Sep 19, 2022 - World

Interview: Ecuador's president seeks "balance" between U.S. and China

Giullermo Lasso. Photo: Franklin Jacome/Agencia Press South/Getty

Ecuador's interests are best served by "balanced" relations with the world's two superpowers, President Guillermo Lasso told Axios in a wide-ranging interview Monday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

Flashback: One year ago, Lasso's ambassador to Washington told Axios that U.S. indifference was forcing Ecuador and other Latin American countries to turn to Beijing. "China is waiting, saying, ‘We’re here. We’re giving you money.’ They want control of course, but they don’t say that," Ambassador Ivonne Baki had said.

Yes, but: Lasso, who traveled to Beijing in February to renegotiate Ecuador's debt to China and seek a trade deal, said he's never felt any undue pressure from Beijing and trusts President Xi Jinping's promise that China will never place conditions on the relationship.

  • Lasso hopes to finalize the trade deal with China by the end of this year, and he insists he's not giving up his hopes of a free trade agreement with the U.S., which has shown little interest.
  • "As the president of a country that is part of Latin America, I hope that the president of the United States will pay more attention to Latin America, of course I do," Lasso said.
  • But he did highlight areas of cooperation with the U.S., particularly on drug trafficking. He recently proposed a referendum that would allow drug suspects to be extradited to the U.S., among other measures. "We cannot fight this [drug trafficking] alone, we need help from the U.S.," he said.

The big picture: Lasso took office in May 2021 as Ecuador's first conservative president in two decades, and he was initially highly popular thanks to a successful vaccine rollout.

  • But parts of the country were paralyzed over the summer by protests against Lasso, initiated by Indigenous groups — in particular the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) — and triggered by the rising cost of living.
  • Gang violence has also spiked. Lasso, who controls only a small fraction of the national assembly, survived an impeachment vote in June, but remains under significant political pressure.
  • Lasso railed against CONAIE in our interview, claiming that the group's demands for more environmental protections around oil drilling were irreconcilable with its insistence that the government increase fuel subsidies.
    • The subsidies are already costing the government more than it spends on education or health care, Lasso said. He has attempted, largely unsuccessfully, to slash them as part of a deal with the IMF.
    • CONAIE has blasted Lasso's steps to deal with soaring prices as insufficient.

The bottom line: Ecuador is one of many countries struggling with high debts and rising prices coming out of a devastating pandemic-related downturn.

  • "We will continue our work," Lasso said of trying to get the country onto sounder economic footing, "but we cannot change our circumstances from one day to the next."
  • He called for more concrete actions from the U.S., EU and other industrialized countries to support smaller, lower-income countries like Ecuador.
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