Heir to Banana Fortune Wins Ecuador's Presidential Runoff

Daniel Noboa has managed to do what his father failed at five times.

Presidential candidate Daniel Noboa speaks in Olon, Ecuador, Oct. 15, 2023.
Presidential candidate Daniel Noboa speaks in Olon, Ecuador, Oct. 15, 2023.
AP Photo/Martin Mejia

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Daniel Noboa has managed to do what his father failed at five times: Get elected as Ecuador's president.

And he did it Sunday on his first attempt, winning a runoff in a special election against a leftist lawyer on the strength of his resume as a 35-year-old member of Ecuador's elite, which has meant some schooling in the U.S., some entrepreneurial work, some dabbling in politics.

Now he must meet the universal demand of voters to make the South American country safe again, following a surge in unprecedented violence tied to drug trafficking.

Noboa's proposals to tackle the crucial issue have run the gamut. At one point in the campaign, he proposed turning ships into floating jails for the most violent criminals. At another, he simply promised more gear for police.

Voters are increasingly frightened by the escalation of drug violence over the past three years. Killings, kidnappings, robberies and other criminal activities have become part of everyday life, leaving Ecuadorians wondering when, not if, they will be victims.

It will be daunting for Noboa to accomplish something substantial during his truncated term. It will run only through May 2025, which is what would have remained of the tenure of President Guillermo Lasso, who cut his own term short when he dissolved the National Assembly in May and called new elections.

"I think there would be a very slim chance that even the best equipped president could reverse Ecuador's security crisis within 18 months — it's such a short period of time — and neither of these candidates was the best equipped. Noboa certainly not," said Will Freeman, a fellow on Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"His proposals on security were erratic, and they gave the sense that he was improvising," Freeman said.

With nearly all votes counted, electoral officials said Noboa had just over 52%, compared to nearly 48% for Luisa González, an ally of exiled former President Rafael Correa. González conceded defeat during a speech before supporters in which she also urged Noboa to fulfill his campaign promises.

After results showed him victorious, Noboa thanked Ecuadorians for believing in "a new political project, a young political project, an improbable political project."

He said his goal is "to return peace to the country, to give education to the youth again, to be able to provide employment to the many people who are looking for it." To that end, Noboa said, he will immediately begin to work to "rebuild a country that has been seriously hit by violence, corruption and hatred."

The government's inability to tackle the security crisis was laid bare in August with the assassination of presidential candidate and anti-corruption crusader Fernando Villavicencio.

Since then, other politicians and political leaders have been killed or kidnapped, car bombs have exploded in multiple cities, including the capital, Quito, and inmates have rioted in prisons. Earlier this month, seven men held as suspects in Villavicencio's slaying were themsleves killed inside prisons.

Noboa, when he was 18, opened a business to organize events and then joined his father's Noboa Corp., where he held management positions in the shipping, logistics and commercial areas. His political career began in 2021, when he got a seat in the National Assembly and chaired its Economic Development Commission.

His father, Álvaro Noboa, is the richest man in Ecuador thanks to a conglomerate that started in the growing and shipping of bananas — Ecuador's main crop — and now includes more than 128 companies in dozens of countries. The elder Noboa unsuccessfully ran for president five times.

The younger Noboa's party will not have enough seats in the National Assembly to be able to govern on its own. Garnering support from opposing lawmakers will be key to avoid the difficulties that plagued Lasso's term.

Lasso, a conservative former banker, clashed constantly with lawmakers after his election in 2021 and dissolved the assembly in May just as lawmakers were pursuing impeachment proceedings against him over alleged improprieties in a government contract.

He decided not to run in the special election. On Sunday, he called on Ecuadorians to have a peaceful election and think about what is "best for their children, their parents and the country."

Under Lasso's watch, violent deaths soared, reaching 4,600 in 2022, the country's highest in history and double the total in 2021. The National Police tallied 3,568 violent deaths in the first half of 2023.

The spike in violence is tied to the trafficking of cocaine produced in neighboring Colombia and Peru. Mexican, Colombian and Balkan cartels have set down roots in Ecuador and operate with assistance from local criminal gangs.

"I don't expect much from this election," Julio Ricaurte, a 59-year-old engineer, said Sunday near one of the voting centers in northern Quito. "First, because the president will have little time to do anything, and second because the (National) Assembly in our country is an organization that prevents anyone who comes to power from governing."

Noboa and González advanced to the runoff by finishing ahead of six other candidates in the election's first round on Aug. 22. The replacement of Villavicencio finished in third place.

González was unknown to most voters until the party of Correa, her mentor, picked her as its presidential candidate. She held various government jobs during Correa's decade-long presidency and was a lawmaker from 2021 until May.

At the start of the campaign, she said Correa would be her adviser, but she later sought to distance herself a bit in an effort to court voters who oppose the former president. Correa remains a major force in Ecuador despite being found guilty of corruption in 2020 and sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison. He has been living in his wife's native Belgium since 2017.

Rosa Amaguaña, a 62-year-old fruit and vegetable vendor, said Sunday that safety "is the first thing that must be solved" by the next president.

"I'm hopeful the country will change," Amaguaña said. "Yes, it can. The next president must be able to do even something small."