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Ecuador Swears in Moreno as President to Succeed Correa

Date: May 25, 2017

Lenin Moreno was sworn in as Ecuador’s president on Wednesday and promised to maintain Rafael Correa’s leftist policies while ending his predecessor’s sharp attacks on critics, including the press.

In a ceremony that paid homage to the charismatic but divisive Mr. Correa, Mr. Moreno said his government would maintain expansive social programs. But he also said he would seek political consensus and defended freedom of expression while calling on lawmakers to be less ideologically rigid.

“I’ll respect those that think differently,” said Mr. Moreno, a 64-year-old former vice president under Mr. Correa, who chose him to be his successor before a closely contested election. “If we don’t have dialogue, we’ll never know the necessities of each Ecuadorean.”

Mr. Moreno’s conciliatory comments contrasted with Mr. Correa’s final days in office, during which the government slapped media outlets with fines, threatened to jail a journalist for his  Twitter messages and raided the office of a polling firm.

That crackdown deepened doubts about whether Mr. Moreno’s administration would curtail the controls Mr. Correa placed on the press. The country has one of the last leftist populist governments in Latin America, a decade-old administration strongly allied with Venezuela’s authoritarian president and sharply opposed to U.S. policies.

“Rafael Correa’s last actions have been to leave a country even more polarized and prevent any kind of possibility for dialogue,” said  César Ricaurte, the executive director of Quito-based Fundamedios, which promotes press freedom. “The new government is being left without a lot of space to maneuver.”

Mr. Moreno has pledged to consider lowering taxes and on Tuesday named a cabinet that includes executives close to the business community. In the past, he’s also criticized fines levied by Mr. Correa’s government against journalists.

“We are entering a period where confrontation will decline,” a soft-spoken Mr. Moreno said recently.

But he has also defended legislation that critics say muzzled the press by giving authorities power to sanction media outlets for unfavorable reports. And he has promised to continue to provide asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, allowing him to stay in Ecuador’s London embassy while there remain concerns about him being extradited to the U.S.

“I don’t see a major reversal of policy with Moreno,” said Sebastian Hurtado, president of Profitas, a Quito-based political-risk consulting firm.

Mr. Moreno was a successful businessman before he was shot in a robbery almost two decades ago, leaving him in a wheelchair. Enjoying jokes and other types of humor helped him recover, he said, and he went on to become an inspirational speaker and book author.

As Mr. Correa’s vice president, he pushed for legislation requiring companies to set aside jobs for the handicapped and helped design a transit system with special buses with access for the disabled.

A U.S. State Department cable in 2007, published by WikiLeaks, described Mr. Moreno as a “moderating influence” on Mr. Correa’s administration. He left the government in 2013 to become a U.N. special envoy for people with disabilities.

As president, Mr. Moreno will confront an opposition that called his election illegitimate because of allegations of vote rigging, which he denies. The economy is struggling, hurt by lower oil prices and rising debt. A relatively small nation that is a member of OPEC, its economy is expected to grow 0.6% this year, according to the U.N., after contracting last year. The country’s poverty rate is about 20%, according to the World Bank.

Mr. Moreno will also inherit a country divided over the legacy of the combative Mr. Correa, who on Saturday lashed out at the media as corrupt “ink assassins” in his television program. Mr. Correa has long accused independent media of working with the country’s economic elite to undermine his administration. During the election campaign, he was critical of media coverage of corruption allegations in his government.

“You have to watch out over the next four years,” Mr. Correa told a crowd of supporters before tearing apart a copy of the La Hora newspaper. “Don’t believe anything from this mercenary press.”

Luis Eduardo Vivanco, a La Hora editor, said he hopes Mr. Moreno will reduce the government’s attacks on the media but is skeptical.

Last week, he was forced to meet with prosecutors after the Interior Ministry filed a criminal charge against him for two Twitter messages, claiming he hurt the government’s image and sowed confusion among Ecuadoreans.

“Lenin Moreno has two options: radicalize the persecution…or he can bring back sanity and change course towards democracy and respect,” Mr. Vivanco said. “With Lenin Moreno, it is a box of surprises.”

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