June 18, 2024

For generations, the Noboa family has helped shape Ecuador, overseeing a vast economic empire, including fertilizers, plastics, cardboard, the country’s largest container storage facility and, most famously, a gargantuan banana business featuring one of the world’s most recognizable fruit brands, Bonita.

One notable position has escaped them, however: the presidency. On five occasions, the head of the family conglomerate, Álvaro Noboa, has run for president and lost — in one case by two percentage points.

On Sunday, the Noboas may finally get their presidency. Mr. Noboa’s son, Daniel Noboa, a 35-year-old Harvard Kennedy School graduate who has used the same campaign jingle as his father, is the leading candidate in a runoff election. His opponent is Luisa González, the handpicked candidate of former president Rafael Correa, who beat the elder Noboa in 2006.

The legacy of the banana company — and Daniel Noboa’s association with it — is just one aspect of an election that centers on issues of employment and security in this country of 17 million on South America’s western coast that has been jolted by the extraordinary power gained by the drug trafficking industry in the last five years.

International criminal groups working with local gangs have unleashed an unprecedented surge of violence that has sent tens of thousands of Ecuadoreans fleeing to the U.S.-Mexico border, part of a migration wave that has overwhelmed the Biden administration.

Mr. Noboa rose unexpectedly from the bottom of the polls to a second-place finish in the first round of presidential elections in August, helped, experts said, by a widely lauded debate performance and the upending of the race by the shocking assassination of another candidate, Fernando Villavicencio, days before the vote.

Mr. Noboa has galvanized a base of frustrated voters on the back of a campaign promising change.

“He has been able to say that ‘I represent renewal in Ecuador,’” said Caroline Ávila, an Ecuadorean political analyst. “And that is why people are buying his message.”

Sunday’s election pits Mr. Noboa, a center-right businessman, against Ms. González, 45, a leftist establishment candidate, at a moment of deep anxiety in a country once a relatively peaceful island in a violent region.

Mr. Noboa, who declined several requests for an interview, has had a consistent lead in multiple polls since August, though it has narrowed slightly in recent days.

He has positioned himself as “the employment president,” even including a work application form on his website, and has promised to attract international investment and trade and cut taxes.

His opponent, Ms. González, has pledged to tap central bank reserves to stimulate the economy and increase financing for the public health care system and public universities.

On security, both candidates have talked about providing more money for the police and deploying the military to secure ports used to smuggle drugs out of the country and prisons, which are controlled by violent gangs.

Ms. González’s close association with Mr. Correa has helped elevate her political profile, but also hurt her among some voters.

Her first place finish in the first round was propelled by a strong base of voters nostalgic for the low homicide rates and commodities boom that lifted millions out of poverty during Mr. Correa’s administration. Ms. González’s campaign slogan in the first round was “we already did it and we will do it again.”

But building on that support is a challenge. Mr. Correa’s authoritarian style and accusations of corruption deeply divided the country. He is living in exile in Belgium, fleeing a prison sentence for campaign finance violations, and many Ecuadoreans fear that a González presidency would pave the way for him to return and run for office again.

Daniel Noboa is part of the third generation of his family that today operates a sprawling venture, but whose roots were in agriculture.

The Noboa family’s rise to prominence and wealth began with Luis Noboa, Daniel’s grandfather, who was born into poverty in 1916, but started building his business empire in the second half of the 20th century by exporting bananas and other crops.

His death in 1994 set off a bitter court battle on three continents among his wife and children for control of the business that finally ended in 2002, when a judge in London awarded Álvaro Noboa a 50 percent stake in the family’s holding company.

Álvaro expanded the company internationally, while also fighting multiple legal battles over back taxes and disputed payments to shipping companies.

As a politician, he described himself as a “messiah of the poor,” handing out free computers and fistfuls of dollars at his rallies, while also fending off accusations of child labor, worker mistreatment and union busting at his banana business. (He has claimed that the accusations were politically motivated).

His son, Daniel, was raised in the port city of Guayaquil, where he founded an event promotion company when he was 18, before moving to the United States to study at New York University. Afterward he became commercial director for the Noboa Corporation and earned three more degrees, including a master’s in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School.

He ran successfully for Ecuador’s Congress in 2021, positioning himself as a pro-business lawmaker, until President Guillermo Lasso disbanded the legislature in May and called for early elections.

Mr. Noboa has promoted a more left-leaning platform, railing against the banking industry and calling for more social spending.

A Harvard classmate and close friend of Mr. Noboa, Mauricio Lizcano, a senior official in Colombia, described the candidate as someone “who respects diversity and respects women, who believes in social issues,’’ but is also “orthodox in economics and business.’’

Still, Mr. Noboa has not raised social issues on the campaign trail and his running mate, Verónica Abad, is a right-wing business coach who has spoken out against abortion, feminism and L.G.B.T.Q. rights and expressed support for Donald J. Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s former far-right president.

Ms. Abad is “a really odd choice for someone like Noboa who’s trying to transcend this kind of left-right divide,” said Guillaume Long, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Ecuador’s former foreign minister under Mr. Correa.

Despite his family pedigree, Mr. Noboa has tried to set himself apart, pointing out that he has his own business and his personal wealth is valued at less than $1 million.

While Álvaro frequently referred to Mr. Correa as a “communist devil,” his son has avoided directly attacking “correísmo.’’

“I never voted for his father, but this guy has a different aura, new blood, a new way of thinking,’’ said Enrique Insua, a 63-year-old retiree in Guayaquil. “He is charismatic.”

But like his father, Daniel has also drawn criticism from analysts who fear he could use the presidency to advance the family’s many businesses.

“Whether in the manufacturing sector, in services or agriculture, everything is under their control in some way or another,” said Grace Jaramillo, a political science professor and expert on Ecuador at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

“There’s no issue in economic policy that will not affect for the good or bad, any of their enterprises,” she added. “It’s a permanent conflict of interest.”

Ecuador’s economy was ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic and just 34 percent of Ecuadoreans have adequate employment, according to government data.

Beyond the economy, the country heads to the polls during what has perhaps been the most violent electoral season in the country’s history.

Beside Mr. Villavicencio — who was outspoken about what he claimed were links between organized crime and the government — five other politicians have been killed this year. Last week, seven men accused of killing Mr. Villavicencio were found dead in prison.

Mr. Lasso, the outgoing president, called for early elections to avoid an impeachment trial over accusations of embezzlement and widespread voter anger with the government’s inability to stem the bloodshed.

With news reports regularly featuring beheadings, car bombs and police assassinations, Mr. Noboa and Ms. González have vowed to rein in the violence, though neither has made security a central part of their campaigns.

Ms. González, during a presidential debate, pointed to the arrests of several leaders of criminal gangs when she served in the Correa administration.

“We will have the same iron fist with those who have declared war on the Ecuadorean state,” she said.

Mr. Noboa has proposed the use of technology, like drones and satellite tracking systems, to stem drug trafficking and has suggested building prison boats to isolate the most violent inmates.

But analysts say the two candidates have not done enough to prioritize combating the crime that has destabilized Ecuador and turned it into one of Latin America’s most violent countries.

“Neither Luisa González, nor especially Noboa seem to have much of a plan on security or to emphasize it,” said Will Freeman, a fellow in Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. research institute. “It’s like politics is frozen in an era before all this happened.”

Thalíe Ponce contributed reporting from Guayaquil, Ecuador. José María León Cabrera contributed reporting from Quito, Ecuador.

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