In Background, Ecuador, Joe Emersberger, Latin America and the Caribbean

This CounterSpin interview by Janine Jackson with Joe Emersberger looks at the background to the protests in Ecuador and the mismatch between the MSM coverage and what was really happening and why…

By Janine Jackson

Published on FAIR, Oct 29, 2019
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Janine Jackson interviewed FAIR contributor Joe Emersberger about the Ecuador protests for the October 25, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: After 11 days of protestin Ecuador, in which a reported eight people died, more than 1,000 were injured and that many arrested, NPR explained to listeners what it’s all been about:

The IMF was recommending a careful and slow change in fuel subsidies which, along with tax reform and other measures, would generate savings that would “allow for an increase in social assistance spending over the course of the program.”

But after President Lenín Moreno said he was ending subsidies, diesel and gas prices rose and “riots broke out.” While it’s good that the violent protests have been calmed, it’s a shame, NPR listeners were to understand, that fossil fuel subsidies (“deeply unsustainable,” don’t you know) are, in Ecuador, “popular and politically hard to undo.”

Other countries just doing their own decision-making never seems to be on the table in elite media chin-stroking about how the US, via the IMF, might find the right carrot-and-stick combination for leaders that don’t do what they’re told. Our next guest interrogates that presumption in a new piece for FAIR.org.

Joe Emersberger is an engineer and a member of the UNIFOR trade union. Besides FAIR.org, his writing appears on teleSUR English, ZNet, the Canary and CounterPunch, among others. He joins us now by phone from Windsor, Ontario. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Joe Emersberger.

Joe Emersberger: Hi, thanks for having me on.

JJ: In your new piece for FAIR.org, you cite, within this October 14 Associated Press piece, what I think of as a nugget of misrepresentation. It’s a presumptions-compacted-into-language sort of thing that, if you unpeel it, you can see a good portion of what’s leading, or what’s loaded, in ostensibly neutral reporting.

So AP says that Moreno served former President Rafael Correa as vice president before he became president, and “the two men went through a bitter split as Moreno pushed to curb public debt amassed on Correa’s watch.”

Ecuador’s debt is supposedly the hard fact here, driving the whole story. What should we know about the size of that debt, and how it was “amassed”?

JE: So, yeah, what happened was, in the AP piece, they throw a figure of $64 billion. And actually, when you go to the IMF’s website, you can see that for 2019, the debt is like $53 billion; that’s roughly 49 percent of GDP, which is actually very far from being high by any measure.

I listed a bunch of countries that, like Ecuador, cannot issue their own currency. Ecuador adopted the dollar in 2000, when its banking system imploded, basically. So the comparison there is very valuable—you can see that Ecuador is pretty much at the very low end compared to the countries in the Eurozone that are in a kind of similar situation.

So it does not have a high debt-to-GDP ratio. When Correa left office, it was actually lowerthan it is now under Moreno.

Moreno has made such a big deal about the size of the debt, but he’s actually increased it, because he’s given all kinds of tax giveaways to the richest people, and revenue giveaways to multinationals, and he’s done other things, too, that prevent the government from being able to move money around internally to finance itself, so it doesn’t have to go to private sector lenders as much. He’s refused to use import tariffs—all sorts of things that have bled money, basically, for ideological reasons, and also just handouts to the rich. That’s what he’s trying to sustain, actually, and he’s trying to transfer that onto the backs of the poor. So that’s one thing.

And the other thing, there was a huge error in that AP article, they said Ecuador has a budget shortfall of $10 billion. And, again, the IMF website says it’s $37 million, so orders of magnitude smaller. And I looked at that and said, “Oh my gosh, that’s a lot to make up, to just invent.” And so I looked through IMF documents. It looks like what they did was they probably got a number for all the principal interest due this year on Ecuador’s bonds that foreigners buy; when you buy bonds, they eventually mature, and the government pays you interest and principal, right?

Governments do, all the time—unless they’re in a war or they’re being heavily sanctioned by the United States or something really drastic—what they do is they just issue new bonds to pay off the principal, and so that what’s really relevant is the interest payment, not the principal. That’s more likely what they did, and they put up this huge number, saying that Ecuador had a budget shortfall of $10 billion. So anyone who reads that would think, “Oh my God, they have a deficit that’s a third of their budget or something.” So it’s, yeah, totally misleading.

And there’s other things, too. For instance, you talked about the bitter split. Well, the bitter split happened after the election. Moreno ran as a staunch Correa loyalist, praised Correa to the sky during the election campaign. It was afterwards where he revealed his true colors, and he immediately turned against everything and everyone he had ever claimed to believe in. And it was really remarkable; you know, politicians are cynical, we don’t expect much sincerity from them. But this was really extreme, the way he just did his ideological about-face, and just looking to outlaw, literally outlaw, his former colleagues.

JJ: One of the first things that Moreno did was to see the importance of getting Ecuador’s private media under his wing right away. And then part of what that encouraged, as you write in the piece, were these rumors that former allies, that folks that Moreno had been working with as part of the Correa government, that now they’re spying on, destabilizing, that they’re behind the protests. And that seems to be a line that US media seem to be buying into.

Joe Emersberger

JE: Yeah, the right-wing governments in the region, they issued a statement supporting him. Juan Guaidó—just recently, just today I believe, issued a statement saying that Maduro is to blame for the unrest in Chile, he also said he supported that line, that Maduro and Correa from Belgium….

Correa lives in Belgium with his wife, who’s from there, and he always said that when he left politics, that he’d be moving to Belgium with his wife, because she had lived so many years in Ecuador, so now he was going to return the favor and live in her country for several years.

Basically, because of that personal family situation, that’s the reason Correa’s not in jail right now, because Moreno’s running mate in the 2017 election, he’s actually in prison now, he’s been in prison within months of Moreno taking office. And the whole case against him is very flimsy, very sketchy, the procedural aspects, all sorts of dirty dealings that Moreno’s done with the judiciary. The entire Constitutional Court was fired in 2018 and replaced.

He made all sorts of maneuvers with the big media, and the big media is behind this all the way. And what he was able to do, and this is a flaw in Correa’s  approach, and I think it’s all the left governments, really. When you get a left-wing government, of course the private media hate you and they attack you. But then there’ll be left-wing presidents like Correa, what they do is they’ve expanded public media, and used that to balance them out.

But what happened with Moreno was, because he was president, he was able to quickly make changes to the public media, until they were basically all on the same page. You immediately, overnight, had this monoculture imposed on the media again. And I talked about that with Guillaume Long, actually, who was part of Correa’s government; that’s a huge problem that progressives have to think more deeply about what they can do if they reach power; they have to find ways to more sustainably try to democratize media.

It’s not easy. It’s not an easy thing to do. But it’s something you have to think very seriously about. Because you leave that system intact, where the private media is totally unrepresentative, you have these big media barons who don’t have any legitimate democratic right to have so much control over public debates, and that really wasn’t dealt with, that was kind of a, I don’t know, I guess you’d call it a “makeshift way” they approached it.

JJ: What we kind of hope for, sort of the most critical media in the US, would be things like this New York Times piece that has a single line, “Critics have accused the IMF of exacerbating economic hardships in countries like Ecuador through austerity measures imposed to reduce debts.” That kind of passes for criticism in US media presentation, and there’s still so much presumption.

JE: Yeah, we kind of get beaten down where we’re glad to see anything, even if it’s a passing reference. Yeah. It happens all the time; we’re happy to see anybody say anything critical, but we need to be so much more aggressive. But it’s just hard to get anything prominently published that really goes after the policies the way they should be.

Well, I’ll give one example. For example: a lot of people are raving about this articleIllhan Omar just wrote in the Washington Post. I mean, compared to stuff that’s written all the time, compared to guys like Bolton, who are just total maniacs, I can see why people welcomed her piece. But she talks about sanctions, and the use of sanctions; but sanctions are mass murder. That’s not just a policy tool that’s “counterproductive” or flawed or mistaken. I mean, people should be going to jail for that stuff. They’re killing people. And that’s just not expressible; that’s beyond the pale. Somebody writes something like what she just did, people are very grateful, very happy, and it’s understandable. But it’s not good enough.

JJ: I saw a reference in a piece by Boaventura de Sousa Santos, in which he referred to “violent austerity policies,” and I just thought, just finally, in terms of language, how rarely we hear austerity policies, that can be literally taking food from people’s mouths, and healthcare from them, how rarely they’re referred to as violent. Whereas breaking a shop window, that’s unrest that is meant to move us to action, right?

JE: Yeah. Exactly. Broken windows are just intolerable, but broken people are fine. Yeah, it’s a problem with language, and it seems like the pressures are always on progressives to tone down their language, whereas guys like Marco Rubio will go on Twitter and threaten that Maduro will end up being tortured and sodomized the way Gaddafi was. So they can just let fly with any, just any demented thing that they they want to say. And then, on the other hand, we get either silence or very inadequate so-called opposition, so that’s a problem. It’s a problem with what’s allowed in the media.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Joe Emersberger. His most recent piece, “Ecuador’s Austerity Measures, Repression Based on Lies AP Happily Spread” is up now on FAIR.org. Joe Emersberger, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

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