NO to Shackled Speech, Misleading Math, and Disappointing Diplomacy

The title to this article is inspired by what historians of journalism will look back on as one of the bravest pieces of Op-Ed journalism in the 21st century.  On February 5th 2011, the Guayaquil-based newspaper El Universo published an Op-Ed piece titled “NO a las mentiras”.  The title of that piece translates to “NO to lies”.  The aforementioned opinion piece was written by Opinion Page Editor Emilio Palacio.

In the piece, Palacio criticized the manner in which President Correa of Ecuador had handled the aftermath of a police mutiny (an illegal and unfortunate event) in 2010.  Mr. Palacio alleged that there was a sort of legal double standard in which prominent politicians are favored by the President over the common policeman.    Also, throughout his opinion piece, Mr. Palacio consistently referred to President Correa as “The Dictator” and to his government as “The Dictatorship”.

Ultimately, the thin-skinned President successfully bullied his country’s legal system into accepting his libel case against El Universo, Mr. Palacio, and three executives of the newspaper.  In July 2011, the politicized court system ruled that the four defendants should be sentenced to three years in jail and be ordered to pay a total of US $40 million in damages.  Due to the co-opting of the legal system by President Correa, this forced Mr. Palacio to flee his country.  Thankfully, Mr. Palacio was granted asylum in the United States.  Long after the damage was done, President Correa pardoned the four defendants of their “crimes” in February of 2012.  In 2007 (Mr. Correa’s first year as President), Reporters Without Borders ranked press freedom in Ecuador in 56th place.  In 2013, Reporters Without Borders ranked Ecuador’s press freedom 119th in the world.

Pictured: Emilio Palacio Image courtesy of AteoP_23, © 2007, some rights reserved.

Pictured: Emilio Palacio
Image courtesy of AteoP_23, © 2007, some rights reserved.

On January 23rd 2013, the Ecuadorian Ambassador to the U.S., Nathalie Cely spoke to students at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.  The title of her lecture was, “Why Smart and Sustainable Investment Matters: Lessons from Ecuador.”  The Ambassador’s speech touched on a number of different topics related to the socioeconomic development of Ecuador under President Rafael Correa.  Initially, Ambassador Cely’s speech consisted of citing a variety of statistics about her country’s healthy GDP growth in recent years and attributing that growth to President Correa’s socialist (a term she used proudly) economic policies.

However in Davos, Switzerland, attendees of the 2014 World Economic Forum were not talking about President Correa’s ALBA  (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America).  In all likelihood, very few people at Davos have even heard of ALBA which is an ideological gathering of poorly managed economies.  Instead, many Davos attendees went to a talk entitled, “The Promise of the Pacific Alliance”.  The Pacific Alliance is the economic union between Peru, Chile, Colombia and Mexico which was founded in 2011.  Although it is less than three years old, the Pacific Alliance is already the most promising Latin American trade bloc.  As a matter of fact, when calculating the average of annual GDP growth (%) from 2007 (when President Correa took office) through 2012, ALBA economies only grew on average 2.4% in comparison to Pacific Alliance economies which grew on average 4.42%.  Therefore, it is clear that free market policies foster growth while state-led efforts produce sluggish results at best.  Even among the ALBA economies with steady growth such as Ecuador and Venezuela, they have only enjoyed economic growth thanks to high oil prices and unsustainable welfare spending.

The Ambassador then went on to speak about the importance of higher education.  The Ecuadorian government has set up a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) scholarship fund.  Through this fund, students who wish to study in the STEM fields are given full scholarships to any of the top 175 universities in the world where they gain admission.  The program has even expanded to include the Arts and Humanities.  This is a noble pursuit which must continue to ensure upward mobility and expose young Ecuadorians to the rest of the world.  Hopefully some of those Ecuadorians will one day become politicians who can enact wise economic policies such as this scholarship fund.

Finally, the Ambassador spoke about sustainable development (the topic of her lecture).  Her Excellency spoke at length specifically about the Yasuni National Park.  The issue at hand is how Ecuador will strike a balance between energy extraction and environmental protection.  It is important to strike such a balance and it is impressive that an emerging market such as Ecuador is actively worrying about environmental issues.  Nevertheless, when The Economist pointed out that Petroecuador (a state-owned firm) was responsible for current pollution in the Yasuni and that Chevron had paid all previous damages according to the UN, President Correa lashed out.  The President publicly alleged that The Economist, Chevron, the Rothschild family, and the Schroder family are involved in an anti-Ecuadorian conspiracy (yes, he really made that allegation).  In less conspiratorial terms, the Ambassador touched on the point that her government feels Chevron is still responsible for pollution in Yasuni National Park.  Her Excellency also demanded reform of the international legal system.

The lecture wrapped up with a question and answer session.  I had the privilege of asking the Ambassador about Ecuador’s relationship with the media, specifically with regards to the El Universo case.  The question was framed within the context of improving U.S.-Ecuadorean cooperation in light of the NSA revelations which have damaged relations between the two countries.  The Ambassador responded by stating that Mr. Palacio and his fellow defendants had many chances to prove their allegations against the President in a court of law.  Her Excellency went on to acknowledge a polarized atmosphere in her country between the media and the government.  I am pleased and thankful that she politely answered the question head-on.  However, it was disturbing that it seemed she believed the court system was free of political manipulation and that a free press was fully functional in Ecuador.  A newspaper should not suffer political retribution over an opinion piece.  Her Excellency also spoke of the importance of honor in her country, insinuating that it justified what happened to El Universo.

Back in 2010 during the police mutiny in Quito, when President Correa was holed up in the police barracks, he went out onto a balcony and spoke to the crowd below.  He told the police that if they wanted to destroy the country, that they should kill him.  What the police did that day was wrong, even illegal, but what the President did not and still does not realize is that the country has already been destroyed and that he is the one that destroyed it.