Rafael Correa’s politics baffle the pundits; elected as a socialist, many see a recent sharp turn to the right

Aug 24, 2013

Although he claims to be a socialist, Ecuador president Rafael Correa increasingly defies the standard political labels. Many of his opponents claim his tendencies in recent months have been decidedly to the right.
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Loyalists of President Rafael Correa’s “Citizens’ Revolution” have had to face some jarring decisions since he took office for a third time on May 24. In June, a phone call from Joe Biden, America’s vice-president, sufficed for him to leave Edward Snowden, an ex-CIA whistleblower, at a Moscow airport instead of offering asylum. He has switched from opposing to advocating free-trade talks with the European Union. His government has made it harder for people to obtain asylum. That has irked human-rights groups, which have also blasted his Putinesque decision to vet non-governmental organizations.

On August 15, he made what could be his most unpopular U-turn, announcing the collapse of a six-year effort to keep oil companies from drilling in the Yasuní, a pristine part of the Ecuadorean Amazon. To do that, he had asked rich countries to fork out $3.6 billion as compensation for the forgone oil revenues, but he only raised $13.3m. He said the world had “failed” Ecuador, but environmentalists and indigenous groups pointed the finger of blame at him. Ordinary Ecuadoreans, who had warmly supported the policy, were shocked too.

If opponents of the Yasuní drilling plan collect enough signatures to force a national referendum, Correa could face his first major rejection by voters.

Economically, Mr Correa now practices some of the austerity he once derided. He is considering a sharp cut in fuel subsidies, and the national social-security service has laid off more than 1,000 staff. Savings on their lunches, clothing and travel expenses are expected to be staggeringly large, underscoring the endemic waste.

Even those within his administration say he has a strong U.S. – European bias that sometimes rankles members of his inner circle. An official who asked not to be identified said that Correa often tells his staff that he expects the kind of work ethic that is common in the U.S., and that the Ecuadorian way of doing things has to change if the country is to become more economically and politically stable. “He has spent much of his life in Euorpe and the U.S. and those sensibilities are reflected in his management style,” said the official.

Before he took office in 2007, such measures would have pushed many of Mr Correa’s supporters onto the streets. Now the glue holding them together is more like nationalism than socialism, says Jorge Léon, a political scientist, adding that hardly any leftists remain in the cabinet. These changes would be better omens if they meant he was showing a more pragmatic, pro-business side. But businessmen, clobbered by higher taxes and legal uncertainties, still find life in Ecuador as full of twists and turns and many hope for a continued trend to the right.

Credit: portions of this were article reposted from The Economist, www.economist.com/news/americas; Photo caption: Rafael Correa

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