«Development as a Political Process: the Ecuadorian Dream»
First I would like to express my profound gratitude to Harvard University – its officers, professors, and students – for this invitation.
(También desde Ecuador nos están siguiendo centenas de jóvenes en algunas universidades ecuatorianas a través de internet y de video, así que un saludo a los jóvenes estudiantes ecuatorianos)…
As you may know, before entering politics, I was a university professor. Moreover, I had the opportunity to earn a master’s in economics and a Ph.D., also in economics, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, during four of the happiest years of my life.
That is why returning to academia renews my spirit, particularly as the differences between academic life and political life are so great. Whereas in academia it is a sin not to tell the truth, in politics it is practically a sin to be truthful.
In academic life you find simplicity; veneration for the truth; and usually the best of human nature. It would not normally occur to anyone in academia to intentionally lie. In politics, although there are also many good people who seek to serve, unfortunately all too often you still encounter the worst of human nature.
So thank you, for offering me this opportunity to return to academia.
Allow me to tell you about a fascinating country, the most compact mega-diverse country in the world. If we consider both terrestrial and marine biodiversity, Ecuador has the largest number of species on the planet in a territory just over one hundred nine thousand (109,000) square miles (about the size of the State of Nevada), where one finds all climates and microclimates imaginable. You just have seen a video promoting Ecuador. In Ecuador we have “four worlds.” In a single day a tourist can have breakfast along the beaches of the Pacific with fresh seafood, then have lunch at the foot of Cayambe, a majestic Andean mountain, snow-covered year-round, right on the equator this snow cove, and finally have dinner deep in the Amazon jungle. The next day, after a flight lasting less than two hours, our tourist, amazed, can be in the Galápagos Islands, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
Ecuador loves life. Our Constitution is the first in the world to grant rights to nature. Twenty percent of our territory is protected in forty-nine Reserves and National Parks, among them Yasuní Park, a jungle treasure and a world biosphere reserve, where in just one-third of a square mile you can find a greater variety of trees than in all of North America.
No doubt, given its diversity and geographic location, Ecuador is the eco-center of the world. In Ecuador, in seven days you can sample all of Latin America: its beaches, its mountains, its jungles, its islands, and, most important, its people.
The Argentinians, very proudly proclaim: “The Pope is Argentinian”; my dear friend Dilma Rousseff, the President of Brazil – Argentina’s eternal rival in soccer – says “Well, the Pope may be Argentinian, but God is Brazilian”…. In Ecuador we do not have any problem with that: certainly the Pope is Argentinian, God is probably Brazilian, but Paradise… is Ecuadorian! You are always welcome in Ecuador!
According to the 2012 United Nations Human Development Report, during the 2007-2012 period, which coincides with our administration, Ecuador is one of the three countries in the world that advanced the most in terms of human development, improving its ranking from “medium” human development to “high” human development.
Poverty in Latin America is not the result of scarce resources, but of inequality, a consequence of perverse power relationships where only a few have dominated everything. By changing these power relationships in the service of the large majority, through profoundly democratic processes, we have succeeded, in our seven years in office, in becoming the leader in Latin America in reducing inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, by 8 points. This reduction is four times greater than the average for Latin America, one of the few regions of the world where inequality is decreasing.
We are also one of the three Latin American countries that have achieved the greatest reduction in poverty. In the period from 2006 to 2013, poverty has fallen from 37.6 percent to 25.6 percent and for the first time in history extreme poverty is below the double-digit level, falling from 16.9 percent to 8.6 percent.
Overcoming poverty is the moral imperative of humankind, not only because it is the greatest assault on human rights and freedoms, but also because today it is not the result of resource scarcity, but of exclusionary systems.
Ecuador also boasts one of the most dynamic economies in Latin America as the Dean said, with an average growth rate of 4.2% for the 2007-2013 period. In contrast with orthodox economics, which calls for reducing wages and sacrificing labor rights to supposedly generate employment, we have increased wages, and currently we have the highest real wages in the Andean region. We have also ended precarious employment practices such as “tercerización” (-outsourcing-) which enable a company to hire its workers through a third company and thus avoid any of the usual responsibilities of employers. For example, at a labor trial in 2007, the largest cement company of Ecuador declared that it had… no employees!
During the long and dark period of neoliberal policies, in pursuit of competitiveness, our working class was sacrificed with falling real wages and mechanisms of labor exploitation euphemistically called “labor flexibility”, in countries that maintained high rates of unemployment and did not even have access to unemployment insurance.
This intensified the gap between labor and capital income shares, which is one of the greatest sources of inequality in Latin America. For instance, in a developed and equitable country like Sweden, for every dollar generated, 35 cents are paid to capital and 65 cents to labor. However, in the case of Ecuador, the same dollar is distributed inversely: 35 cents to labor and 65 cents to capital. This has always been difficult to change because of the dilemma of having to choose between labor exploitation and unemployment.
In Ecuador we resolved this dilemma with creative and unprecedented measures. The traditional minimum wage has always existed in our laws, but we introduced another category: the decent wage, defined as the wage that allows a family to afford the basic cost of living with their total household income. With the new legislation, employers can pay the minimum wage to avoid a greater evil, that means unemployment, but no company can declare profits if it does not pay the decent wage to every single worker. Even though some had predicted terrible implications for the private sector, the effects of this measure have been impressive and have surpassed our expectations. Since it was implemented, in 2011, average wages began to rise, and this year, without any negative impact whatsoever, the minimum wage is already equivalent to the decent wage. For us, labor enjoys supremacy over capital, yet in contrast to classical socialism, which proposed abolishing private property, we use modern, and in some cases unique, instruments to eliminate tensions between capital and labor.
The great challenge facing humanity in the twenty-first century is to achieve the supremacy of human beings over capital, with societies dominating markets, not markets dominating societies. The market is a great servant, but it is a terrible master. We believe in societies with markets, but not societies overruled by the market, where lives, people, and society itself are treated as merely one more commodity, all in function to that entelechy called “market”.
And we are very proud of the social gains we have achieved, such as ensuring equal opportunity to access higher education. For instance, Ecuador has the greatest number of poor people studying in universities in Latin America. This is as a result of the new Constitution, which establishes public higher education at no cost. We are also playing a leadership role regionally and internationally in integrating persons with disabilities into society. We have achieved nearly full employment among people with disabilities who are able to work.
At the outset of our administration, thanks to effective management and technical rigor, we were able to buy back a large part of our external debt at market value, that is, at about one-third of its nominal value. As a result of this successful repurchase, the external debt service was reduced from 24% of the national budget in 2006 to 5.3% in 2013.
We also renegotiated the oil contracts, known as “contratos de participación”, signed in the 1990s when the price of a barrel of oil was around sixteen dollars, from which the State received just 4 or 5 dollars per barrel. When the price of oil shot up, the oil companies started earning multimillion-dollar profits.
Now we have “contratos de servicios” where the distribution is just the opposite: a fixed fee per barrel is paid to the oil company based on a reasonable rate of return, and the rest, no matter the market price, goes to the owner of the resources, the Ecuadorian people.
As a result of efficiency gains in tax collection and efforts to fight tax evasion, tax revenues in Ecuador have tripled, despite some tax reductions and tax eliminations. The tax burden has increased from 15.5% of GDP in 2006 to 20.1% in 2013, meeting the Latin American average, but still far below the 31.1% average for the OECD countries. This has allowed us to achieve the highest level of public investment in Latin America, 15% of the GDP for 2013, while the outstanding public debt, as a percentage of GDP is barely 24%, far less than that of developed economies.
Public investment has brought about major transformations in roadways, ports, airports, telecommunications, electrical power generation, the justice system, citizen security, and systemic competitiveness in general.
At the same time, the renegotiation of the external debt, the revised oil contracts, and the increase in taxes collected, have freed up considerable resources to pay the most important debt: the social debt. Whereas in 2006, 4.8 percent of GDP was earmarked to the social sector, in 2013 this figure has increased to 11.4% of GDP. In absolute values, 4.3 times more is invested in education than in 2006, and 4.5 times more in health.
This is important: the distribution of resources reflects the power relationships within a society; and the data clearly shows, beyond any doubt, that if historically, the ones in charge in Ecuador were the creditors, the bankers, the international bureaucracies; today it is the Ecuadorian people who are in charge.
And let’s talk about human rights. Ecuador is one of the only seven countries, of the 34 in the hemisphere, to have signed absolutely every inter-American human rights instrument. As in any State where rule of law prevails, crimes are prosecuted, not persons. Yet, precisely because finally we are all equal before the law, we face attacks from the historical powers that were always above the law.
The logical consequence of these gains is the political stability Ecuador enjoys today. After the serious economic crisis of 1999, when biased policies and management led to the general failure of the banking system, the economy shrank by 7.6%, unemployment shot up to almost 15%, the national currency was eliminated and the dollar was adopted as the legal tender. As a result of the crisis, millions of Ecuadorians emigrated, destroying families and tearing up the social fabric.
The instability was such that, up until 2007, no administration was able to complete a term; in 10 years, there were seven presidents. Ecuador was an example of everything that could go wrong with a country.
Today, Ecuador is one of the most stable democracies in Latin America. Since 2006, “la Revolución Ciudadana” (the name of our political project) has won 10 consecutive elections, including two presidential elections in the first round, which was unthinkable in Ecuador’s recent history. We have the highest public approval ratings across the continent as the Dean mentioned. According to the Mexican polling firm Mitofsky, which performs an annual evaluation of approval ratings of 20 presidents in the Americas, the Ecuadorian government is the only one that has consistently achieved outstanding ratings, with popular support of around 80%, despite having been in office for seven years.
“Latinbarómetro”, a public opinion study conducted each year by a Chilean organization in 18 countries of Latin America, puts us in first place in the categories of satisfaction with life, long-term economic expectations, and support for democracy, as well as in fairness in the distribution of wealth and trust in the State. The report characterizes Ecuador as a success story.
As you can see, democracy has been firmly established in Ecuador; not only democracy in the formal sense but real democracy in terms of people’s access to rights, equal opportunities, and dignified living conditions.
This is the so-called Ecuadorian miracle – even though there are no miracles in development. The impressive changes that have occurred in Ecuador have come as a result of a fundamental change in power relationships.
Today, in Ecuador, despite all challenges we face, it is the Ecuadorian people who govern. Our greatest accomplishment is having overcome the hopelessness in which we found ourselves after the crisis in 1999, the result of neoliberal fundamentalism.