The Rule of Law in Ecuador During the Pandemic (Part 2)

COVID-19 Reports on Latin America and the Caribbean: No. 45

Like the United States, Ecuador held presidential and congressional elections in the middle of the pandemic, although Ecuador’s presidential race used a two-time runoff system. On February 7, 2021, the citizenry went to the polls (with COVID-19 protective protocols in place) to choose among sixteen presidential candidates. The incumbent, Lenín Moreno, chose not to run. On the same day, a referendum was held in the Cuenca region on whether to ban future large-scale mining projects within a 3,100 square kilometer area. The vote involved some 435,000 local residents, and according to Cuenca’s mayor, “the water won.”

Source: Ecuador’s National Council for Elections

Andrés Arauz, a leftist-leaning economist and protégé of former president Rafael Correa, received the highest number of votes in the presidential race, but not enough to avoid a runoff. He garnered more votes than conservative businessman Guillermo Lasso and Yaku Pérez, an indigenous and environmental rights activist. Pérez demanded a partial recount in several provinces, which confirmed Lasso’s small lead over Pérez. The runoff between Arauz and Lasso is scheduled for April 11

As reported in part 1 of this post in November, Ecuador has been hit hard by the coronavirus. The WHO’s COVID-19 dashboard indicates that, of this writing, there have been over 291,000 confirmed cases and almost 16,000 COVID-related deaths. These numbers are likely higher. The pandemic has been accompanied by a severe economic crisis, and millions have fallen into poverty over the past year. As in many other countries, gender violence has also been on the rise during the COVID crisis. The Moreno administration’s attempt, however, to impose yet another 30-day emergency declaration (along with its associated restrictions) on December 20, 2020 (No. 1217), was deemed unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court, which continues to act as a check on the executive. 

Source: Ecuador’s Ministry of Health

The Moreno administration began a pilot program in January with the Pfizer vaccine, and later in the month, it approved the use of the AstraZeneca jab. In late February, the government committed to the purchase of two million doses of the vaccine developed by Sinovac, a Chinese pharmaceuticals company. The government’s vaccine distribution plan and rollout has been fraught with accusations of irregularities, including vaccine line jumping during the Pfizer pilot. In late January, police shut down a clinic in Quito that had been administering fake vaccination shots for US$15 each. The overall situation with COVID-19 vaccinations has become fodder for the remaining presidential candidates. In an interview with DemocracyToday! on February 16, Andrés Arauz said, “It so happens that the current president and the minister of health got a vaccine before the rest of the population and, of course, before our public servants at the health system that are on the frontline of the battle against COVID. So, this is absolutely grave. It’s very serious. There has been an uproar in the Ecuadorian population due to these practices by the Ecuadorian government.” 

Tensions between municipal governments and the national administration have also been running high because of the vaccine rollout. Due to frustration with the federal government’s vaccine plan, the Association of Municipalities requested that the federal government allow municipalities to negotiate directly with vaccine manufacturers to purchase the vaccine. President Moreno reluctantly approved this request, adding that municipalities such as hard-hit Guayaquil must follow a specific protocol as articulated in a letter to the president of the Association of Municipalities (March 3, 2021). On March 4, the mayor of Guayaquil accused the Moreno administration of dragging its feet with that city’s request to purchase two million doses; she emphasized that the clock is running and that each day in Guayaquil between ten and fourteen people die of COVID-19 . The Moreno government has indicated that Guayaquil’s request will be approved the week of March 7 via an acuerdo from the Ministry of Public Health or a decreto ejecutivo. 

Amidst the vaccine scandals, on February 23, 2021, seventy-nine prison inmates died during simultaneous riots across prisons in three Ecuadorian cites. On February 26, health minister Juan Carlos Zevallos tendered his resignation. On the same day, the Council of the Judiciary (Consejo de la Judictadura) posted a press release stating that none of its authorities had yet received the COVID-16 vaccine and that social media posts to the contrary were unequivocally FALSE (their emphasis). The Council posted another press release on March 4, defending the institution itself and judicial independence in general. On March 5, the Minister of the Interior resigned

Source: UN ECLAC

Not unsurprisingly, several scholarly articles related to the Ecuadorian government’s handling of the pandemic have been published in 2021. For example, Torres and López-Cevallos conducted a study of 53 of the National Emergency Operations Committee’s COVID-related resolutions. The findings indicated that the Ecuadorian government’s evolving COVID policy has focused primarily on law enforcement, the private sector, and the social sector rather than on local community involvement. The authors found no evidence of civil society or organizations participating in decisions. This conclusion seems to confirm the tensions existing between municipalities and the Moreno government. Ortiz-Mena and Noboa-Velasco wrote a piece (in Spanish) on Ecuador’s ‘Humanitarian Act’ (Ley Orgánica de Apoyo Humanitario para Combatir la Crisis Sanitaria Derivada del COVID-19), whose objective is to mitigate the pandemic’s adverse economic effects. According to the abstract, the paper analyses “the exceptional insolvency proceedings and the extrajudicial reorganization agreements recognized by the Ecuadorian Humanitarian Act to minimize the adverse economic impact derived from the COVID-19 pandemic.” Furthermore, Xavier, Montescdeoca, and Tesseva conducted a study quantifying the economic distributional effects of COVID-19 and the role of tax–benefit policies in alleviating the impact of the COVID-related economic shocks.

The COVID situation in Ecuador remains fluid, particularly with the presidential runoff election just weeks away. For following legal developments in Ecuador, see El Universo and El Comercio (Spanish) and the Latin American Herald Tribune and Ecuador Times (English). For an interesting read on the Constitutional Court of Ecuador, see Diana Carrera and Johanna Fröhlich, “Constitutional Identity in Transition? The Case on the Human Rights of the State” IACL-IADC Blog (9 July 2020).

By Julienne Grant

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