By Alexandra Ulmer
GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador (Reuters) – Ecuador’s lead opposition candidate is offering a sharp break with ten years of leftist rule in the Andean country, vowing to remove Wikileaks founder Julian Assange from the nation’s London embassy, speak out against Venezuela’s socialist government, and likely renegotiate debts with China.
Conservative former banker Guillermo Lasso is the opposition’s frontrunner in Sunday’s presidential election.
Polls suggest ruling party candidate, paraplegic former Vice President Lenin Moreno, 63, will win on Sunday but fall just short of enough votes to avoid an April runoff against Lasso, 61.
With analysts expecting the OPEC country’s disparate opposition to unite behind Lasso in a potential second round, his victory would cement the return of the right in South America after a decade of a strong leftist bloc buoyed by a commodities boom.
In an interview at campaign headquarters in his humid coastal hometown of Guayaquil, Lasso vowed that within a month of taking office in May he would remove Assange from Ecuador’s embassy, where he has been holed up since 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over rape allegations.
“Ecuador had no business spending a single cent protecting someone who definitely leaked confidential information,” Lasso said from his 24th-floor office at the headquarter, overlooking the Banco de Guayaquil where he was executive president from 1994 to 2012.
“I will take on the responsibility of inviting Mr. Assange to leave the Ecuadorean embassy at the latest 30 days after the start of our government,” he added on Thursday afternoon.
Lasso also promised he would take a firm stance against the government of crisis-hit Venezuela, which is closely aligned with outgoing president Rafael Correa’s leftist Country Alliance party.
Amid a brutal economic recession, Venezuelan authorities have nixed a recall referendum to remove unpopular President Nicolas Maduro and jailed dissidents.
“We will defend the democracy that the Venezuelan people have a right to,” said Lasso, who is running for president for a second time. “We’ll also demand that political prisoners be freed immediately, like Leopoldo Lopez and many others.”
Ecuador would also advocate that the Organization of American States push for elections in the fellow OPEC nation, Lasso said.
Lasso would also examine contracts and loans with China, Ecuador’s top creditor since the country defaulted on $3.2 billion in bonds in 2008.
“Opacity has characterized this relationship with China,” said Lasso, saying he would make public the fine print of deals with the Asian giant.
“If there are onerous contracts that affect Ecuadoreans’ interest we will submit them to renegotiation and we will suggest to China the need to sign commercial deals that allow the entry of Ecuadorean products to China without tariffs.”
In addition to producing oil, Ecuador also exports shrimp, flowers, bananas, and cacao. Lasso expects the economy to remain mired in recession this year but grow 1.8 percent next year before reaching 5 percent in 2021 if he is elected.
Only then would he consider issuing more debt on the international market.
“Once we’ve recovered economic growth, we would emit long-term debt at lower interest rates so that with those resources we can, using market mechanisms, repurchase or pay off short-term debt with a high cost,” said Lasso.
“I’m not one of those people who sees debt as separate from the economy.”
Lasso also cast doubt on the Pacific refinery, a multibillion dollar Chinese-backed project that has stalled due to lack of financing.
“I see it as the icon of Correa-era waste. We’re going to analyze it, and I’m warning right now that Ecuador doesn’t have the $13 billion for a project that is questionable in terms of its economic and financial worth.”
(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)