Acton Commentary

Under Siege: Freedom in Ecuador


Constitutional referenda are usually tame, even boring affairs. Sometimes it's a challenge just getting people to vote.

None of this, however, rings true for Ecuador's forthcoming September 28 referendum. After much acrimonious debate, this beautiful but deeply troubled Latin American nation is being asked to approve a gigantesque constitution (it contains 444 articles) as part of President Rafael Correa's effort to reshape Ecuador in his own leftist image.

Instead of serving to protect fundamental civil, religious, and economic liberties, Correa's proposed constitution does the exact opposite.

For one thing, many of its provisions will diminish private enterprise and free exchange in theory and practice. It declares, for example, that Ecuador's economy will be "social and solidaristic." This is code-language for prioritizing state-run enterprises over private business.

The same constitution also guarantees all Ecuadorians "a good living." Precisely how this will occur in a country where 39 percent of people live in poverty is not explained. Perhaps the president assumes his constitution's furtherance of the state's already-dominant place in the economy will miraculously create abundant wealth for all.

Populist regimes of left and right sometimes try realizing this goal through manipulating the money supply and ignoring the inflationary consequences. Correa's new constitution will give him this option because it places Ecuador's Central Bank under his direct control. All these measures, Correa claims, will prevent "neo-liberalism" - which, as usual, remains undefined - from rearing its head in Ecuador.

As in the case of other Latin American leftist-governments, the main opposition to Correa's constitution-to-end-all-constitutions is coming from the Catholic Church. Quite rightly, Ecuador's Catholic bishops say the Church has no economic models to offer. Their job is saving souls -- not organizing an economy. The bishops are, however, deeply worried that the proposed constitution opens the door to direct attacks on innocent human life, marriage, and parental rights to educate their children as they see fit.

But the bishops go to the heart of the matter when they write: "We have discovered that statism seems to be the connecting thread of the new Constitution. It speaks about rights, of course, but many of these rights flow from the State, violating the creativity and responsibility of people within society."

The state, the bishops know, merely recognizes human rights. It doesn't create them.

The Church has been careful not to express its concerns about Ecuador's creeping statism in partisan-political terms. But even this cautious approach, it seems, was enough to strip away President Correa's hitherto smooth facade.

It has revealed an angry old-fashioned anti-clerical Christian-leftist of the type more familiar with liberation theology than orthodox Christian doctrine. Until recently, Correa was fond of claiming he was the only Latin American leftist leader with a good relationship with the Catholic Church.

That's no longer the case.

Like his self-described "personal friend," Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Correa now publically insults Catholic clergy. The Church, he says, wants to keep Ecuadorians in "darkness." Correa even accused the bishops of "stabbing me in the back" by questioning his proposed constitution. (Incidentally, Correa also derides Ecuador's press as "a group of wild beasts.") His language was so extreme that Ecuador's Council of Lay Catholics issued a public statement asking the president to tone down his rhetoric.

Correa's rage may have been provoked after he admitted in a radio-interview that his government paid two Spanish socialists associated with a left-wing hyper-secularist Spanish think-tank to help draft the proposed constitution. No one should be surprised by this. After all, Correa calls Cuba's Communist dictatorship a "democracy."

Even more sinister is the emergence of a coordinated wave of harassment of the Church. Death threats have been made against Archbishop Antonio Arregui of Guayaquil, and there are efforts to file criminal charges against him. The archbishop's criticisms of the new constitution, it is alleged, violate the clergy's legal obligation, enshrined in Ecuador's 1937 agreement with the Vatican, to abstain from partisan politics. But, the bishops note, the same agreement explicitly acknowledges the clergy's freedom to publically defend Christian doctrine and morality.

Throughout Ecuador, television advertisements are regularly aired attacking Catholic bishops and clergy for questioning the draft constitution. Churches have been desecrated and the Eucharist profaned.

Sound familiar? It should. It's a replica of the intimidation campaign waged by Chavez against the Catholic Church in Venezuela. Once again, Latin America's populist-left has shown that it understands two freedoms must be radically curtailed before "21st Century socialism" (whatever that means) can be realized: religious liberty and economic freedom.

Could there be a timelier reminder that all liberty is ultimately indivisible?