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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ecuador, reeling from violence, seeks change. Is a banana heir the answer?


Soldiers patrolling Durán, a suburb of Guayaquil, Ecuador, which is dominated by groups linked to drug trafficking, on May 31, 2023.

By Genevieve Glatsky


For generations, the Noboa family has helped shape Ecuador, overseeing a vast economic empire, including fertilizers, plastics, cardboard, the country’s largest container storage facility and, most famously, a gargantuan banana business featuring one of the world’s most recognizable fruit brands, Bonita.


One notable position has escaped them, however: the presidency. On five occasions, the head of the family conglomerate, Álvaro Noboa, has run for president and lost — in one case by 2 percentage points.


On Sunday, the Noboas may finally get their presidency. Noboa’s son, Daniel Noboa, a 35-year-old Harvard Kennedy School graduate who has used the same campaign jingle as his father, is the leading candidate in a runoff election. His opponent is Luisa González, the hand-picked candidate of former president Rafael Correa, who beat the elder Noboa in 2006.


The legacy of the banana company — and Daniel Noboa’s association with it — is just one aspect of an election that centers on issues of employment and security in this country of 17 million on South America’s western coast that has been jolted by the extraordinary power gained by the drug trafficking industry in the last five years.


International criminal groups working with local gangs have unleashed an unprecedented surge of violence that has sent tens of thousands of Ecuadorians fleeing to the U.S.-Mexico border, part of a migration wave that has overwhelmed the Biden administration.


Noboa rose unexpectedly from the bottom of the polls to a second-place finish in the first round of presidential elections in August, helped, experts said, by a widely lauded debate performance and the upending of the race by the shocking assassination of another candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, days before the vote.


Noboa has galvanized a base of frustrated voters on the back of a campaign promising change.


“He has been able to say that ‘I represent renewal in Ecuador,’” said Caroline Ávila, an Ecuadorian political analyst. “And that is why people are buying his message.”


Sunday’s election pits Noboa, a center-right businessman, against González, 45, a leftist establishment candidate, at a moment of deep anxiety in a country that once was a relatively peaceful island in a violent region.


Noboa, who declined several requests for an interview, has had a consistent lead in multiple polls since August, though it has narrowed slightly in recent days.


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


González has pledged to tap central bank reserves to stimulate the economy and increase financing for the public health care system and public universities.


On security, both candidates have 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.


González’s close association with Correa has helped elevate her political profile, but also hurt her among some voters.


Her first place finish in the first round was propelled by a strong base of voters nostalgic for the low homicide rates and commodities boom that lifted millions out of poverty during Correa’s administration. González’s campaign slogan in the first round was “We already did it and we will do it again.”


But building on that support is a challenge. Correa’s authoritarian style and accusations of corruption deeply divided the country. He is living in exile in Belgium, fleeing a prison sentence for campaign finance violations, and many Ecuadorians fear that a González presidency would pave the way for him to return and run for office again.


Daniel Noboa is part of the third generation of his family that today operates a sprawling venture, but whose roots were in agriculture.


The Noboa family’s rise to prominence and wealth began with Luis Noboa, Daniel’s grandfather, who was born into poverty in 1916, but started building his business empire in the second half of the 20th century by exporting bananas and other crops.


His death in 1994 set off a bitter court battle on three continents among his wife and children for control of the business that finally ended in 2002, when a judge in London awarded Álvaro Noboa a 50% stake in the family’s holding company.


Álvaro Noboa expanded the company internationally, while also fighting multiple legal battles over back taxes and disputed payments to shipping companies.


As a politician, he described himself as a “messiah of the poor,” handing out free computers and fistfuls of dollars at his rallies, while also fending off accusations of child labor, worker mistreatment and union busting at his banana business. (He has claimed that the accusations were politically motivated).


Daniel Noboa was raised in the port city of Guayaquil, where he founded an event promotion company when he was 18, before moving to the United States to study at New York University. Afterward he became commercial director for the Noboa Corp. and earned three more degrees, including a master’s in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School.

He ran successfully for Ecuador’s Congress in 2021, positioning himself as a pro-business lawmaker, until President Guillermo Lasso disbanded the legislature in May and called for early elections.


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


While Álvaro Noboa frequently referred to Correa as a “communist devil,” his son has avoided directly attacking “correísmo.’’


“I never voted for his father, but this guy has a different aura, new blood, a new way of thinking,’’ said Enrique Insua, a 63-year-old retiree in Guayaquil. “He is charismatic.”


But like his father, Daniel has also drawn criticism from analysts who fear he could use the presidency to advance the family’s many businesses.


“Whether in the manufacturing sector, in services or agriculture, everything is under their control in some way or another,” said Grace Jaramillo, a political science professor and expert on Ecuador at the University of British Columbia in Canada.


“There’s no issue in economic policy that will not affect for the good or bad, any of their enterprises,” she added. “It’s a permanent conflict of interest.”

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