Plan Ecuador: Practical Ideas or Lofty Ideals?

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Para ver la versión en español, dirígase a Plan Ecuador: ¿Ideas prácticas o sobreestimadas?

Currently, Ecuador is confronting a wave of violence previously unknown in the country. Organized crime, sicariatos (brutal contracted killings), drug trafficking, and kidnapping contribute to increased violence. The internal conflict in neighboring Colombia has been a determining factor in the region’s growing instability that has begun to infiltrate Ecuadorian society. In response to the alarming situation that both countries are now facing, the Ecuadorian government has generated Plan Ecuador to provide for increased security and reliable development along its northern frontier region.

On April 24, 2007, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa formally introduced Plan Ecuador, which is based on the idea of “oponer la paz a la guerra” (“replacing war with peace”). The plan consists of a series of key elements that focus on strengthening international and regional relationships, social development of the area, and defense of the population and Ecuador’s national territory.

Given Ecuador’s current surge in criminal activity, the creation of a focused program to address relevant national social and security issues was considered necessary to maintain the country’s security and sovereignty. However, Correa’s proposed plan has invited criticism for failing to apply specific initiatives capable of achieving the idealistic goals built into the proposal’s grand design. Furthermore, the lack of specificity in Ecuador’s plans is unlikely to impress potential providers of international aid, whose funding is considered essential to effectively implementing the project.

The Challenging Reality of the Ecuadorian Frontier
Ecuador’s northern frontier encompasses five provinces: Esmeraldas, Carchi, Imbabura, Sucumbíos, and Orellana. According to documentation found in the 2001 report of the National Statistics and Census Institute (INEC), approximately 1.1 million people live on the northern frontier, which is predominately indigenous and spans the Colombian-Ecuadorian border.

Although its abundance of natural resources represents a potential for significant development, the region remains intrinsically poor. Despite oil found in the area, the overwhelming economic activity is subsistence farming. The underemployment rate in the region has now reached 69 percent, about 20 percent higher than the national average (INEC 2006). Unfortunately, the population has limited opportunities for education, which is essential to industrial development and attracting investment. Only half of the region’s population finishes primary school, and just a small percentage of those continue on long enough to obtain a university or technical degree (INEC 2001). These statistics demonstrate the precarious state of Ecuador’s frontier. Given the influx of drugs and organized crime infiltrating the border from Colombia and a lack of stable jobs, employment possibilities, and education in the region, its inhabitants are more likely than not to turn to some form of delinquency in order to achieve an adequate income.

Compounding such matters is the area’s lack of basic services. Waste sanitation, drainage systems, and water piping need to be improved in order to combat the spread of communicable diseases affecting the region. Furthermore, public hospitals and the rest of the health infrastructure are often unable to deal with the growing demand for medical treatment. Since the majority of clinics are private, the population is generally unable to pay for essential health services.

A growing source of stress on this already tenuous situation is the increasing influx of Colombian refugees to the region. According to the Office on Refugees in the Ministry of Foreign Relations, 45,381 immigrants applied for refugee status in Ecuador between 2000 and 2007. In addition to registered refugees, there are close to 250,000 foreign residents in the country without formal legal status. These residents do not pay taxes, exploiting Ecuador’s public health care and education systems, which already face woefully inadequate funding. Moreover, as these residents are largely undocumented, it is difficult for the state to monitor the illegal activity found in the immediate region.

Plan Ecuador is viewed as a necessity due to the aforementioned problems. The risk posed by insurgent groups and drugs entering Ecuador has increased, bringing with them a significant impact on the local economy. These complex elements make it necessary to develop an effective plan to protect the border while engaging the rural population sufficiently to discourage the entrance of the Colombian conflict into the daily life of the area’s residents.

Strategies with Little Substance
Plan Ecuador is based on seven principle ideas that together aim for the development of the provinces bordering Colombia as a non-violent method of addressing the problem of organized crime and narco-trafficking in the region. However, the strategies put forward to execute each of the seven points are idealistic and non-comprehensive, and often fail to lay out specific plans that will guarantee the effectiveness of the program. It remains to be seen whether or not it will be dependable enough to serve as a basis of public policy and to warrant international aid.

    1) Institutional strengthening for peace and development
    Plans for community development and a new system of political management are laid out in the initial section. While this is a commendable idea, the scheme does not name the specific steps that the government will take in order to implement this strategy, leaving the process vulnerable to later corruption and failure. In addition, creating coordinated networks that connect society with a development model have been proposed. Finally, the government aims to increase confidence in the judiciary by strengthening social movements and improving the transparency of government function and spending. However, this idea lacks sufficient clarification of the social movements capable of increasing judicial confidence, not to mention the difficulty of strengthening a legally established system through these movements.

    2) Reinvigorating the economy and increasing employment
    Plan Ecuador describes the strategies that will be used to reinvigorate the economy by attempting to grant easier access to credit for small businesses at lower interest rates and to supply the necessary technology and resources to spur development. It is important to note that this process can provide the economic base for the creation of new businesses and, consequently, increase employment.

    3) Improving the basic social infrastructure
    This section lays out two strategies to “boost the design, preparation, and execution of programs and projects through sectional governments” with the aid of regional, national, and international cooperation. Rather than presenting a clear proposal for improving the border area’s social infrastructure, the Ecuadorian government has simply laid out a very broad description of the three steps necessary to reach this desired goal. The idea is followed by their intention to promote citizen participation and observation in the “design, preparation, and execution” process needed to assure the quality of basic services. Once again, however, the government has not described how it will promote citizen participation, much less how it would potentially function in the light of Ecuador’s current high risk economic system.

    4) Sustainable management of natural resources
    Strategies in this segment aim to offer incentives for sustainable development and the maintenance of the various ecosystems found in Ecuador’s northern region. To achieve this, the government also hopes to protect certain ecological zones and national parks, as well as financially support technical assistance and training programs for sustainable development. These goals are all possible; however, they will be difficult to achieve. Due to high levels of poverty and unemployment in the region, the people are more concerned with day-to-day survival than with protecting the environment. Changing this attitude will require implementing an aggressive educational campaign, which will be challenging due to chronic low attendance rates in schools. Furthermore, the government has failed to specify how it will provide aid, be it in subsidies for cleaner technology or by sending technical experts to the area to aid in the transition to sustainable development.

    5) Administration of justice and control of illicit activities and products
    Correa’s administration hopes to strengthen preexisting regulations meant to prevent crime and to reduce delinquency will be particularly focused on narco-trafficking, arms possession, and money laundering. These measures also modernize the institutions that investigate and process illegal activity and provide them with the required financial resources to accomplish the task. Plan Ecuador only outlines the form in which the government hopes to strengthen the financial resources for these new programs, and leaves out the more detailed plans that will effectively influence and contribute to the reduction of illegal activity.

    In relation to the energy sector, the government has mandated the application of the Plan de Soberanía Energética (Sovereign Energy Plan), which works toward reducing the smuggling of oil by-products, and the Seguridad Integral del Sistema Hidrocarburífero (Integrated Security of the Hydrocarbon System), which protects oil industry operations.

    6) Human rights, humanitarian assistance, and sheltering refugees
    The government hopes to expand the recognition of human rights across the region, as well as the technology and engineering skills necessary to ensure their implementation and enforcement. Instruction on basic human rights observance and protection also will become an integral part of military training procedures, which should lead to a greater understanding on the part of the armed forces regarding the conflicts they are likely to confront. Moreover, the government hopes to promote transparency and justice with respect to any violations of civil rights taking place on the frontier. This point shows the government’s general idealism, but also, in failing to explain how it will achieve transparency and justice, is likely to breed skepticism within the population concerning government intent.

    7) Protection of national sovereignty and the integrity of the state
    Quito aims to strengthen the presence of the military on the northern border in order to protect the region’s cultural and governmental institutions, which would allow them to function more effectively, while at the same time permit increased development to take place. The military will also contribute to preserving the environment. Meanwhile, local authorities are planning to update the civil registry, which will allow a more complete analysis of the population in the area and its needs. The government continues to stress that programs in San Lorenzo, El Dorado de Cascales, Tulcán, Sucumbíos, Lago Agrio, and Putumayo will be prioritized. With the exception of Sucumbíos, none of these areas are mentioned previously in the document. For the first time, the plan provides details as to where specifically it will be implementing these programs; however, it does so without ever citing statistics or providing concrete evidence as to why these areas are prioritized over other underdeveloped areas.

    Ecuador hopes to resolve the problem of overlapping zones of political power in state institutions, clearly defining the legal limits of each governmental body. This will likely cut down on superfluous bureaucracy, allowing the government to function more efficiently and to increase the government’s transparency. Separately, the Ecuadorian government will work toward improving the nation’s recently strained relationship with Colombia and increasing the level of trust between the two countries.

High Expectations
Plan Ecuador’s goals are germane to the needs of the Ecuadorian population. The proposal targets security and humanitarian ideas, evidenced by the president’s efforts to take action against the proliferation of violence in the country’s northern frontier. However, when working for a society that has suffered through innumerable difficulties, it becomes crucial not to rely on vague formulations, but to present an effective and meticulously thought-out plan to solve the problems. With this in mind, the principal weakness of Plan Ecuador is that it fails to present a proposal practical enough to reach the planned objectives.

Over a ten-year time span, Plan Ecuador hopes to increase production and employment though small-scale industrialization. Although necessary for the region, this goal represents a potential contradiction to another stated goal of the plan – conservation of the various ecosystems on the frontier. Extending agriculture, oil drilling, and industrialization will negatively affect under-protected and fragile ecosystems, unless approached in the most environmentally-conscious manner. While educating the people on green technology will aid in preservation, training and providing the appropriate technical tools will undoubtedly be more expensive than Ecuadorian officials appear to be prepared to spend.

Even so, the quest to improve the quality of basic services such as water piping, sewage systems, and solid waste processing are included in the plan.

Within the next four years (coinciding with the presidential term of the current administration) Ecuador will create and impose a Strategic Operative Plan, which will allow the progress and results of Plan Ecuador to be measured. The plan will be carried out with the participation of the principle leaders from each province, under the oversight of public opinion.

Financing Plan Ecuador
Plan Ecuador will be financed through the country’s various ministerial institutions, sectional governments, community resources, and international aid. According to declarations made on July 24, 2008 in Washington D.C. by the Minister Coordinator of Internal and External Security, Gustavo Larrea, the country can afford to spend close to US$140 million on Plan Ecuador. This year, Ecuador has received US$43 million in designated international aid.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Relations, the country hopes to receive a total of $129,603,928 in international aid. The amount is apparently the product of a minute analysis of the projects that the government hopes to put into effect; however, there is not a single mention of a detailed action in the document that would lead to the justification of this sum. Without a detailed strategy laid out for scrutiny, it is impossible to know if Ecuador’s requested funding is appropriate for the desired earmarked reforms, or no better than a pipe dream.

Following in the Footsteps of Plan Colombia?
On June 8, 1998, then-Colombian President Andres Pastrana proposed Plan Colombia in an attempt to launch “A Peaceful Policy for Change,” addressing the hugely complex drug cultivation and pattern of violence instigated by Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (The Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, FARC) and the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Colombian Self-defense Forces, AUC) paramilitary vigilantes.

The initial Plan Colombia focused on a peaceful strategy to develop the southern region of the country through economic, social, and environmental initiatives. The proposal was clearly spelled out by President Pastrana, who called for “an agricultural frontier that will be respected… offering different alternatives to drug cultivation to the campesinos (rural workers)… [and] increasing investment in the social and agricultural sectors and in regional infrastructure.” The initial proposal also promoted taking a hard-line approach to human rights violations.

Despite the gradual militarization of Plan Colombia by the end of the Clinton administration, it is impossible to ignore the similarities between the two plans, particularly at inception. Although Colombia had a much larger emphasis on coca eradication (due to the lack of symmetry in cultivation magnitudes between the two countries) both plans aimed to strengthen and modernize their security forces in order to fight drug trafficking.

Ecuador, like Colombia, will aspire to promote industrialization of the region in order to generate employment. Strengthening the judicial system and other governmental institutions to eliminate corruption and reduce impunity, especially in regard to punishing human rights abuses, is central to both plans. Finally, both plans seek international financial help and participation.

Below is a series of proposals that might enhance the concept of Plan Ecuador:

    • Increase productivity in the region by studying the potential output of the area’s present enterprises in order to design more efficient pathways to economic development and increased employment.

    • Carry out specific studies to identify markets that work well in the region and provide residents the greatest amount of benefits, given the capacity of the population and the available natural resources.

    • Explore the possibility of aid from the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, United Nations Environmental Program, and the Food and Agriculture Organization, to learn which new technologies can best help integrate the population with the environment.

    • Improve the country’s penal system so that drug traffickers cannot influence or control the system after capture and detention, and work to establish a rehabilitation program to reintegrate such individuals into society upon their release.

    • Provide adequate protection for witnesses and judges in cases pertaining to human rights violations to guarantee their safety against threats and provide justice through a fair trial.

    • Strengthen a specialized anti-kidnapping police force.

    • Promote respect for human rights through the mass media and, if possible, train journalists in basic international human rights law.

    • Follow the recommendations of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ June 1998 Plan Nacional de Derechos Humanos del Ecuador (National Human Rights Plan for Ecuador), which includes proposals to increase protection of civil and political rights, foreign residents, minorities, women, and the media.

While Plan Ecuador presents numerous admirable goals, the proposal itself lacks the strong detailed structure necessary to attract international aid. Compounding the issues are amiable relations between the Ecuadorian government and such Washington adversaries as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. President Correa will have to somewhat distance himself from their more conceptualized socialist policies in order to gain substantial support from the White House. With Plan Ecuador, the Correa administration has the opportunity to prove to the people, as well as Latin America’s other governments, that peaceful methods of dealing with the conflict along Ecuador’s northern frontier can be successfully implemented.