In an isolated area of Ecuador’s Amazon, the face of Lenín Moreno, the anointed successor of fiery leftist President Rafael Correa in Sunday’s presidential election, is plastered on billboards proclaiming “the future is unstoppable”.
That future worries Mercedes Cabrera, a peasant leader in the village of Santiago de Panantza. She says she was snatched from her bed by state security forces and branded a terrorist after a policeman was killed in a protest against a controversial Chinese copper exploration project.
Once a Correa supporter, she now calls him a “tyrant”. “He does what he wants now, he imposes his justice,” she says. “And if Lenín wins, Correa will govern.”
Mr Moreno, a conciliatory former vice-president who has been in a wheelchair since a botched robbery in 1998, vows to continue Mr Correa’s leftist platform — but without his mercurial style.
For Mr Correa, president of Ecuador for a decade and who is legally barred from a further consecutive term, the February 19 poll will be a test of his legacy.
Mr Correa, a US-trained economist, is known for being among the more pragmatic leftwing leaders that have come to power in Latin America this century. He brought political stability to a historically fissiparous country while successfully channelling Ecuador’s oil wealth into infrastructure works and poverty alleviation.
Underpinned by the last oil boom, the economy of this small Opec nation doubled in size from $51bn in 2007 to roughly $100bn in 2015. The poverty rate has fallen from 37 per cent in 2007 to 23 per cent in 2016, according to official data.
Such advances have been hampered by lower oil prices and a strong US dollar, which erodes the competitiveness of Ecuador, which uses the greenback as official currency. The International Monetary Fund forecast in its latest report last October that the economy would shrink 2.7 per cent in 2017 — making it Latin America’s second-worst performer after crisis-hit Venezuela.
Last month, a senior IMF official said Ecuador’s outlook had “improved”. The country’s central bank estimates the economy will rebound to 1.4 per cent in 2017, after a likely contraction of 1.7 per cent in 2016.
The downturn has spurred dissent while accentuating Mr Correa’s bullying. The president, who gave shelter to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Ecuador’s London embassy, is criticised for attacking the press and behaving in an autocratic manner.
“We cannot continue with a policy of intimidating anyone who thinks differently,” says former banker Guillermo Lasso, the main rival of Messrs Correa and Moreno. Although Mr Correa has pledged to move to Belgium where his wife is from and where he attended university, at home he enjoys 60 per cent approval ratings. “Now voters have lost their figurehead,” says Tatiana Larrea, a pollster in Quito.
That coupled with disenchantment among indigenous, environmentalists, and pockets of the middle and lower classes, means his ally Mr Moreno is far from unbeatable, even if he is ahead by at least 10 percentage points over Mr Lasso.
Franklin Ramírez, a sociologist at Quito’s Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, says Mr Moreno, if victorious, “would not be as pliant as many seem to believe”.
If Mr Moreno can secure at least 40 per cent of the ballots and keep the 10-point edge over his nearest rival, he can avoid a second-round vote on April 2. If not, combined opposition votes could keep him out of office.
Conscious of the potential turning point, Mr Correa is rallying supporters. “They have called this election in Ecuador a Stalingrad, a breaking point to see if the rightwing continues to advance in Latin America, as it has happened in recent months, or if the socialism of the twenty-first century regains its impulse,” Mr Correa has said.
He added: “Let’s continue with this revolution.”
In Ecuador’s Amazon, Ms Cabrera describes that revolution as a “curse”, adding that Mr Correa has sold the country to the Chinese. Quito has borrowed more than $17bn from Beijing since 2010, according to the China-Latin America Finance Database.
A few kilometres away a different mood prevails. From the windows of a house plastered in campaign propaganda for Mr Moreno, Ruth Sumba says her candidate of choice “will continue what Correa has done, his roads, his schools, his hospitals, his works. This country has changed, and we owe that to him, we owe him our vote.”