Firmly Left

Published : Jun 05, 2009 00:00 IST

President Rafael Correa after his re-election, on April 26.-RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP

President Rafael Correa after his re-election, on April 26.-RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP

THE leftward swing in Latin America is being further consolidated. The avowedly socialist President Rafael Correa of Ecuador again won an emphatic victory at the polls in the last week of April. The other Latin American countries to have elected leftist governments are El Salvador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Argentina, Honduras, Guatemala and Brazil. It is the first time in many decades that a President has been re-elected for a second consecutive term in office in Ecuador.

Before Correa came on the scene, the tumultuous politics of the country had witnessed as many as seven Presidents come and go in the past decade. Correa became the first President to win re-election since 1972. We have made history in a country where from 1996 to 2006 no democratic government completed its term, Correa told his cheering supporters after the election results were out. The squandering of the countrys bountiful natural resources by a greedy elite had alienated the masses from the political system. Correa, a vociferous critic of neoliberalism, refused in his short first term in office to repay part of the countrys huge debt owed to international financial institutions. Ecuador has defaulted on 32 per cent of its $10.1 billion debt.

Correa severed Ecuadors relations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2007, describing the organisation as exploitative. In November last year, Correa decided to stop the payment of $4 billion in foreign debt after the countrys independent public debt audit commission concluded that the debt was illegally contracted when authoritarian governments were in control.

The Ecuadorian President said at the time that the IMF imposed conditions on developing countries while giving loans that benefited bankers and private businessmen at the expense of the poor. Correa has offered to buy Ecuadors debt back at 30 cents to a dollar. He also imposed tough protectionist measures to safeguard the countrys economy, which was reeling because of the drastic fall in petroleum prices in the global market. At the same time, he tripled state spending on education and health care and doubled the monthly payment for single mothers. In his two years as President, half the budget has been devoted to the social sector.

In September last year, Correa got the countrys Constitution amended to give the government more powers to implement its socialist projects and to ensure that the proceeds from the sale of hydrocarbon deposits go to the exchequer. The government gets 40 per cent of its budget from the petroleum industry. Correa once said that the oil multinationals took four out of five barrels they produced and left only one for the country. The new Constitution gives the President control over the central bank, and allows a President to serve two consecutive four-year terms.

The 2008 Constitution guarantees free education through university. The document is considered one of the most progressive of its kind in the world. It guarantees the rights of the indigenous people, legalises the rights of gay people to a civil union and has strong provisions to protect the environment.

In the April elections, the 46-year-old Correa won 51.7 per cent of the votes, handily defeating his closest opponent, Lucio Gutierrez, a former President. To avoid a run-off, the winning candidate has to cross the 50 per cent mark or get 10 per cent more votes than his closest rival. Gutierrez, a former army officer and coup leader, could get only 28.4 per cent of the vote. Elections to the National Assembly and those for governors and mayors were held simultaneously with the presidential election. Correas Alianza Pais (Proud and Sovereign Fatherland) Party won the majority of the seats and gubernatorial and mayoral posts.

After his victory, Correa pledged to his supporters that his government would eradicate misery and leave a more just, fair and dignified country. Thirty-eight per cent of the population is mired in poverty, and mostly indigenous people constitute this section. Socialism, of course, will continue. The Ecuadorian people voted for that, he said. He went on to add that his government had never hidden its ideological orientation. He emphasised that the fight for social justice would go on. The subsidies for the poor, along with the substantial investments in health, education and infrastructure, will continue despite the difficulties the economy is facing owing to the global meltdown, the President said. His government started giving a stipend of $30 a month to 1.3 million of the countrys poor households. Ecuador has a population of 14 million.

Correa, a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Illinois, first burst on the political scene when he served briefly as Finance Minister in the government of President Alfredo Palacio in 2005. In his five months as Finance Minister, he focussed on poverty alleviation and economic sovereignty. He also spoke out against the proposed free trade agreement with the United States and called for closer cooperation with Latin American countries such as Venezuela. He quit his post citing lack of cooperation from the President for his economic policies. After his resignation, a poll showed that more than 60 per cent of Ecuadorians trusted him.

Correa stood for the presidency in the elections that followed, in 2006, and won despite having entered politics only a few years before. His chief rival then was the banana magnate Alvaro Noboa. Despite trailing in the first round, Correa overcame the well-oiled election machinery of his rival, who had the backing of Washington and a lot of money to spend. After the new Constitution was adopted last year, Correas first term had to be cut short as he had to face the electorate to start a fresh term. Noboa was a candidate this year too but managed to get only 11 per cent of the votes.

Correa, who is an admirer of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the Cuban revolution, prefers to describe himself as a humanist and a Christian of the Left. After Chavez famously compared President George W. Bush to the devil in a speech at a United Nations summit two years ago, Correa, when asked for his reaction, said that the comment was unfair to the devil. However, Correa has not yet joined the expanding regional grouping, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), promoted by Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia. ALBA is being promoted as an alternative to the free trade bloc policies being dictated from Washington. Correas priority so far has been on domestic policies. With a new incumbent in the White House, Ecuador would like to open a new chapter in bilateral relations with the U.S.

Ecuador expelled two U.S. diplomats from the country earlier in the year for their unacceptable meddling in the internal affairs of the country. Ecuador has established cordial diplomatic and trade links with countries such as Iran. Ecuador signed a big defence deal with Iran after the raid by Colombian forces into its territory last year. It has begun to diversify its sourcing of defence hardware. Now it buys hardware from countries such as Russia, China and also India. It has placed orders for Indian-made Advanced Light Helicopters.

Correa has been viewed with increasing suspicion after he announced late last year that the lease on the U.S. military base in Manta was not being extended. At the beginning of his first term, he said that the U.S. could retain the Manta base if the Ecuadorian military was given a base in the U.S. State of Florida. Washington thought that Correa was only posturing. But the U.S. has been ordered to vacate the Manta base by the end of the year.

Manta is considered the most important American military base in the region, but Ecuadorians consider the presence of American troops on their soil a threat to their sovereignty and security. Correa had pledged to close the base after he first took office in 2007. Last year, Correa dismissed his Defence Minister along with the commanders of the air force and the army. He said at the time that the countrys defence establishment was totally infiltrated and subjugated to the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency].

Correa further angered Washington by allowing Ecuadorian courts to decide on a multi-billion-dollar suit against the American-owned Chevron oil company. The company has been accused of dumping billions of gallons of toxic pollutants into the pristine streams and rivers of Ecuadors Amazon forests. Correa has not yet moved to nationalise the countrys oil industry but he wants the current terms renegotiated. The big oil firms are finding out that he is a tough negotiator and are threatening to move out.

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