Climate Change, International Development, Latin America & the Caribbean, Sustainability, The Global Cable Serving the People and Saving the Environment with Otto Sonnenholzner, Vice President of Ecuador

February 28, 2020
By Perry World House | The Global Cable

This week's episode of The Global Cable features Otto Sonnenholzner, current Vice President of Ecuador and this year’s Global Leader-in-Residence at Perry World House. An economist, businessman, and broadcaster, Vice President Sonnenholzner was appointed just over a year ago, and coordinates Ecuador’s sustainable development strategy.

Vice President Sonnenholzner talks to us about why he chose to enter politics; how the crisis in Venezuela is impacting Ecuador; and protecting his country’s incredible biodiversity.  

Listen now.


Otto Sonnenholzner [00:00:09] I think we are also the country with the largest amount of square kilometers of protected areas in relation to the size of the country, right. So the density of protected areas is huge in Ecuador. Starting with the Galapagos Islands, of course, and then the rainforest. But yeah, we have activities in oil extraction, in mining. We do have that, and what we do is we try to choose where it can be done and where not. I think the priority is to preserve the biodiversity. We will not be in a radical position to say that we will not allow anything related to the exploitation of natural resources, because it's not true. We cannot afford to do that, and we need that. What we do is, when it happens, it's done right - with the best technology possible, with the least impact possible. Any human activity has environmental impact. We just need to reduce it, to control it and then to compensate.

John Gans [00:01:10] Welcome to The Global Cable, a podcast from Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, where we discuss the world's most pressing issues with the people who work on. I'm John Gans, the director of communications and research here at Perry World House.

John Gans [00:01:23] On today's episode, we speak to Otto Sonnenholzner, current Vice President of Ecuador and this year's Global Leader-in-Residence at Perry World House. An economist, businessman, and broadcaster, Vice President Sonnenholzner was appointed just over a year ago, and coordinates Ecuador's sustainable development strategy. The Vice President talks to us today about why he chose to enter politics, how the crisis in Venezuela is impacting Ecuador and the rest of the region, and how his country is managing and protecting its incredible biodiversity. Vice President Sonnenholzner, welcome to The Global Cable.

John Gans [00:02:03] Vice President Sonnenholzner, welcome to The Global Cable.So I think the first question we want to ask is - you didn't set out to enter politics. You're a broadcaster, so you're  used to recording, your voice being recorded. So we're glad to have a pro here, but I thought I would ask why did you decide to enter politics? And what's it been like coming from a nonpolitical background?

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:02:25] So first, yeah, I have a nonpolitical background. I did broadcasting communications. I worked in telecommunications, construction, agriculture, commerce. I had broad private activities before this. It's not like I chose. I received a call from President Moreno - I don't know if you're aware, but I'm his third vice president. He lost two vice presidents due to corruption issues, basically. And I think his idea was to look for someone from outside politics, so that he could be safely without corruption issues, basically. But I chose to accept the invitation because as a broadcaster, I was also president of the National Association of Broadcasters, and I was a big critic of the prior government's policies on freedom of speech, and other authoritarian positions that they had. And what I did was, I thought that if I was such a critic of that, and President Moreno had shown that he was going to the right path and he was asking for my help, then it would have been weak or unfair on my part not to support him. So I took the decision. I've been here for one year and a couple of months now, and it has been an incredible journey. An incredible ride.

John Gans [00:03:44] Well, we're glad your journey landed you here for some time. If I could ask a little bit about the authoritarian and the freedom of press and things on those lines, how did you find advocating for that? Was it popular? How did people react to that?

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:04:00] It was tough, because you had a government that was very - it controlled everything. It had a huge propaganda apparatus, and they used it against anyone who complained about anything. So I was a part of the victims of that apparatus at a point. But in the end, I was sure that I was fighting for a right cause, and I was never afraid of what I was doing. So I'm happy that I did it, actually.

John Gans [00:04:27] You know, at a moment when there's a lot of authoritarian tendencies on the rise around the world. That's just one of many dramatic changes happening in the wider international order and in Latin America, and Central America, and the Americas themselves. So you're seeing some of this in terms of economic trends, that are impacting us. We're seeing that a little bit with coronavirus, health trends.

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:04:54] You know, I had a trip planned to China. We're celebrating 40 years of bilateral relations between China and Ecuador. Of course, that's put on hold now. But everyone criticized me because I said I was not canceling the the initiative. As a position not of bravery, but of solidarity with China. I think China is suffering a tough time now. Going through your question - this might be, you know, everyone is worried about coronavirus as a health crisis, but if it doesn't get solved quickly, this might be the largest economic crisis we've seen for many years. So I'm worried about that now.

John Gans [00:05:32] Absolutely. And so how have you seen these regional and global economic trends, including this current start of what may be a slowdown of coronavirus? How do they affect the politics and people of Ecuador?

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:05:46] Well, now, of course, economy affects politics directly. We are having tough economic times in Ecuador. We have slow growth and difficulties with employment. And what we need is an active and growing international economy, and we don't have that now. So the effect is direct on Ecuador, of course, as any other country.

John Gans [00:06:08] And this economic frustration and this stagnation, is that affecting how Ecuadorians and others in Latin America are reacting to the migration wave that started in Venezuela and elsewhere?

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:06:21] Well migration away from Venezuela is becoming an additional issue, because we were already having an economic crisis. We are now paying the bill for ten years of irresponsible public economy management, fiscal management. And if you add to that the Venezuelan crisis, it doesn't help, of course, it complicates everything.

John Gans [00:06:44] What is the - one of the things we study here at Perry World House is how migrants are being received all around the world. Is there a particular program or any particular effort that you're proud of in Ecuador in terms of that?

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:06:59] Well, yeah, we have some experience. Ecuador was the country with the highest number of refugees before the Venezuelan crisis, because we had the refugees from the Colombian armed conflict. We had 50,000 Colombians and we were every year recognized as the country who dealt the best way with that. But of course, the number of migrants that come from Venezuela is incomparable to anything else in the region, right. So we have initiatives, we are trying to coordinate initiatives with other countries and other authorities like UNHCR, and USAID is helping, but it's never enough because the number - again, it's just unbelievable. What we do is we try to, first when they come into the country, to be sure that they don't have health issues. Any new viruses that were already eliminated from Ecuador, or diseases, might be coming back through uncontrolled migration. So the second step is there's many, many children coming in. Most of them have malnutrition issues. So we have programs for recovering their health via good nutrition. But the most important part, and I always say this is that migration is always - it's always a story that has a sad beginning. And we should work in order to make it have a happy ending. So a happy ending would be that these migrants could integrate to the Ecuadorian economy and be a part of Ecuadorian growth. Right? And I think that's possible.

John Gans [00:08:33] It's so fascinating, I mean - I think one of the things that my time in Latin America, my time traveling around the region, one of things you see is how important family is to that region, and  the break up of families, it's got to be so challenging. And so I assume there's a huge social effort to try and welcome people in, in addition to economics, and health, and things along those lines.

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:08:56] But again, it's not an easy topic and as the number grows, and it becomes a complication, we also have social issues with migration locally. So I was saying in the presentation before, the conference, I'm always trying to educate communicators that they don't put the nationality to crime, for example, because we don't want - the worst thing that could happen is that we see a violent reaction. That would be a catastrophe.

John Gans [00:09:24] What are the foreign policies? You've talked a little bit about economics and dealing with refugees and the Colombian conflict there. What are some of the other foreign policy issues you're focused on and that Ecuador is worried about?

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:09:40] Well, first, President Moreno's government changed the foreign policy. Before him, it was a foreign policy based on ideology. So they were looking only for friendly or ideologically similar countries, and trying to build a bloc with that, and I think that foreign policy cannot be built via ideology, because that won't last. It only lasts as long as the government lasts. So we need foreign policy based on principles of what both countries need, or any country needs, right, in the relationship. And that's what we're doing now. It's a more pragmatic approach. We are reconstructing the relationship with the U.S., with the European Union, with countries that we've kept far in the prior government. We're bringing them closer again and working with them, looking for solutions to the problems of Ecuadorians, basically.

John Gans [00:10:32] How is that change being received by the United States, by the European Union?

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:10:37] Positively, of course. Everyone is happy to have Ecuador back on the world stage as an important player. And also, it's the idea that, again, foreign policy cannot be based on ideology. I think that doesn't help anyone, doesn't help build anything.

John Gans [00:10:54] Well, as we were promoting your event here, and everybody was getting excited, we did a poll on our Instagram account to see how many people knew how much biodiversity...

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:11:04] 10 percent of the world's biodiversity!

John Gans [00:11:06] Exactly. So we had people guessing.

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:11:07] Yeah, and did they know?

John Gans [00:11:10] I think they did OK. Yeah. Some people knew - it was higher than expected.

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:11:14] But it's not about, you know, what's impressive is that it's only 0.02 percent of the world's surface. Right? So it's about the density. It's the highest density in the world of biodiversity per square kilometer.

John Gans [00:11:26] How do you balance that?

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:11:29] It's tough, it's a tie between development and natural resources? Yeah.

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:11:34] Well, I think we are also a country with the largest amount of square kilometers of protected areas in relation to the size of the country, right? So the density of protected areas is huge in Ecuador. Starting with the Galapagos Islands, of course, and then the rainforest. But yeah, we have activities in oil extraction, in mining. We do have that. And what we do is we try to choose where it can be done and where not. I think the priority is to preserve the biodiversity. We will not be in a radical position to say that we will not allow anything related to the exploitation of natural resources, because it's not true. We cannot afford to do that, and we need that. But what we do is make it so when it happens, it's done right - with the best technology possible, with the least impact possible. Any human activity has environmental impact. We just need to reduce it, to control it, and then to compensate.

John Gans [00:12:34] Do most Ecuadorians see that, see both the value of the richness of the biodiversity, and the need to balance?

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:12:43] I think so. I think what is missing is that they need to find a way to profit from it. You know, because it just feels like we're keeping it safe for the rest of the world, while we're sitting on top of such wealth and not exploiting it. So the way to make it profitable for them, to make it part of their development is, for example, increasing tourism [from tourists who know] that they're going to the biodiversity prize of the world. Right. And we have to work on that. Tourism could be a good way. And there are other activities that can be done, via forestry, for example, so that they know how to live from what they have without damaging it. So we have to work on that.

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:13:22] I think that there's a lot to do, but that's basically the idea.

John Gans [00:13:25] That's great. I think for any of our listeners out there, Equador looks like a beautiful place to spend a vacation.

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:13:31] Of course!

John Gans [00:13:31] It looks beautiful.

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:13:31] Top destination!

John Gans [00:13:34] Exactly.

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:13:36] You're welcome any time! I hope from the listeners of the conference, that some decide to visit.

John Gans [00:13:42] I think that that's a pretty sure thing. We had a big crowd down there. And I assume all of our listeners will be received by the Vice President's Office if they show up saying they heard you on The Global Cable!

John Gans [00:13:56] So almost 300 years ago, one of Penn's first trustees, Ben Franklin, who was a statesman, was a scholar, was a scientist, developed a questionnaire he used for conversations among fellow Philadelphians interested in current and global affairs. So we've updated it - it was a little bit tied to its times, so we've updated it. And these can be short questions that have short answers, or they can be long answers. So the first is, who would you most like to meet and why?

John Gans [00:14:25] I mean, you've had a lot of opportunities abroad, but I thought we'd ask that question.

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:14:30] You know, I didn't know - I had the page here and I didn't read it before. But I like the way it's presented, this question, because it says who would you like to meet today? And actually, that changes every week, basically, yeah. Because there is something you read, something you see. And then I just saw the movie 'The Two Popes.'.

John Gans [00:14:46] Oh, yeah?

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:14:47] And I'm interested in meeting them. How do you say when it's a former pope?

John Gans [00:14:52] Yes, Benedict.

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:14:56] No but there is, there's a specific word in Latin, I don't remember - Emeritus, Pope Emeritus Benedict, I would love to meet him. Speak in German with him, and know more about him. I mean, I'm impressed, the role that Anthony Hopkins plays is amazing. And  I think it made me be more interested in that character.

John Gans [00:15:17] What was I have to say, as somebody who - we talk about movies on this a lot, but it was one of the best movies I saw last year.

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:15:26] Amazing, amazing work.

John Gans [00:15:28] And Anthony Hopkins made you want to meet Benedict, which is - somebody who's reputation is a little bit more mixed.

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:15:38] He wasn't such a spotlight guy. He was just like behind the scenes somehow. And then he disappeared, right? And then you wonder why a guy wants to disappear while being pope, you know. This film helps you to understand a lot.

John Gans [00:15:50] Well, it was just an amazing movie about forgiveness. And obviously, there is a Latin American component to it as well, which was fascinating. So, OK, so other than 'The Two Popes', have you read anything, any books, any articles, seen any other movies?

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:16:06] Well, I quoted a book today that I really recommend, the Andrea Wulf book about Humboldt ['The Invention of Nature']. I'm a fan of Humboldt, I went to the Humboldt School in Guayaquil. I think Humboldt is the father of modern environmentalism, humanism as well, you know.

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:16:21] It's a pity because in the U.S., they used to celebrate Humboldt a lot, and then after World War 1, everything German had to disappear. I understand why, but you lost that reverence of environmentalism and conservation and humanism. Humboldt was a person at this time who didn't, for example, discriminate people. He came to Latin America in a time - that was 1802, in a time in which priests, for example, thought they were superior beings compared to natives. And he came in and for him, everyone was just a person, you know. I feel the same about that. But yeah, doing that or feeling that 200 years ago was something else. So he did that. I'm impressed by him. And so I really recommend that you read the Andrea Wulf book. I think it's a great book. And I'm about to start reading a book about how our jobs today and the things that we started in our careers might disappear. It's written by Andres Oppenheimer, he's an Argentinian journalist who I met last week. He gave me a book and I'm really interested in that.

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:17:37] I think that's a big threat in the future because, you know, everything changes so quickly. And again, the job that you have. What you're doing now, this replaced a complete broadcast station. And it's just the two of us, well, with Alice, three of us sitting with a small machine. So how many people lost their job because of this machine?

John Gans [00:17:58] Yeah. And I mean, or the devices that everybody's using, the devices everyone's listening to this on. Their phones have taken over for cameras, for...

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:18:07] You've replaced at least three people here, with one machine.

John Gans [00:18:10] Exactly. And that's one of the things that I think, in addition to environmentalism, in this answer, across all the people we've talked to, the change in how people work and live is the other thing that people are most fascinated by. So is there anybody other than Pope Benedict that you think is doing or has done something interesting or worthy of praise out there?

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:18:32] Every day. I travel mostly around Ecuador, and I see amazing people with initiatives everywhere, you know. People who are trying to put Ecuador on the world stage with sustainable products or sustainable cooking, for example, people who are fighting in Ecuador against poverty, against malnutrition. I mean, it's an everyday thing I have. One of the good things about this job is that you get to meet amazing people. And this is not about anyone famous or anyone huge. You know, it's just about - and this is the most important thing is normal people, normal people doing step by step. Amazing things. That's what's great about it because it shows that anyone can do it.

John Gans [00:19:14] Same with podcasts. I get to meet interesting people here as well. All right. So is there anything that you think right now - you just spoke to a bunch of Penn students. Is there anything that they can do right now to be of service to the world?

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:19:26] I told the students today that being a student means, and being at university, and also being an institution like a university - it means questioning things. Like what can we do better? It doesn't matter what it is. It could be, how do you get from here to your house? But you have to question everything. And I think that should be the role of universities, mostly when we're it's talking about. universities like UPenn, which is a world prestige university. That should be universities' contribution to the world, not only to Ecuador. Where UPenn - and I was impressed, I didn't know that UPenn is working a lot in the Galapagos Islands. And so these projects, I really appreciate that. I thanked them already, more than twice. And I think they should keep going with those kind of initiatives. Nothing huge. But it's important. You know, it's not about how big it is or how much it costs. It's about what impact it can have. And I think it can have a huge impact.

John Gans [00:20:21] Well, that sounds good. Well, that's the end of our questions here today.

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:20:24] Thank you!

John Gans [00:20:24] I appreciate you being here, Vice President Sonnenholzner, and look forward to enjoying the rest of your visit.

Otto Sonnenholzner [00:20:30] It's a pleasure being for the first time here in Philadelphia. And I hope that there is a next time and I can stay a bit longer.

John Gans [00:20:34] We hope so, too. Thank you.