The people of Ecuador were hit by a surprise in the April 2021 presidential election: Hard-right banker Guillermo Lasso, one of the richest and most corrupt oligarchs in the country, who had unsuccessfully run in two previous races, scored a narrow victory over leftist Andrés Arauz.
Arauz, a progressive young economist, had served as a minister in the government of Ecuador’s socialist President Rafael Correa, who had declared a “Citizens’ Revolution” that transformed the country during his term from 2007 to 2017.
What was not conveyed in most media reports on Lasso’s surprising victory, however, was that Lasso only won thanks to the support he received, both directly and indirectly, from environmental and Indigenous groups that have been co-opted over that last 15 years by the US government and its soft-power networks.
The leaders of these opportunistic, pseudo-left organizations have benefited from millions of dollars in funding from CIA cutouts like the US Agency for International Development and National Endowment for Democracy. Together, they formed an alliance of convenience with Lasso against the Correísta movement.
Some even endorsed the multimillionaire banker openly, overlooking his well-documented corruption, including offshore bank accounts and tens of millions of dollars of real estate in Florida. Others, including right-leaning leaders in Ecuador’s powerful Indigenous confederation, CONAIE, called on their followers to vote null in the April 11 presidential election rather than support the leftist Arauz.
CONAIE’s decision to call for a null vote was perhaps the most important factor in making Lasso Ecuador’s next president. The 2021 election saw a massive increase in politically motivated null votes, with 1.1 million more than in the previous election in 2017. The total of 1.76 million null votes greatly outnumbered the 420,000 votes that Arauz lost by.
The role that conservative leaders of CONAIE, the confederation’s political arm Pachakutik, and “green” NGOs played in getting a notoriously corrupt neoliberal banker elected in Ecuador was hardly a secret. In fact, Pachakutik’s presidential candidate, Yaku Pérez, boasted of defeating Arauz immediately after the election, triumphantly tweeting in all caps, “Pachakutik and the null vote bury Correísmo.”
— Yaku Pérez Guartambel (@yakuperezg) April 13, 2021
The Grayzone documented how Yaku Pérez ran a right-wing, pro-US campaign while marketing himself as the face of the “new left” in Ecuador, adopting a US Democratic Party-style marketing scheme that combined neoliberal economic policies and support for imperialism with liberal environmentalism and identity politics.
Pérez revealed after the first round of the election that he had the support of the US embassy. He also has a history of publicly boasting of friendly meetings with Washington’s ambassador to Ecuador, Michael J. Fitzpatrick.
It is unsurprising then, that among the CONAIE and Pachakutik supporters who did not vote null, the vast majority ended up backing Lasso.
A review of the official results published by Ecuador’s National Electoral Council (CNE) shows that roughly half of people who had voted for Pérez in the first round of the presidential election in February ended up voting null in the second round, whereas approximately 40 percent of Pérez’s supporters voted for Lasso.
Only around 7 percent of Pérez supporters ended up voting for Arauz, according to a rough estimate provided to The Grayzone by an electoral expert.
Yet in much of the punditry about the surprising loss suffered by Arauz, who had been leading in nearly all polls before the election, the names Yaku Pérez and Pachakutik are not even mentioned. The omission is particularly prevalent among English-speaking analysts.
Eduardo Enríquez Arévalo, an academic expert on Ecuadorian politics at the Simon Bolivar Andean University, explained in an interview with The Grayzone, “In general one can say that Pachakutik has had a process of shifting to the right, or at least becoming increasingly close to the right wing by the 2010s.”
Pachakutik and CONAIE are also deeply embedded in the non-profit industrial complex. Leaders and prominent activists from the groups work in well-funded NGOs, some of which are bankrolled by foreign governments.
Pachakutik’s rightward drift, then, is partially an organic phenomenon, but it has also been heavily incentivized by the huge sums of money flowing into Ecuador from the United States and Western European governments and foundations.
The grim reality is that Pérez and Pachakutik are at the heart of a 15-year-long US destabilization project that is little known outside of Ecuador.
Declassified government documents show how, on the eve of Correa’s historic election 2006, Washington began reaching out to Indigenous and environmental leaders and poured millions of dollars into cultivating these groups, as part of a campaign to divide the country’s left.
State Department cables published by WikiLeaks clearly demonstrate that the US embassy was recruiting opportunistic leaders of CONAIE and Pachakutik to undermine Correa and his leftist movement.
The documents show that figures from CONAIE and Pachakutik were acting as informants for the embassy, regularly providing intelligence to a US political officer. Some right-leaning Indigenous leaders even themselves contacted the US ambassador and held friendly meetings reassuring Washington of their support.
CIA fronts like the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy also launched programs to build and finance an anti-Correísta opposition. These multimillion-dollar initiatives focused especially on Ecuador’s environmental and Indigenous organizations.
USAID worked closely with the CIA during Washington’s terrorist war on the revolutionary Sandinista government of Nicaragua in the 1980s, funneling money into far-right Contra death squads. The agency has also been integral in financing the US government’s ongoing coup attempt in Venezuela, forking over hundreds of millions of dollars to the unelected parallel regime of Juan Guaidó.
A review of USAID contracts reveals that a company called Chemonics was the agency’s main “private” partner in Ecuador. One of the largest for-profit recipients of US foreign aid, with $2.5 billion in USAID funding from 2018 to 2019 alone, Chemonics is closely linked to intelligence agencies, and functions as a private intelligence agency. Its wealthy founder said he created the firm to “have my own CIA.”
Chemonics has been involved in a series of scandalous US regime-change operations targeting leftist governments in Latin America, aimed at destabilizing the socialist Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.
Chemonics played a similar role in the US dirty war on Syria. The Grayzone editor Max Blumenthal has documented how USAID used Chemonics to funnel tens of millions of dollars to the White Helmets, a regime-change lobby group that collaborated closely with Salafi-jihadist extremist militants, including al-Qaeda, as part of a Western intelligence operation aimed at overthrowing the government in Damascus.
As USAID’s top partner in Ecuador, Chemonics was given an $11 million contract in the year 2013 alone, greatly surpassing any other contractor, in order to fund “Environmental Protection” initiatives.
When regime-change operations from USAID’s “Office of Transition Initiatives” were exposed in Venezuela and Bolivia, the Correa government froze relations with USAID in December 2013, and then expelled the agency in 2014.
But USAID renewed its activities at an all-time high in Ecuador in 2018, when Correa’s successor Lenín Moreno took a hard-right turn and allied with Washington.
These Washington-backed environmentalist groups organized large, and often violent, campaigns to oppose Correa’s ambitious infrastructure projects, which sought to develop Ecuador’s impoverished and rural regions and better integrate the country.
In the name of “anti-extractivism” – a buzzword that has become popular among the same astroturfed pseudo-left networks in North America – these US government-funded NGOs in Ecuador also tried to block the socialist-oriented Correa administration from using the country’s plentiful oil and mineral resources to fund universal education, healthcare, and social programs aimed at poverty reduction.
Skeptical local media outlets noted at the time that the “environmental protection” projects run by USAID and Chemonics in Ecuador happened to be in the areas with the most natural resources, leading peasants to raise concerns about ulterior motives and undemocratic US meddling.
The fact that many of Correa’s infrastructure projects involved contracts with Chinese state-owned companies further motivated Washington to undermine them.
Correa worked closely with China during his time in office, becoming one of Beijing’s most important allies in Latin America. The anti-Correísta opposition on the other hand is staunchly pro-US, and has vowed to distance Ecuador from Beijing, hyperbolically claiming, “the Correísta discourse of an independent country ends in the doorway of the Chinese banks.”
Much of the pseudo-left environmental and Indigenous opposition to Correísmo has harshly condemned China while cozying up to Washington. Pachakutik candidate Yaku Pérez made his name opposing China’s development projects in Ecuador, and was avidly promoted by a British foundation dedicated to monitoring Beijing’s activities in Latin America. At the same time, Pérez insisted he “will not think twice” to sign a free trade agreement with the United States.
Supplementing the tens of millions of dollars that USAID spent in Ecuador to help build this pseudo-left opposition were grants from the National Endowment Democracy, another CIA front.
The NED bankrolled major anti-Correísta politicians, while focusing especially on environmental, Indigenous, and women’s rights groups, along with opposition media outlets.
A prime example of a US-backed, astroturfed Indigenous organization in Ecuador is the Pachamama Foundation. With the help of annual grants from the NED going back years, the foundation relentlessly attacked Correa, trashing him as an authoritarian “extractivist,” while constantly promoting Yaku Pérez as a noble defender of the environment.
Given its role as a US government-funded opposition group aimed at destabilizing his elected administration, Correa closed the Pachamama Foundation in 2013. But President Lenín Moreno re-opened the group in 2017, the year he openly betrayed his former ally and began to aggressively repress Correa’s leftist movement.
The National Democratic Institute (NDI), which is funded by the NED and loosely linked to the US Democratic Party, was also an active supporter of the anti-Correísta opposition. It had its own website specifically focused on Ecuador, which boasted of the US government-backed institute’s activities in the country (this webpage was later removed).
Leaders of the Indigenous Pachakutik party were directly trained by the NDI, alongside other right-wing groups from Latin America, including Venezuela’s conservative Primero Justicia party and Mexico’s National Action Party (PAN).
The NDI also published lengthy how-to manuals for the Ecuadorian opposition, which helped them lobby against Correa’s reforms and sought to replicate the US political system in their country.
Washington’s strategy of recruiting Indigenous leaders to oppose Correísmo echoes an operation the CIA ran in Nicaragua in the 1980s, in which the spy agency cultivated disgruntled leaders of the Native Miskito community in order to destabilize the revolutionary Sandinista government.
Similarly, the far-right government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro won support from Indigenous communities living on the border with Venezuela and used them to help launch attacks on Venezuelan soldiers. In Mexico, meanwhile, the US government has funded environmental and Indigenous NGOs that oppose progressive President AMLO’s infrastructure programs, such as the Maya Train, which aim to develop the country’s impoverished southern region.
This is not to say that the left-wing governments of Ecuador, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Mexico have had perfect relations with Indigenous peoples, or that these communities do not sometimes have justifiable grievances. But Washington and its right-wing allies, even open racists like Bolsonaro, have shown a willingness to exploit and mislead Indigenous communities to advance their geopolitical interests.
When Washington embarked on its strategy to use Indigenous people as a wedge against Correa, it was in fact actively working against the rights of Native peoples internationally. A declassified State Department cable published by WikiLeaks shows that the US ambassador in Ecuador condemned and lobbied against the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, arguing it was “fundamentally flawed.” (The Correa administration, for its part, supported the UN declaration.)
For the imperial US bureaucrats assigned to South America, and dedicated to pushing back its leftist “Pink Tide,” weaponizing minority identities against popular movements became practically second nature.
The same tactics were honed back at home. The US Democratic Party and neoliberal leaders like Hillary Clinton have mastered the art of using unsubstantiated allegations of racism and sexism to undermine social-democratic figures like Bernie Sanders, while the Republican Party has leveraged corporate money to cultivate a small handful of Black and Latino voices, promoting them to disrupt civil rights coalitions and advance regressive policies. (In a particularly glaring example of the tactic, Black Republican Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was mentored by Jay Parker, a former registered lobbyist for the Transkei bantustan of apartheid South Africa.)
The CIA itself has openly adopted this strategy, promoting “intersectional” feminism and liberal anti-racist and LGBTQ rhetoric in its recruitment ads.
Actual quotes from this new CIA recruitment ad:
"I am a woman of color"
"I am a cisgender millennial"
"I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder"
"I am intersectional"
I think it's safe to say the contemporary American left has failed.pic.twitter.com/ruUzWSeIur
— Aisha Ahmad (@aishaismad) May 2, 2021
It is an age-old imperial tactic: divide and conquer. And the United States has perfected this strategy in Latin America – one of the most impoverished regions of the world, where the many millions of dollars that Washington throws around to advance its interests go a long way.
In April 2021, the US government’s 15-year program finally saw its first major success with the election of Guillermo Lasso, a member of far-right Catholic sect Opus Dei, whose neoliberal policies represent the legacy of the CIA-backed Chicago Boys who wreaked havoc on Chile’s economy under the iron-fisted rule of General Augosto Pinochet.
A look at how Ecuador’s anti-Correísta opposition successfully divided the left, with US backing, is very instructive, because these tactics have been refined and exported in Washington’s operations throughout Latin America and across the globe.
Much of the analysis of Andrés Arauz’s surprise electoral loss has focused on the fact that the media was uniformly against him, and constantly spread lies about Correísmo; or that the multimillionaire banker Guillermo Lasso had an enormous campaign war chest that overpowered his opponent.
Both points are correct, and these factors were important; but, alone, they are not sufficient to explain the outcome. Over the course of multiple successful campaigns for the presidency, Rafael Correa had faced the same obstacles.
In fact, some of the fake news stories used to smear Arauz were just slightly modified versions of attacks on Correa. Right-wing media outlets, for example, simply replaced the name of the Colombian guerrilla group FARC with the name of another, ELN, to generate a phony scandal based on the lie that it had supposedly funded the Ecuadorian leftist’s campaign. But Correa always had a substantial enough support base to overcome the odds.
Then there is the fact that Ecuador’s current president, Lenín Moreno, had been Correa’s vice president, and had originally claimed fidelity to the Citizens’ Revolution during the 2017 electoral campaign, before later doing a political 180. Moreno allied with the right-wing oligarchy and Lasso, humiliatingly subjugating his country to the United States, and withdrew from regional institutions like the ALBA economic alliance and UNASUR political union, while implementing unpopular neoliberal economic reforms and overseeing large-scale corruption.
The past associations that the deeply unpopular President Moreno enjoyed with Correa did repel some voters from Arauz. But this association should not be overstated, because for his entire term, Moreno had openly persecuted Correa and his movement, exiling and imprisoning leftist politicians and activists who supported the Citizens’ Revolution, and clearly throwing his weight behind Lasso and other conservative forces.
By the end of Moreno’s term, his alliance with Lasso was so clear that the Correístas were campaigning on the slogan “Lasso is Moreno.”
Some progressive Ecuadorian activists who spoke with The Grayzone also privately conceded that Arauz, a young, highly educated, and soft-spoken technocrat who ran a relatively moderate, center-left campaign, was seen as a relatively weak candidate. In contrast, Correa was a firebrand populist who had played on popular anger against the country’s parasitic oligarchy and was willing to challenge the US empire head on.
All of these variables contributed to Arauz’s loss. But the most important factor came in the form of a call for “ideological” null voting, dividing the left and giving Lasso just enough electoral space to swing ahead.
According to official results from the Ecuadorian government’s National Electoral Council (CNE), Arauz got 4,236,515 votes compared to Lasso’s 4,656,426 — a difference of just 419,911 votes.
But there was a very significant third group that ended up swinging the election for Lasso: null voters. According to the official CNE results, there were 1,761,433 null votes, making up a staggering 16.3% of total votes.
This was a whopping 10% increase in null votes in comparison with the previous election. Official CNE statistics from previous Ecuador elections show much smaller levels of null voting.
In Ecuador’s 2009 election, only 496,687 null votes were cast, comprising just 6.3% of the total. In 2013, there were 684,027 null votes, or 7.2% of the total. And in 2017 there were 670,731 null votes, 6.3% of the total.
Voting in Ecuador is legally mandatory, and participation in 2021 held at the median level: 83% participation in 2021, compared to the same as in 2017 and 82% in 2013.
There are reasons to doubt the accuracy of the CNE’s results, given the council’s clear politicization under the corrupt government of Moreno, which declared all-out war on the Correísta movement and stacked the body exclusively with opposition figures from Pachakutik and Lasso’s party CREO.
The left-wing Union for Hope (UNES) party of Arauz said it detected irregularities in 5,000 actas, or vote tallies, a significant problem given that the average acta in Ecuador includes roughly 270 votes. However, several technical experts told The Grayzone that, although there indeed appeared to have been irregularities, they were not substantial enough to change the result of the election.
The most salient difference in 2021 was simply the gigantic increase in null votes. And what accounted for this massive increase? Ecuador’s Indigenous confederation CONAIE, its political arm Pachakutik, and their presidential candidate Yaku Pérez had called on their constituents to vote null.
CONAIE does not represent all Indigenous communities in Ecuador, although it is the largest and most influential Native organization. The country’s Indigenous leaders are divided, and Native politicians, both inside and outside CONAIE, can be found across the political spectrum.
Some Indigenous leaders, such as Citizens’ Revolution National Assembly candidate Ricardo Ulcuango, a former vice president of CONAIE, are avid supporters of the Correísta movement. But numerous prominent politicians from CONAIE and its political arm Pachakutik have a history of forming opportunistic alliances with Ecuador’s conservative elites, and with the United States, especially when Correa was in power.
In 2017, Pachakutik’s Yaku Pérez openly endorsed Guillermo Lasso for the presidential election. Just days before the vote in February 2021, Lasso returned the favor, stating that, if Pérez won in the first round, the banker would endorse him.
That same year, a small Ecuadorian environmentalist organization called Yasunidos met with Lasso and signed an agreement in support of the banker. Yasunidos, whose protests against Correa were strongly promoted by the Western press, then went on to strongly advocate for Pérez in the 2021 election.
Pérez was by no means the only rightist Indigenous leader to support Lasso. In the 2017 election, Fanny Campos, a former coordinator of the Pachakutik party, not only backed Lasso but even joined his campaign.
Pachakutik politician Salvador Quishpe also publicly endorsed the wealthy banker. And he revealed in 2016 that the Indigenous party was discussing potentially running Pachakutik leader Lourdes Tibán as Lasso’s vice-presidential candidate.
In 2021, Pérez, Pachakutik, and CONAIE decided to indirectly help Lasso by calling on their followers to null vote in protest of Correísmo. This decision, which led to Arauz’s defeat, also created conflicts within the Indigenous confederation.
CONAIE’s then-president, Jaime Vargas – who represented a left-wing faction that had led huge protests against Moreno’s neoliberal IMF-mandated economic reforms in 2019 – broke with his own organization and endorsed Arauz for president in April.
Days after his endorsement, Pachakutik expelled Vargas for daring to support a Correísta candidate. Next, CONAIE condemned him, announced it would sanction Vargas, and vacated his seat as the confederation’s president. Vargas responded by criticizing Pachakutik for acting against the interests of Ecuador’s Indigenous communities, accusing it of collaborating with the right wing.
Meanwhile Pérez’s running mate, Virna Cedeño, the official vice-presidential candidate of Pachakutik, publicly endorsed Lasso. Echoing conservative rhetoric, she claimed the banker could help save Ecuador from the clutches of the “failed and deceptive Socialism of the 21st Century,” a reference to the leftist economic model created by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. (To save face, Pachakutik decided to expel Cedeño as well.)
La excandidata vicepresidencial por Pachakutik y binomio con Yaku Pérez, Virna Cedeño, hizo público su apoyo al candidato presidencial Guillermo Lasso▶️ https://t.co/L5ojgCzZym
— Revista Vistazo (@revistavistazo) April 1, 2021
The Grayzone documented how Yaku Pérez personally advanced a raft of right-wing and imperialist policies, while deceptively claiming fidelity to the left. He supported the violent US-backed coup in Bolivia in 2019, which overthrew the country’s first and only ever Indigenous president, Evo Morales, as well as the soft coup against Brazil’s Workers’ Party government in 2016. Pérez also backed right-wing putsch attempts in Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Pérez’s support for coups and alignment with US foreign-policy interests in Latin America led Rafael Correa and other Correísta leaders to brand him “Yankee Pérez.”
During his presidential campaign, Pérez demonized his country’s impoverished masses, opposing a proposal by Andrés Arauz to give $1000 checks to 1 million working-class Ecuadorian families by claiming they would spend it on beer in one day. At the same time, Pérez said he would happily sign a free-trade agreement with the United States, telling a journalist, “I will not think twice.”
While Pérez ran on clearly right-wing policies, his campaign weaponized themes of identity, environmentalism, and gender and sexuality to attack the leftist Correísta movement (and to smear The Grayzone’s reporting).
Pérez’s candidacy was heavily amplified by Western corporate media outlets and US right-wing lobby groups like the Americas Society / Council of the Americas (AS/COA), which is funded by Western corporations, including a who’s who of the extraction industry.
Pérez quickly became a favorite on CNN en Español, where he spread baseless accusations of “fraud” after narrowly losing first round of the presidential election. And in a friendly interview on CNN following Lasso’s April 11 victory, Pérez absurdly claimed that socialist former President Correa and his leftist movement represent “the new right.”
— CNN en Español – PR (@CNNEPrensa) April 19, 2021
Eduardo Enríquez Arévalo, an Ecuadorian sociologist, spoke with The Grayzone about the shifting political orientation of CONAIE and Pachakutik.
“Pachakutik was born as an electoral instrument of CONAIE in the mid-’90s, but in the 2010s it became increasingly autonomous of CONAIE, which is visible in CONAIE’s criticism of the closeness that Pachakutik has had to Lasso and the right wing in recent years,” Enríquez explained.
In the 2010s, as Correa solidified a massive support base in Ecuador and expanded mining to fund popular social programs, Pachakutik began to openly ally with the right. In the 2014 mayoral election for the capital city Quito, Pachakutik’s candidate Milton Castillo openly endorsed conservative Mauricio Rodas, calling on Indigenous supporters to vote for the right wing in order to defeat the Correísta candidate, Augusto Barrera.
Thanks in part to the Pachakutik candidate’s endorsement, the rightist Rodas won the election and began to use Quito’s local government to undercut President Correa. CONAIE leadership responded by publicly criticizing Castillo.
“That right-wing shift can be understood possibly as a clarification of the ideological differences of the different classes within Indigenous communities in Ecuador,” Enríquez said, “but also as a generational conflict between younger leaders like Leonidas Iza and Jaime Vargas, who maintain a more left-wing perspective, or are at least more radical in their forms of struggle, when compared to the older leaders who are closer to the political elites of the country, such as Assembly member Salvador Quishpe and Lourdes Tibán, who show a clear willingness to collaborate with the right wing.”
“In 2019 Pachakutik not only found itself supporting the right-wing government of Moreno but also taking a turn toward social conservatism, when it opposed the decriminalization of abortion in cases of rape, when even the majority of the legislative bloc of the Citizens’ Revolution supported that decriminalization,” the scholar noted.
CONAIE again censured Pachakutik, its own political arm, for this vote against decriminalizing abortion in cases of rape.
In October 2019, the Moreno government tried to ram through a series of unpopular neoliberal economic reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund. The left-wing faction of CONAIE helped organize protests against the proposed austerity measures.
After 10 days of demonstrations, CONAIE met with Moreno and came to an agreement to end the protests. The confederation’s willingness to negotia
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