Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa celebrated his fifth year in office, Friday night, January 13, in Cuenca. To mark the occasion, supporters threw a party in Alejandro Serrano Aguilar football stadium. Among the 25,000 in attendance were 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú and some of the top musical groups in Latin America.
In an evening of speeches and music, supporters cheered the 49-year-old president, raising a chant of "re-election, re-election" and waved flags hailing his self-proclaimed "citizens' revolution." Under provisions of the new constitution, enacted in 2009, Correa is allowed to stand for re-election in the January 2013 election.
"I will be where you and the fatherland need me," he told supporters. "I don't shirk challenges, compatriots." Although most expect him to seek another term, he has told some advisors he has not made up his mind and that it is possible he might decide to retire to a home his owns near Brussels with his Belgian wife, Anne Malherbe.
Polls indicate that Correa would win re-election by a comfortable margin. A December, 2011, CEDATOS poll gives him an approval rating of 55 percent, nearly 20 points lower than his peak approval rating in 2007, but a 14-point increase from a January 2010 low. Correa likely owes much of his popularity to social and infrastructure spending, an improving economy, and political stability. His administration invested heavily in social programs, spending $1.84 billion in his first two years in office.
In 2012, Correa’s government estimates it will invest $6.5 billion in social spending, representing 25 percent of the total budget. Investments include improvements in education and combating child malnutrition. The poverty rate dropped to 29 percent in 2011 from 36.7 percent in 2007.
Despite a violent confrontation between the president and protesting police forces in September 2010, Correa’s administration has seen historic stability: Ecuador had seven presidents between 1997 and 2006, and three were overthrown. But in the wake of the police protests, Correa gave the military policing powers, seeking to expand the army’s role in public security. With warnings of a global economic downturn, rising inflation, and increasing criticism about restrictions to press freedom, Correa faces challenges before the 2013 presidential vote, when he will likely run for reelection.
Correa sought new alliances in the region and beyond, joining Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas bloc in June 2009 and befriending Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose second visit to Ecuador was last week. Correa refused to renew the U.S. Southern Command’s Manta Air Force Base, which relocated to Colombia in July 2009. Furthermore, Correa renegotiated contracts with foreign oil companies, increasing state control over hydrocarbons. But he has also sought to court mining companies from Canada and China to extract Ecuador’s gold and copper reserves, with plans to attract $3 million to the sector over the next two years.
During his administration, Correa has cracked down on the media, eliciting condemnations from both the local press and international organizations such as Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists. He lodged major lawsuits against two local newspapers, suing journalists for millions of dollars. In 2007, he brought a case against Francisco Vivanco Riofrio, a board member of La Hora, after the daily published a critical opinion piece on Correa. In March 2011, he sued two investigative journalists who wrote a book called Big Brother that detailed business deals by Correa’s brother. In July 2011, a judge charged three directors and the former opinion editor of El Universo, Emilio Palacio, to three years in prison and a $40 million fine, after Correa accused the newspaper of libel.
An opinion piece published in the newspaper in 2010 referred to Correa as a “dictator” and accused him of inciting violence during a police uprising that year. Correa also pushed for reforms to control the press. On Monday, Ecuador’s Congress approved changes to a legal code that would restrict the media from writing or transmitting information about political candidates that could potentially help or harm them. There are now 19 state-run media outlets in the country, created by Correa by founding new government stations and appropriating existing companies from banks.
Correa has also sought to engage international partners by putting Ecuador at the forefront of the green movement. In August 2010, he established the Yasuni ITT Trust Fund, run by the UN Development Group. The fund aims to protect the Yasuni National Park by seeking donors to compensate for the government’s block on oil extraction from the Tiputini-Tambococha oil fields, located on the reserve. These crowdfunding efforts bring together governments, celebrities, environmentalists, and individual donors; Correa seeks $3.5 billion for the fund over 10 years. But so far, the campaign has raised only $116 million, and nearly half of that amount—$51 million—came from a debt cancellation from the Italian government. In addition, Correa himself donated $40 million, using the damages from the 2011 El Universo lawsuit. Some have questioned the fund’s effectiveness and budget goals, given the reticence of donor countries to invest in the project.
Most agree that if he wins a second term, Correa will continue to face major challenges. Mauro Cerbino, an anthropologist at La Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, praised Correa, and told Colombia’s El Tiempo: “The radical and important changes that have been made left behind a country with a nearly feudal system and have managed to find political stability and a hegemony that cannot be questioned.” But there are challenges ahead. Economists warn the eurozone crisis could spark a slowdown in Latin America, and inflation in Ecuador rose by 5.4 percent in 2011. Correa’s ambitions to expand the country’s mining sector could face an uphill battle from indigenous groups who could protest mining projects. The president’s limits on the freedom of the press have come under international scrutiny. Finally, the president could risk his reputation and confidence from donor countries if the Yasuni fund fails to gather steam.
Photo caption: President Correa in Cuenca, Jan. 15.