Diplomatic Crossroads: A look at U.S.-Ecuador Relations

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

For almost a decade, U.S.-Ecuador relations have either been in a downward spiral or a tense standoff, and new diplomatic initiatives as well as sharing the same currency are factors that may lead to a strain in U.S.-Ecuador relations. This does not mean that the U.S. State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson’s trip to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is not symbolically important. Recent initiatives, including the Deputy Secretary’s visit, show that mending the strained political and economic relationship between the two countries will require continued, diplomatic engagement.

A Plethora of Incidents

In 2005, President Alfredo Palacio came to power in Ecuador and Rafael Correa was named minister of the economy—he was subsequently elected to the presidency two years later in 2007. This was an important development because it marked a new phase of Quito-Washington relations as the two leaders, particularly Correa, worked toward reducing U.S. influence on the South American nation.

One decision that highlights Correa’s foreign policy vision occurred in 2009 when he chose not to renew an agreement with Washington over the U.S. military facilities in the coastal city of Manta. The decision impacted Washington’s ability to rely on Manta for various drug trafficking and security initiatives in the region.

In 2013, the Ecuadorian government left the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, which enabled the United States to provide customs benefits to Ecuador. Quito intended to show its displeasure of the U.S. decision to pressure Ecuador not to give asylum to Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower. While Snowden ultimately stayed in Moscow, the Snowden-ATPDEA incident highlighted the Correa Administration’s willingness to forfeit $23 million to demonstrate its unhappiness with U.S. policy.

Ecuador “will not be pressured or blackmailed by anyone,” Correa said. Policy decisions made in Washington have also contributed to strained relations. The Washington Post revealed in 2013 that the CIA aided the Colombian military in carrying out air strikes against FARC insurgents, including one in 2008, which took place in Ecuadorian territory without Quito’s permission. Additionally, when Quito declared its interest in harboring Snowden, several Washington policymakers supported revoking the aforementioned ATPDEA to punish Ecuador.


Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as its national currency. Given the aforementioned incidents, it is notable that the Correa Administration continues to use the dollar in lieu of its previous currency, the sucre, which was used until 2001.


As recently as this past August, Correa announced that the dollarization of the country’s economy would continue, as the costs of leaving it would be “disastrous,” which demonstrates that Ecuador recognizes its own economic limitations.


It is because of these complex economic and political circumstances that diplomatic initiatives by Deputy Secretary Jacobson are especially noteworthy. President Correa himself welcomed Jacobson as Washington’s foreign affairs minister for Latin America.

While in Ecuador on November 2–5, 2014, Jacobson discussed topics like education, security, trade, and clean energy. Additionally, she met with local industrialists, journalists, and civic society leaders. Ecuador’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ricardo Patiño said that he and Jacobson discussed sensitive extradition cases of Ecuadorians currently in the U.S. that are wanted by Quito. Jacobson signaled a willingness to work toward mutual interests.


Washington recognizes that Correa has firm control of the country—violent 2010 police protests notwithstanding. He was easily re-elected in 2013 and it is generally believed that the constitution will be modified so that he can run again in 2017. If this occurs, his popularity may help him win the next election. The likelihood that Correa will continue to remain in power demonstrates the need for ongoing diplomatic engagement between his administration and the United States.

Recent incidents between the U.S. and Ecuador would indicate the two countries’ relationship is tenuous and declining. However, despite the political and economic circumstances surrounding severed trade agreements, unsanctioned U.S. air strikes, and Ecuador’s continued use of the U.S. dollar as its currency, neither country has gone so far as to disengage diplomatically. For Deputy Secretary Jacobson and for the Correa Administration, both will need to employ thoughtful leadership in order to mend this important relationship.