Balance: Obama and the Americas, published in English by Brookings Institution Press in January. For his forthcoming book with the working title, Rethinking U.S.-Latin American Relations, he has conducted more than 200 interviews in 15 Latin American countries.

Lowenthal, Robert F. Erburu Professor of Ethics, Globalization and Development and expert on U.S. foreign policy, sat down in February with Ecuador President Rafael Correa in Quito. Here’s an excerpt.


The English version of Shifting the Balance: Obama and the Americas co-edited by Abe Lowenthal came out in January. On the book cover, President Obama greets former President Óscar Arias Sánchez of Costa Rica, with Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio (“Lula”) de Silva in the center.

Abe Lowenthal: I understand why Ecuador needed major changes; it had weak and discredited political institutions, bankrupt political parties, a highly politicized judiciary, overwhelming instability, a complacent and clientelistic private sector; and an exclusionary and unjust society. But less clear to me is what you and the Alianza País (democratic socialist) movement are putting forward as an alternative vision of Ecuador. How do you propose to achieve change?

President Correa: Transforming a poor and unjust society into a country of “buen vivir” (living well) will require investment in human resources; in infrastructure and capital projects; in productive sectors, made more efficient through science, technology and education; social cohesion; strengthened institutions; and cultural change that cannot be achieved by decree or fiat but requires examples and education, as well as persistent, dedicated leadership, unwilling to be discouraged by resistance, delays or detours.

The first requirement, however, needs to be to break the stranglehold on Ecuador of those who long dominated everything: production, finance, the media and politics. The private sector and the political class are of mediocre quality. They are not entrepreneurial or public-spirited. They are out to protect their own interests and privileges, and to maintain their nearly invulnerable control. We have finally displaced them. They have put up fierce resistance, especially through the media, and through devices like using outsourcing to keep labor weak and vulnerable. One major company reported that it had no employees at all! Their stranglehold needs to be shattered. [Joseph] Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction’ is part of what Ecuador needs in order to progress.

AL: Is it vital for a country to achieve previsibilidad; that is, stability of expectations about the rules of the game, and about the processes for making changes in these rules over time. How can a radically transformational and re-foundational movement like Ecuador’s achieve previsibilidad?

PC: Previsibilidad is important, but not the previsibilidad of slavery or other forms of coercive domination. What is needed is to develop new and equitable rules of the game and truly democratic processes of decision-making — and that takes time. Some uncertainty, instability and lack of investor confidence were inevitable and were foreseen, for a transitional period. But by now we are setting the conditions for a positive previsibilidad, and establishing clear legal norms that are fair, not exploitative, to Ecuador and its masses. We are building a strong infrastructure to attract development, fostering social cohesion that will remove sources of unrest and instability, and developing clear and well-communicated national plans.

AL: Peru shares with Ecuador problems of profound inequality, ethnic divisions, weak parties, a corrupted Congress and media, low public respect for all political institutions, and the international exploitation of resources. Why does Peru still encourage center-right discourse while Ecuador has moved to such profound transformation? Why isn’t there a strong leftist movement in Peru?

PC: The key is the absence of bold and persuasive political leadership in Peru, and its presence in Ecuador. Prior to the 2006 elections, left parties had the support of only 3 to 4 percent of Ecuadorians, according to the polls. But when Ecuadorians encountered a leader who understood their concerns and articulated a positive vision for major change, they responded very positively. Up to now, Peru has not experienced that kind of leader, but when one emerges, there will be support.

AL: What is your view of U.S. policies toward Latin America and toward Ecuador during the Obama administration? Are there ways for Ecuador and the U.S. to cooperate on shared concerns?

PC: I admire U.S. society, and I had a very positive experience in the U.S. during the four years I studied for my Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But U.S. foreign policy has historically been antagonistic to progressive change in Latin America, and has been marked by attitudes of domination and arrogance. The U.S. must learn to respect the autonomy and sovereignty of Latin American countries, even small ones, but George W. Bush epitomized disdain for Latin American sovereignty. If there have been frictions between Ecuador and the U.S. in recent years, they have been because of this tendency. I have personal respect for President Obama and for the positive changes he seeks to introduce, but the U.S. system and the power of vested interests have prevented significant changes.

AL: Former President Juan Bosch of the Dominican Republic once told me that even if the American people elected St. Francis of Assisi as their president, the U.S. system would proceed unchanged, always exploiting the countries of the south. Do you agree?

PC: President Bosch was making an important point — that strong interests and powerful groups are responsible for much of U.S. foreign policy. Ecuador experiences this in the activity and influence of right wing think tanks and lobbyists, the Nuevo Herald of Miami, and others who lobby against Ecuador, as they intervened in Honduras. But there are other sectors in the U.S. as well, and cooperation with the U.S. is possible on shared concerns, as long as Washington respects Ecuador’s sovereignty.