Banana Republic? Banana Heir Elected Ecuador’s Youngest President, But What Can He Do In Just 18 Months?

Photo courtesy of Karen Toro. Daniel Noboa goes to the Palace to meet former President Guillermo Lasso.
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At age 35, Noboa is set to become Ecuador’s youngest elected president, and during his campaign, he appealed to the country’s relatively young electorate–almost a quarter of all eligible voters are between the  ages od 18 and 29, and although voting is mandatory, citizens over the age of 64 do not have to vote.

But Noboa faces an uphill battle as he prepares to take over the Palacio de Carondelet, Ecuador’s presidential palace.

He certainly seems well-qualified in terms of education. According to Wikipedia Noboa earned a Master of Business Administration from the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illinois. In 2020, he earned another master’s degree in public administration at Harvard University, and in 2022, he obtained a master’s degree in Political Communication and Strategic Governance from George Washington University.

And he has succeeded where his father failed, his father having run for president unsuccessfully five times.

However, Faced with an abbreviated 18-month term in office, Noboa has little time — and little political backing — with which to address some of Ecuador’s most pressing problems.

And the stakes are high. Ecuador’s economy is still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, and crime has shot upwards, threading the population with fear.

But voters like Maria Paz, 25, are optimistic. When she heard the election-night results, she rushed to the avenue with a life-sized cardboard cutout of the president-elect in tow. “Now I expect jobs to come and organised crime to leave my country,” she said.

Normally, a full presidential term is four years. But because the previous president resigned under the “death cross” provision, the new officeholder can only serve out the remainder of his term: 18 months, and then there will have to be another election.

The brevity of that mandate puts pressure on Noboa to act — and act fast. So what is he going to do? Having run as an independent, he has little party support and many opponents.

The heir to one of Ecuador’s wealthiest families, which made its fortune in banana exports, Noboa is a relative newcomer to national politics. He was first elected to the National Assembly in 2021, and he was in the midst of his inaugural term when the legislature was dissolved.

As a freshman assembly member, Noboa had not yet risen in the ranks of an existing political party nor formed a robust political movement, but he is regarded as a pragmatic centrist, neither a right-winger nor a left-winger.

So he relied on the backing of two existing parties to support his bid for the presidency: a group called People, Equality and Democracy (PID), plus the Revolutionary and Democratic Ethical Green Movement (MOVER).

Together with Noboa’s own movement, they formed a coalition called the National Democratic Alliance (ADN).

But each party still maintains its independence. Neither PID nor MOVER is formally led by Noboa.

In addition, Noboa must also deal with a fragmented National Assembly. Since new legislative elections were held in August, no single political group holds an overall majority.

Of the 137 seats in the assembly, Noboa’s ADN coalition secured approximately 14 seats, compared with about 52 for the Citizen Revolution Movement, the party of Gonzalez, his presidential rival.

Neither total is enough to lead the assembly without additional votes from outside parties.

“Pragmatism must be his northern star,” Basabe said. He believes that Noboa should avoid engaging with the National Assembly as much as possible, focusing instead on what he can do through executive action.

“Buying new gear for the security forces doesn’t need authorisation from the National Assembly. He only needs to devote some budget to it and have the political will to push it forward,” Basabe explained.

Much of his early moves have to do with Ecuador’s volatile security situation. Once a relatively peaceful country, Ecuador has seen its murder rate skyrocket in recent years.

In the first six months of 2023, Ecuadorian police documented 4,374 homicides, putting the country on track to be the third-most violent in Latin America.

Part of the problem stems from the increasing presence of organised crime, seeking to take advantage of drug-trafficking routes through Ecuador. The country sits between major cocaine-producing regions in Colombia and Peru and borders the Pacific Ocean.

The question is whether it is more effective to use military means to defeat the drug gangs, or to use a more refined approach cutting them off through financial sanctions and the banking system. The previous president, Lasso, although himself a banker, preferred a militarized approach, although some political analysts in Ecuador believe this could just exacerbate the situation.

Interestingly, several recent massive interceptions of cocaine by European customs agents have found the drug concealed in banana shipments, an area with which the new president should be very familiar since his family owns Ecuador’s largest banana shipping business.

According to Luis Córdova-Alarcón, an expert in conflict and violence at the Central University of Ecuador, Lasso used a military approach to combat organised crime, with support from the US and Israel.

“But there was no political strategy to accompany it,” Córdova told Al Jazeera.

Córdova believes this militarised “war on drugs” approach leads only to more violence. He instead thinks that Noboa should set his sights on investigating money laundering, rooting out official corruption and reforming the police.

Sources: Al Jazeera, news agencies, El Comercio, El Universo, Wikipedia.
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