Rafael Correa’s reelection could mean much-needed stability for Ecuador after years of political confusion

Apr 30, 2009 | 0 comments

Plaques and portraits of Ecuador's 105 presidents line the yellow walls of the antechamber to the restrooms in El Pobre Diablo (The Poor Devil), a bohemian hangout in Quito, the capital. Spoofing the presidential palace's silk screen Yellow Salon, each is marked with the number of days they lasted in office. A digital clock ticks off the days served by current President Rafael Correa. It will probably run far longer than his predecessors'.

Voters on Sunday re-elected him to a second consecutive term, though under unusual conditions. Before Correa, no President elected after 1992 had managed to stay in office for a full four-year term. Like Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Correa espouses "21st century socialism," which has put him on a confrontational course with Washington over the past few years. But even more so than Chávez, who publicly warmed to U.S. President Barack Obama at the recent Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, Correa has been effusive about the new government in Washington. Obama is a "sincere, open, cordial person who creates great expectancy," Correa gushed after the Trinidad summit. Now it is a matter of seeing how well Correa's pragmatic socialism meshes with the policies in formation in Washington.

Recent history pitted Correa directly against the Bush Administration. The fiery economist from Guayaquil has wielded not just leftist rhetoric but also leftist policies, railing against foreign and domestic corporations. In December, he defaulted on $3.2 billion in foreign bonds, close to a third of the country's foreign debt, citing evidence that they were "illegal" and "illegitimate." "We're living a process of change that we hadn't seen before," said Fernando Cabrera, 55, a financial analyst, at Correa's victory rally in Quito. "He is breaking down archaic structures set up by the economic upper class."

Correa kept a campaign pledge not to extend the lease of a U.S. antinarcotics outpost. But despite expelling the two U.S. diplomats for allegedly meddling in police affairs, Correa last year didn't follow the lead of Bolivian President Evo Morales and Chávez in expelling the U.S. ambassador. Instead, the Ecuadorian President wants a trade agreement to set exports on a more solid footing. That would replace the 2002 Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, which has to be renewed periodically and is linked to Ecuadorian cooperation in the fight against drug-trafficking.

Though Correa has cajoled oil companies to hand over a bigger share of revenue to the government and pressured banks to cut interest rates, Ecuador — unlike Venezuela and Bolivia — hasn't nationalized industries. Indeed, Correa does not shy from development that irks his presumed base of support. A workaholic micromanager who peppers his ministers with cell-phone calls, Correa backed new legislation designed to develop untouched deposits of gold and copper, angering indigenous groups and environmentalists. Communists rail against his introduction of testing of public-school teachers. "Correa isn't stupid," says analyst Margarita Andrade at Analytica Investments in Quito. "At the end of the day, he has been pragmatic."

And he now has election results to back him up. Correa polled 52%, according to early results, trouncing his seven rivals in the first round of voting, a first since democracy's return to the Andean country in 1979. His closest rival, former coup leader Lucio Gutiérrez, deposed as President four years ago, won 28%. Correa, 46, will probably enjoy a majority in the National Assembly, Ecuador's legislature. He was first elected in 2006 after promoting a new constitution to lead Ecuador out of the "long night of neoliberalism." Close to two-thirds of voters approved that new charter last September, which in turn prompted the weekend's vote to give all elected officials, from the President down to local administrations, a fresh start under new rules that strengthen executive power.

He has at least four more years to pursue his "citizens' revolution," which has seen increased spending on the poor and the scrapping of some red tape for everyone else, including an end to Soviet-style exit permits the 14 million Ecuadorians previously needed to travel outside the country. "People believe in him," says political scientist Simón Pachano at FLACSO University in Quito. "His leadership, the economic situation to date and the breakdown of the old party system all favor him."

A day after his win, he told foreign reporters that he hopes public schools and clinics will rival the quality of private institutions in eight to 10 years. He will "accelerate and deepen" the changes he started when he took office in January 2007, he said. More important, for business interests, the string of wins at the polls gives Correa no reason to shift to a more radical socialist position, says Latin America analyst Patrick Esteruelas at Eurasia Group in New York City. Instead, says Esteruelas, "Correa will enjoy greater flexibility to make some macroeconomic-policy adjustments to buttress liquidity and prevent a banking and currency crisis." The pragmatic Correa probably knows that such a confrontation could cost him the presidency.

Credit: Stephan Kueffner, Time magazine, www.Time.com; photo caption: Refael Correa; photo credit: AFP / Getty


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