Ecuador’s status improved from Partly Free to Free because the year’s presidential and legislative elections did not suffer from the types of abuses seen in previous contests, such as the misuse of public resources, and resulted in an orderly transfer of power between rival parties.
Elections take place regularly, and some key state institutions have recently displayed greater independence. Freedoms for media and civil society expanded under former president Lenín Moreno, the chosen successor of leftist Rafael Correa. The 2021 elections marked the first time that neither Correa nor his preferred candidate won the presidency in 14 years. Ongoing challenges include official corruption, due process violations, and violence in prisons and during protests.
- In April, Guillermo Lasso, who had unsuccessfully run for president twice before, defeated Andrés Arauz of the Correa-led Union for Hope (UNES) amid high turnout. Lasso won with 52 percent of the vote in the second-round contest, while Arauz received 48 percent.
- Though no party won a majority in the February legislative elections, UNES secured 49 seats, followed by Pachakutik, a party that represents Indigenous communities, with 27. President Lasso’s party, Creating Opportunities (CREO), obtained 12. International and domestic observers generally praised the legislative elections as credible and fair.
- In September, 119 inmates were killed in a high-security prison in Guayaquil after a dispute between two rival criminal gangs became violent, making for the deadliest such incident in Ecuadorian history. Various media outlets reported that the aggressors were heavily armed.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
The 2008 constitution provides for a directly elected president. The president has the authority to dissolve the legislature, which triggers new elections for both the assembly and the presidency. In 2018, voters approved a referendum that restored term limits, which had been eliminated in a 2015 constitutional amendment under former president Correa; the president can now serve up to two terms, which effectively bars Correa from reclaiming the presidency.
In April 2021, Guillermo Lasso, who had unsuccessfully run for president twice before, defeated UNES candidate Andrés Arauz. Lasso won 52 percent of the vote while Arauz received 48 percent.
Lasso narrowly outpolled Yaku Pérez of Pachakutik in the first round, which was held in February. Pérez denounced those results as fraudulent, but was unable to produce any evidence to support his claims. The Organization of American States (OAS) and other observers called the election free and fair, and the National Electoral Council (CNE) overcame internal disputes and a tense political environment to provide results on election day.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because deficiencies seen in the last election, including abuse of public resources in favor of the ruling party, were not repeated.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
Ecuador has a 137-seat unicameral National Assembly, with 116 members directly elected, 15 elected by proportional representation, and 6 elected through multiseat constituencies for Ecuadorians living abroad; as dictated by the 2018 referendum, members serve a maximum of two four-year terms.
International and domestic observers generally praised the February 2021 legislative elections as credible and fair. While no party won a majority, UNES, the new party formed by Rafael Correa and his allies, secured 49 seats, followed by Pachakutik with 27. The Social Christian Party (PSC) and the Democratic Left (ID) both won 18. CREO obtained only 12.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because deficiencies seen in the last election, including abuse of public resources in favor of the ruling party, were not repeated.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
During the Correa era, the CNE had generally been considered government-controlled. The body faced some criticism for its administration of the 2017 elections, including for slow vote counting and irregularities in the voter rolls. In response to the criticism, the transitional National Council of Citizen Participation and Social Control (CPCCS), which is responsible for appointing CNE members, dismissed all sitting CNE members in July 2018, and that November, five newly appointed members began a six-year term.
The new members displayed greater independence and transparency than their predecessors and oversaw successful 2019 local elections. However, in January 2020, CNE president Diana Atamaint narrowly avoided an impeachment trial amid accusations of influence peddling. The CNE also faced scrutiny as preparations began for the 2021 presidential and general elections.
The Latin American Political Reforms Observatory, a research center at The New School University in New York, praised the CNE for how the 2021 elections were organized, for successfully implementing recommendations from international election observers and the OAS, particularly around public health, and publishing the results quickly and accurately.
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 due to better organized elections and the implementation of new registration procedures that increased access for opposition candidates.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
According to the 2008 constitution, political organizations must collect voters’ signatures equivalent to 1.5 percent of the electoral roll to register and participate in general elections. If a party or group fails to win 4 percent of the vote for two consecutive elections, its registration can be revoked, disadvantaging smaller parties. Recent elections have seen a significant rise in electoral competition: the 2021 elections featured 16 presidential candidates and 17 legislative party lists.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
For decades, Ecuador’s political parties have been largely personality based, clientelist, and fragile. Proud and Sovereign Fatherland (PAIS), the largest bloc in the previous legislature, split after former president Moreno came to power, with one faction loyal to Moreno and the other loyal to Correa; ahead of the 2019 polls the latter group left the ruling party and joined the Citizens’ Revolution party.
Smaller establishment parties such as the PSC and newer parties have successfully gained representation in recent years. Lasso’s victory in the 2021 presidential election marked the first time in 14 years that neither Correa nor a candidate affiliated with one of Correa’s parties became president.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because there are no significant impediments to the opposition’s ability to win power in elections.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
The people’s political choices are generally free from domination by powerful groups that are not democratically accountable. However, wealthy business interests can undermine democratic accountability by facilitating or encouraging corruption among elected officials.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
Ecuador’s constitution promotes nondiscrimination and provides for the adoption of affirmative action measures to promote equality and representation of marginalized groups. In practice, however, Indigenous groups often lack a voice in key decisions pertaining to their land and resources. Nonetheless, Indigenous groups are an important force in national politics. Pachakutik candidate Pérez narrowly finished in third place in the first round of the 2021 presidential election; Pachakutik became the second largest legislative bloc in the concurrent legislative polls. A member of Pachakutik, Guadalupe Llori, also became the first Indigenous woman to preside over the National Assembly.
An LGBT+ rights activist, Pamela Troya, registered as the only openly gay candidate for the 2021 legislative elections. In 2020, she filed a complaint after being mocked by a prosecutorial staffer while reporting that she had received death threats.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
Elected officials are generally free to set and implement government policy without undue interference from nonstate actors. However, the executive has exhibited a strong influence on other branches of the government, and political actors are susceptible to manipulation by powerful business interests.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
Ecuador has long been racked by corruption, and the weak judiciary and lack of investigative capacity in government oversight agencies contribute to an environment of impunity. Although the Moreno administration initially emphasized anticorruption efforts and several prominent politicians have faced investigation and prosecution in recent years, corruption scandals rocked the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, illustrating the depth of the challenge of effectively combating graft. In September 2021, the Lasso administration estimated the cost of corruption between 2007 and 2019 at approximately $68 billion.
In July 2021, Pachakutik legislator Rosa Cerda was recorded telling other party members, “If you’re going to steal, do it well.” National Assembly president Llori, also from Pachakutik, has been accused of misusing public funds and spending lavishly during official trips. In October 2021, National Assembly vice president Bella Jimenez, an ID member, was expelled from the legislature for offering to get people public-sector jobs in exchange for money.
During the 2021 presidential election campaign, UNES candidate Arauz questioned whether Lasso’s stake in the country’s second-largest bank posed a conflict of interest. In October, Lasso was accused of tax evasion by several members of the opposition after Lasso was listed in the Pandora Papers, an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) that exposed corruption in the international financial system and connections between powerful actors around the world, as having stored much of his fortune in offshore accounts.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
The law guarantees citizens’ right to access public information, and although compliance has improved over the years, some government bodies remain reluctant to disclose it. In 2018, the government took steps to enhance access to information, including the establishment of a transparency-monitoring mechanism to ensure that public agencies provide relevant information online. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic’s first wave in April 2020—and following heavy criticism from the media and civil society—then president Moreno admitted that the government’s stated numbers of cases and deaths represented a significant undercount.
Public procurement processes are frequently opaque and malpractice involving government contracts is common.
|Are there free and independent media?
Media freedom improved after former president Moreno took office in 2017. His administration permitted more diverse coverage in the country’s state-run media, which had previously shown clear bias toward Correa and the PAIS alliance. In 2018, the National Assembly reformed the restrictive Organic Communications Law, including by eliminating the notorious Superintendency of Information and Communication (SUPERCOM), which monitored media content, investigated journalists, and issued fines and other sanctions.
Investigative journalists played an active role in discrediting official COVID-19 statistics, exposing corruption in the public health sector, and revealing new details about the mechanics of corruption in the Correa administration.
Challenges to press freedom remain. In October 2021, President Lasso sent a letter to the editorial board of El Universo, one of the country’s most prestigious newspapers, complaining that its coverage of the Pandora Papers was unfair. The letter was widely condemned by local media outlets and freedom of expression activists as an attempt to influence the paper’s editorial independence.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
Freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected in practice.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
In 2018, the National Assembly approved reforms to the Organic Law on Higher Education, which restored public funding for research at universities that operate in Ecuador under international agreements. In August 2021, the Lasso administration proposed amendments to the same law that would strengthen the autonomy of universities and independence of students in Ecuador.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
Discussion of controversial topics among private citizens is generally free. However, crackdowns on social media have led some online outlets to disable sections for public commentary for fear of reprisals, limiting the freedom of private discussion online.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
Protests occur regularly throughout the country without incident, and restrictions on assembly rights initially eased under President Moreno. However, national security legislation provides a broad definition of sabotage and terrorism, extending to acts against persons and property by unarmed individuals, which can be used to limit assembly rights. In May 2020, the Ministry of Defense issued a regulation authorizing soldiers’ use of lethal force in situations that potentially included protests. Following a challenge by rights groups, the Constitutional Court suspended the regulation that June, pending a full decision.
In 2019, coalition of unions, Indigenous political groups, and other civil society groups began a series of demonstrations and strike actions against an end to fuel subsidies, with some demonstrations turning violent. In response, the government declared a nationwide state of emergency, and police used excessive force against and arrested protesters en masse. Moreno eventually rescinded the cuts, and activists in turn called off the demonstrations.
In October 2021, Indigenous communities initiated mass protests again, as President Lasso similarly proposed an increase in fuel prices. Protesters blocked major roads and were prevented from entering the presidential palace by riot police. Lasso subsequently announced a pause on the fuel cost increases and engaged in talks with Indigenous community leaders in early November.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
In 2017, the Moreno administration rescinded controversial Correa-era decrees that heavily restricted nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and their ability to operate. However, though observers saw Moreno’s regime was an improvement, many criticized the retention of excessive government regulatory power. For example, current NGO regulations allow authorities to close an organization deemed to perform activities different from those for which it was created, or to be participating in politics.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
Private-sector labor unions have the right to strike, though the labor code limits public-sector strikes. Only a small portion of the general workforce is unionized, partly because many people work in the informal sector. In 2018, the National Union of Educators (UNE), which had been dissolved by the government in 2016 under restrictive NGO regulations, was able to resume operations.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
Ecuador’s highest-ranking judicial bodies are the 21-member National Court of Justice and the 9-member Constitutional Court. Both courts faced attacks on their autonomy during the Correa era, but judicial independence increased during the Moreno administration. The passage of the 2018 referendum restructured the CPCCS, a powerful body responsible for appointing the attorney general, and the Judiciary Council, which appoints judges. All CPCCS members, who were considered allies of the Correa government, and Judiciary Council members were replaced.
More controversially, the transitional CPCCS had significant influence over the composition of the Constitutional Court, despite its lack of jurisdiction. The transitional CPCCS voted to remove all nine judges on the court, citing corruption and a lack of independence within the body, and then created a committee to select the court’s new members who were selected and approved in early 2019. Later that year, the new court ratified the legality of the transitional CPCCS’s actions.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
Judicial processes remain slow, and procedures designed to expedite cases have been implemented at the detriment of defendants’ due process rights. Many people are held in pretrial detention for longer than is permitted by law. While the number of public defenders has increased in recent years, the state is still unable to provide adequate legal counsel for all defendants who are unable to supply their own.
During his tenure, former president Correa and his allies frequently intervened in court cases, telling judges how they should rule, and sometimes removing judges who refused to comply. Under President Moreno, such blatant interference in court proceedings diminished, allowing defendants more fair public hearings of their cases.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
Allegations of police abuse of suspects and detainees are common. In October 2020, municipal police officers in Durán were filmed attacking a mentally disabled woman who was caught selling toothpaste outside a public building. The officers involved were detained.
Accountability efforts related to the 2019 protest violence remained limited in 2021. Hundreds of investigations were open in 2020, but only a handful of trials had begun; nearly all were focused on protesters accused of inciting or committing violence, some of whom were Indigenous leaders or members of the political opposition. Multiple groups that conducted investigations, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Human Rights Watch (HRW), and the governmental Ombudsman’s Office, found that state agents committed human rights violations during the protests, but investigations had not yielded charges.
Prisons are overcrowded and violent. There are approximately 40,000 inmates, nearly 15,000 of whom have not been sentenced. The system also lacks adequate personnel, employing only 1,600 prison guards.
Three major security incidents occurred in Ecuadorian prisons during 2021. In September, 119 inmates were killed in a high-security prison in Guayaquil after a dispute between two rival criminal gangs became violent. Various media outlets reported that the aggressors were heavily armed with machetes, knives, rifles, semiautomatic weapons, and grenades. The events in Guayaquil were the latest in a series of incidents that highlight the state’s inability to protect prisoners from gangs and drug cartels and was the most fatal such incident in the country’s history. After the Guayaquil incident, President Lasso declared a state of emergency for the penitentiary system and extended it through late December.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
Indigenous people continue to suffer widespread societal discrimination, and oil-drilling and mining projects on Indigenous lands are frequently carried out without consulting local Indigenous communities, as required by the constitution. In July 2020, the Constitutional Court reinforced consultation requirements for proposed changes to the status of Indigenous ancestral territories.
Ecuador is one of the largest recipients of refugees in Latin America. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Ecuador hosted over 508,000 Venezuelans as of the end of 2021. Many Venezuelan immigrants have reported facing discrimination and xenophobia, amid unfounded accusations that their arrival has caused a spike in crime and violence in the country. In addition, approximately 250,000 refugees from Colombia have entered Ecuador since the late 1990s, and thousands are still there.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
Freedom of movement outside and inside the country is largely unrestricted. Workers in the palm oil industry, however, have faced restrictions on their movement imposed by employers, including curfews. Individuals may generally determine their place of employment and education.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
The government does not impose significant restrictions on the right to own property and establish private businesses. However, widespread corruption by both public officials and private-sector actors can obstruct normal business activity and weakens the protection of property rights.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
In June 2019, the Constitutional Court narrowly ruled that the marriage ban on same-sex couples was unconstitutional, based on a previous opinion by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that recommended the recognition of same-sex marriage. The Constitutional Court ruling divided public opinion, but same-sex couples successfully applied for marriage licenses in the following months. Civil unions had previously been recognized in Ecuador.
In a May 2020 report, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women highlighted significant ongoing challenges in protecting women from violence and abuse. A study from the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INEC) found that 65 percent of Ecuadorian women had suffered abuse in some form during their lives. Abortion remains a crime in Ecuador, and in September 2020, President Moreno vetoed an ambitious health code reform that would have decriminalized abortions resulting from obstetric emergencies.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
Men, women, and children are sometimes subjected to forced labor and sex work in Ecuador; Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian individuals, as well as migrants and refugees, remain most vulnerable. According to data published in a 2020 World Bank report, 6.6 percent of Venezuelans in Ecuador reported being subjected to forced labor within the previous month, and the economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic further increased migrants’ economic precarity and vulnerability.
The government has taken some action to address the problem of economic exploitation, including by increasing trafficking-related law enforcement operations. However, services for victims are inadequate, and some public officials believed to be complicit in trafficking operations have escaped punishment.
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Global Freedom Score70 100 free
Internet Freedom Score64 100 partly free