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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Daniel Noboa, scion of a banana empire, wins Ecuador’s presidency

Soldiers patrol the streets of Durán, Ecuador, a city dominated by local groups linked to drug trafficking, May 31, 2023.

By Genevieve Glatsky, José María León Cabrera and Thalíe Ponce

Daniel Noboa, the 35-year-old heir to a banana empire, won Ecuador’s presidential election on Sunday, in a high-stakes campaign driven by an electorate frustrated with the country’s surging violence and ailing economy.

The center-right political outsider defeated Luisa González, a leftist hand-picked by former President Rafael Correa who ran on a pledge of returning to a time of prosperity and low homicide rates under the Correa government.

The vote signaled a desire for change in a nation of more than 17 million on South America’s western coast that has seen a wave of violence from international criminal groups and local gangs that have turned Ecuador into a key player in the global drug trade and sent tens of thousands of Ecuadorians fleeing to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Like much of the rest of Latin America, Ecuador was dealt a major financial blow by the coronavirus pandemic, and many workers struggle to make enough money to provide for their families. Only 34% of Ecuadorians have adequate employment, according to government data.

Noboa received 52.27% of the vote compared with González’s 47.73%, with more than 94% of votes counted Sunday evening, according to official figures.

In a concession speech, González pledged that her party would work with Noboa in Congress.

“To those who did not vote for us, also our congratulations, because the candidate they chose has won and as Ecuadorians we also embrace them,” she said. “And of course to the candidate, now President-elect Daniel Noboa, our deepest congratulations because it is democracy. We have never called to set fire to a city nor have we ever gone out shouting fraud.”

“Enough of hatred, enough of polarization, Ecuador needs to heal. And count on us for a common agreement for our country,” she added.

Noboa, in his first speech as president-elect, thanked voters for supporting “an improbable political project.”

“Today we close a chapter of the campaign, tomorrow we begin to work to rebuild a country that has been severely hit by violence, corruption and hatred,” he said.

Ecuador was once a peaceful nation compared with its neighbors, particularly Colombia, which for decades was torn by violence among armed guerrilla units, paramilitary groups and drug cartels.

That all changed in recent years as Colombia forged a peace deal with the country’s largest leftist guerrilla group, and Ecuador became dominated by an increasingly powerful narco-trafficking industry that includes Mexican cartels and Albanian gangs. Through its ports on the Pacific Coast, Ecuador has become a major transshipment point for cocaine that is smuggled to Europe.

News reports regularly feature beheadings, car bombings, police assassinations, young men hanging from bridges and children gunned down outside their homes or schools.

When Noboa is sworn in, he will hold office until May 2025. During that time, he will be forced to reckon with the international groups that have joined forces with prison-based gangs in a brutal competition for the lucrative drug industry.

And with little governing experience and a divided legislature, analysts say this will be a challenge.

It will most likely take him a long time to form a coalition government, and it will probably be ideologically incoherent and unpredictable, said Will Freeman, a fellow in Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. research institute.

Noboa has tried to straddle the left-right divide on the campaign trail, yet his choice of running mate, Verónica Abad, puzzled many analysts. Abad is a right-wing business coach who has spoken out against abortion, feminism and LGBTQ rights, and has expressed support for Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s former far-right president.

“If that’s any indication,” Freeman said, “I think his government is going to be a real hodgepodge.”

Noboa has vowed to rein in the violence, though neither he nor González made security a central part of their campaigns.

Both candidates talked about providing more money for the police and deploying the military to secure ports used to smuggle drugs out of the country and prisons, which are controlled by violent gangs.

Noboa has proposed using technology, including drones and satellite tracking systems, to stem drug trafficking, and has suggested building prison boats to isolate the most violent inmates.

But analysts say he has not done enough to prioritize combating the crime that has destabilized Ecuador and turned it into one of Latin America’s most violent countries.

The departing president, Guillermo Lasso, called for early elections in May as he faced impeachment proceedings against him stemming from accusations of embezzlement. Lasso had also grown increasingly unpopular with voters angry over the government’s inability to address the spiraling violence.

González, 45, was the hand-picked candidate of Correa, who led the country from 2007 to 2017. Her close association with him helped elevate her political profile, but it also hurt her among some voters.

By contrast, Harvard University-educated Noboa comes from one of the richest families in Latin America, known to most Ecuadorians for its banana empire, which features one of the world’s best known fruit brands, Bonita bananas.

But the Noboa family’s vast holdings are varied and include fertilizers, plastics, cardboard and the country’s largest container storage facility.

Noboa’s father ran unsuccessfully for president five times, though the younger Noboa’s political career goes back only to 2021, when he was elected to Ecuador’s Congress.

He has positioned himself as “the employment president,” even including a work application form on his website, and has pledged to attract international investment and trade and to cut taxes.

Despite his family pedigree, Noboa has tried to set himself apart, pointing out that he has his own business and that his personal wealth is valued at less than $1 million.

His father, who lost to Correa in 2006, frequently referred to his leftist opponent as a “communist devil.” But his son has avoided directly attacking “correísmo,” and the younger Noboa’s victory shows that voters are fed up with traditional political divides.

Pablo Pérez, 29, a data engineer in the port city of Guayaquil, said he voted for Noboa because “more than anything, he is a new person, who brings new things.”

“The other candidate, on the other hand,” Pérez said, “represents a government that we already had in the country, and that although it had its good things, it had, above all, bad things.”

He was also drawn to Noboa’s security proposals.

“We need security to improve immediately, because we cannot go out on the streets as we are,” he said. “All businesses are closed. There is a feeling of fear.”

Nelson Ramiro Obando, 60, a retiree in Quito, said he voted for Noboa because of his youth, his business experience and his debate performance, in which he appeared “prepared.”

“We citizens are at risk every day,” Obando said. “Mr. Noboa will not be able to do much — it is only a year and a half — but if he solves a little of the insecurity we live in, I would be more than grateful.”

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