My first day off from my volunteer job with Paseo de los Monos happened to coincide with Ecuador’s national election. Not only would Ecuadorians cast their vote for their country’s top position, the presidency, but they would also be voting on who they wanted to send to fill the seats of their national and provincial assemblies.
Voting isn’t just a civic duty for patriotic Ecuadorians anxious to express their voice in the political process, it’s a legal obligation. If you don’t vote, you don’t receive a card that shows proof of voting, which means it becomes nearly impossible to buy a mobile phone, rent an apartment, or buy a car. Not to mention the fines and penalties imposed by the government.
Though I have a limited knowledge of Ecuador’s political landscape, one thing I was picking up fast was that the vast majority of people I’d spoken with were not fans of the current president. Most, if not all, felt that he was a dictator-in-the-making and cited as proof, the fact that he had rewritten the Constitution to change the term limits. Thereby allowing him to serve a third term . . . if elected. Although the “if,” judging by national opinion polls showed Rafael Correa coasting into his unprecedented third term without the slightest bit of trouble.
“Of course he will win,” my dinner companions would lament in a barely audible whisper. “He’s basically bought the votes of the poor. They don’t care that he’s done away with free speech in this country, they just want the government handout to keep coming each month.” Heads nodded in agreement around our small dinner table.
Digging around online, I looked for articles detailing Correa’s relationship with the poor and the indigenous voter’s of Ecuador who were predicted to carry him to victory in the upcoming election. Most articles painted him as a left-leaning socialist who’s rallied around the policies of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. He was quoted four months before the election as saying, “Those who are earning too much will be giving more to the poorest of this country.” His position: that banks would be taxed on their holdings overseas, which would raise an estimated $200 to $300 million pesos that would then be redistributed to those most in need. In addition, he had poured a tremendous about of money into repairing the countries’ infrastructure, creating thousands of jobs in the process.
I also found that my friend’s argument about the President’s stranglehold on free speech did have merits. All you have to do is google “Correa and free speech” to see that the world’s main-stream media does not have a favorable view of the President’s handling of media coverage with-in his own borders. The Washington Post printed that Correa had earned the reputation for “the most comprehensive and ruthless assault on free media under way in the Western Hemisphere”.
I arrived at Escuela Primero de Mayo, an official polling precinct about 8 am and already the industrious entrepeneurs had already set-up laminating machines on plastic lawn tables so that voters fresh out of the polling station for the price of thirty cents could seal their voter cards between two sheets of plastic keeping it safe and clean for the next four years.
A woman from Telemundo noticed me jotting down observations into my black notebook and asked if I was a reporter. “Yes,” I replied and she let loose a torrent of information that I should know about the voting process: the times the polls officially opened and closed, the duration it took for the average voter to cast his or her ballot, it of course was an obligation for every Ecuadorian to vote, oh and did I know that it was against the law for polls to be published or released in the media three to four days before the election.
Our lengthy and informative interaction caught the eye of a local police officer who invited me into the school to look around, that is if it was okay with the military officer in command of the precinct. I made my way to the military officer and shook his hand and explained that I was interested in the electoral process and would it be okay if I looked around for a few minutes. I reassured him, that of course, I wouldn’t take any photographs.
The scene inside the school was as orderly as it had appeared outside. Voters doubled checked their names on a registration list, received a blank ballot, and then cast their ballot in private before sliding it into a small wooden box. It was not unlike voting in the States, well except for the military personnel with semi-automatic weapons that roamed the halls.
As I exited Escuela Primero de Mayo not sure what I’d hoped to gain from my quick experience behind-the-curtain view of the voting process in Ecuador, a large group of hand-clapping voters or protesters, I wasn’t entirely certain which – converged on the school’s entrance. I asked a cop next to me if he knew the man leading the mob? “A candidate for national assembly, L-e-d-e-s-m-a . . . that’s his last name.”
I followed the group of cheering and very enthusiastic clappers as they exited the building and made their way to a second school just two blocks away. When the exited the second school, the group seemed to make a direct bee-line to where I was standing. Apparently word had traveled that I was a reporter of some sort and a woman asked if I would like a quick interview with the candidate. “Yes,” I stuttered, “yes, I would, but I’m sorry to say my spanish is very very bad.”
“Not a problem,” I was assured. They had a translator and without any further introductions the interview had begun.
Translator: This is Germán Ledesma and she is Paulina Salguero. They are running to be representatives of Pastaza in Parliament on today, the 17th of February. They are people who are very honest and they will represent us as a town – as a good town because that’s what we want for our Government.
So if elected he would represent Puyo? He would represent the Province of Pastaza.
And the name of your party? Avanza. It means like “keep going” . . . Puyo! (There’s a round of applause and people cheer.)
Does the party currently have any members in Parliament right now? No. We are a new party. We don’t have a presidential candidate.
And if you are elected to Parliament what have you purposed to accomplish for the people of Pastaza? He wants to do a lot of good things for the people, but the most important thing is to defend our town and to defend our land. We want to recover all the rivers and natural resources that have been affected by pollution. That is our main priority. We also want to change the way people see their future. Right now things in Ecuador are really bad and they feel like they have to steal in order to have economic opportunity and we want to change that.
How does he feel about his chances today? Happiness. He feels happy. Its like when you choose someone to represent you . . . it’s like happiness. We want the best for the town . . .you know? It’s a poor town, but we want to help make it better.
Good luck to you. Thank you for your time. Thank you!
As the brief interview concluded there was another round of applause and wildly enthusiastic cheering from the two candidates and their supporters. As we both marched off in different directions, I wondered if this new start-up party had any chance of stealing votes away from Correa’s assembly candidate.
The polls had just closed as I hailed a taxi for my return to Paseo de los Monos. On the radio an announcer was baiting the audience with important information just in from the exit polls pouring in from around the country. As he announced how this demographic and that demographic voted it was becoming quite clear there wouldn’t be a need for a run-off election. Rafael Correa had secured his job for another term as President of Ecuador.
This term, however, would be slightly different than the last two. Rafael Correa will be joined by a newly elected member to the National Assembly. A fighter for the people, the common good, and the environment. A man who will be working for the advancement of the people of Pastaza. A man by the name of Germán Ledesma.