U.S. courts Ecuador president even as Latin American country’s democracy deteriorates

Ecuador's President Guillermo Lasso speaks with President Biden in the Oval Office
Ecuador’s President Guillermo Lasso speaks with President Biden in an Oval Office meeting in December 2022.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

The Biden administration once again appears to be running into trouble as it seeks a reliable partner in Latin America, where major issues, including immigration and Chinese influence, are looming just next door.

In the last year and a half, administration officials have eagerly reached out to the government of Ecuadorean President Guillermo Lasso, one of the last center-right rulers in South America, amid a tide of newly elected leftist leaders.

Yet even as U.S. officials sang his praises as a pro-free-market democrat, Lasso, a millionaire former banker, was battling allegations of corruption, money laundering in Florida and ties to a drug-trafficking network.


He faces impeachment in the Ecuadorean congress — an earlier, separate motion to impeach Lasso was rejected in 2021 — and the real likelihood of removal from office.

Now, a small group of U.S. Congress members is turning up the pressure on the Biden administration to reassess its relationship with Ecuador. At play is the overall policy approach of the U.S. to Latin America, which critics say is doomed to fail because it often ignores human rights and corruption problems in the interest of cooperation on other issues such as immigration.

Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) was one of five Democratic members of Congress who wrote a letter sent to President Biden on Wednesday that demanded the U.S. investigate corruption allegations against Lasso. It marks the most public rupture to date with regard to policies embracing the Ecuadorean leader.

“This is about the schizophrenic foreign policy we’ve had for decades and decades in our relations with Latin America as a whole,” Grijalva said in an interview. “It puts the importance of being in support of U.S. policies ahead of everything else.”

There was no immediate comment on the letter from the White House or State Department. Biden and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken are traveling this week in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Many thought the U.S. approach to Latin America would change under Biden, who emphasizes human rights and democracy over autocracy in his foreign policy. Critics say it’s been one disappointment after another.


Vice President Kamala Harris was appointed to oversee diplomatic initiatives in the “northern triangle” of Central America countries — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — that feed illegal immigration into the U.S.

But the plan failed as she sought partners to fight corruption and improve the lives of ordinary citizens, and it became clear that the region’s elected leaders were abusive authoritarians or alleged criminals. One of them, Juan Orlando Hernández, the president of Honduras, was indicted and extradited last year to a U.S. federal court on drug conspiracy charges.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has turned steadily more autocratic, criticizes the U.S. and verbally attacks journalists and anyone else who criticizes him. But he cooperates in taking migrants into Mexico that the U.S. does not want, and there have been few statements of condemnation from Washington.

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In June, the best friend the U.S. had in Latin America, Colombia, elected a leftist president for the first time in its history. While Blinken has sought to build a relationship, President Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla fighter, has repeatedly defied U.S. policies.

By comparison, Ecuador was a lone bright spot in the region from Washington’s perspective.

“You and I are united not only in our values but in our vision of the future, one that’s both free and democratic,” Biden told Lasso when the Ecuadorean president appeared at the White House in December.

“And I am here to reaffirm that spirit that we share among us as allies in our fight for democracy, peace and justice, not only in the region but also to support your vision throughout the world,” Lasso responded.


Ecuador was the first Latin American country to join the U.S. in condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, from a global south region that has not enthusiastically embraced Washington’s position.

And just this month, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, on her second trip to Quito, the Ecuadorean capital, in just under two years, again praised Lasso, calling Ecuador “a very strong partner of the United States.” She also headed the U.S. delegation to Lasso’s inauguration in May 2021.

In her comments this month, Thomas-Greenfield declined to address a reporter’s question about “domestic politics,” referring to Lasso’s political troubles, and added that “democracy is difficult.”

The Biden administration’s overtures to Ecuador have been an ostentatious display of boosterism coming even as security and democracy under Lasso were fast deteriorating, says veteran Latin America expert Michael Shifter, senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

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U.S. officials “are faced with a very tough challenge in finding reliable partners in Latin America,” he said. “And to have effective policy, you need partners.”

As Biden administration officials were praising Lasso in Washington, he was fighting for his political survival at home.


A vote to impeach him comes before the National Assembly this month. His popularity has sunk so dramatically that he is likely to be booted from office, analysts say.

The accusations against Lasso include his alleged involvement in an embezzlement case that allowed private investors to siphon money from the lucrative state oil-shipping company and a bribery scheme involving a brother-in-law, Danilo Carrera, aimed at planting loyalists in key state positions and profiting off fake energy contracts.

A key witness in the cases and member of Lasso’s inner circle, Ruben Cherres, whom authorities were seeking to arrest and who might have provided valuable evidence, was found killed March 31, adding to the questions swirling around Lasso.

The president and Carrera have also been accused in a journalistic investigation known as the Pandora Papers, a massive collection of reports based on leaks from Latin American financial entities, of overseeing an offshore network of tax havens — including some in Florida — in potential violation of Ecuadorean law. But it is not yet clear that those allegations, which also involve money laundering, form part of the impeachment case against Lasso.

Ecuadorean media have reported on efforts by Lasso to allegedly interfere with those investigations, including one action that removed police agents from the national prosecutor’s office.

Lasso has denied wrongdoing, arguing that the impeachment is political, and has said he will not cooperate. Under Ecuadorean law, he has the option of dissolving the country’s congress to avoid impeachment, which would trigger snap presidential and legislative elections. However, experts believe that Lasso is reluctant to take that action because he and his political party would not fare well.


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The corruption and political issues in Ecuador have substantially undermined stability in the nation, Shifter said.

“Lasso and his party have been left extremely weak by the corruption scandals,” he said. “He inherited a lot of problems ... but the problems have metastasized, and the country is in a profound crisis.”

Separately from the corruption issues, Indigenous and human rights activists have reported harassment and intimidation from government security forces. Ecuadoreans have begun to show up at the southern U.S. border, joining the ranks of migrants trying to enter.

Lasso is also facing an unprecedented surge in crime, including one of the highest homicide rates in the Western Hemisphere, according to Ecuador’s Interior Ministry, which oversees domestic law enforcement. Much of it is tied to drug-trafficking gangs who have multiplied due to Ecuador’s location at the heart of Latin American routes producing and transporting cocaine and other narcotics.

Hoping to appeal to a panicked public, Lasso last week authorized private citizens to carry guns for personal protection and to fight the “common enemy [of] delinquency, drug trafficking and organized crime.” While such permits are common in the U.S., legal gun possession is rare in Latin America.

As U.S. influence has waned in Latin America, China’s sway has grown exponentially. Lasso has hoped for a free-trade agreement with the U.S., but Biden has resisted such deals in a time of global economic uncertainty. China quickly filled the void, reaching a trade pact that has pushed Beijing past the U.S. as Ecuador’s top trading partner in non-petroleum goods.


But Lasso is still receiving support in some U.S. circles. Several senators, from Republicans including Marco Rubio of Florida to Democrats such as Tim Kaine of Virginia, have made the pilgrimage recently to Quito and praised Lasso.

Kaine was quoted Wednesday in the Ecuadorean newspaper La Hora saying that Ecuador was “a strong partner for trade and security, but especially for democracy,” particularly at a time when “other nations with problems [in Latin America] have regressed in their democracies.”

Kaine added that the U.S. had a “great relationship” with Lasso.

A Kaine spokesperson told The Times on Wednesday that Ecuador was one of four countries Kaine visited in South America this week, and while the senator was aware of the allegations surrounding Lasso, he knew there was a process underway to resolve them.

“The relationship between the U.S. and Ecuador is extremely important and the delegation had meaningful discussions with government officials and private sector leaders about how to advance our shared commitment to democracy, security, and development,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Grijalva said that if the U.S. insists no one is above the law, as the ongoing investigation of former President Trump is supposed to illustrate, then the Biden administration should keep its distance from another country’s leader facing similar accusations.

“We want a more equitable attention to Latin America,” Grijalva said.

The letter to Biden that he drafted, which was obtained last week by The Times, notes a major speech that Blinken gave in October 2021 in Quito. In it, he listed as a top priority a government’s battle against corruption, which, Blinken said, stifles growth, discourages investment and deepens inequities.


“Given your administration’s commitment to supporting anti-corruption efforts abroad ... we urge you to engage in a prompt investigation” into the allegations surrounding Lasso, the letter states.

“In light of the aforementioned corruption allegations as well as other troubling developments that negatively impact human rights and press freedom in Ecuador, we believe that you should re-evaluate our government’s close relations with the Lasso government.”