Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Ecuador: Washington frets over 'Bolivarian' candidate

The small oil-rich Andean country of Ecuador goes to the polls on October 15 to elect a new president. Normally, the US isn't too worried about who wins the presidential sash, as they usually end up dancing to Washington's tune. But this time things might be different.
 
Like most of its neighbours, Ecuador has experienced chronic levels of corruption and nepotism. But over the last decade, rather than tolerating this, the country has "lost" three presidents to popular uprisings. The Ecuadorian people have lost patience with politicians who spout rhetoric and "non-core" promises — so they chase them out of the country. 

The most recent in this line of ignominious hucksters was Lucio Gutierrez, who played a small role in the overthrow of President Jamil Mahuad in 2000. Sensing popular support for the progressive policies of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, a fiery critic of Washington, he styled himself as the Ecuadorian equivalent, got elected in 2002 — and then implemented US-friendly policies. 

In April 2005 this self-styled "dicto-crat" fled via helicopter from the roof of the presidential palace and protesters chased him down the airstrip. Simultaneously, the Congress "fired" him, only to find itself besieged by the same protesters chanting "they all must go". 

In such an unstable country, then, it may come as a surprise that a leading presidential candidate is not only campaigning to "re-found" the country via a referendum and constituent assembly — like Venezuela has done and now Bolivia is doing — but is arguing that it should be made easier to remove the president. 


That candidate is Rafael Correa, 43-year-old former finance minister, and economics lecturer at Quito's Catholic University. His last stint in government, under current caretaker President Alfredo Palacio, was abruptly ended with his forced resignation for attempting to restructure Ecuador's debt repayments and oil-industry in a way that put social needs — education, health and infrastructure — ahead of the international loan-sharks' profits. 

About half of Ecuador's export income comes from oil, yet, lacking the necessary refining infrastructure, it has to import petrol for domestic consumption. Meanwhile, over half of the country's 13 million people (one-third of whom are indigenous) continue to live in poverty. 

Correa, a friend of Chavez and a self-described "Bolivarian" (after Venezuela's "Bolivarian revolution"), sent shivers down the spines of Wall Street investors during a recent visit to the US. Correa suggested that if elected, he would consider an "Argentine-style" "restructure" of the country's enormous foreign debt — meaning a likely default — in order to finance social spending. 

He has been critical of the Ecuador-US relationship, particularly the unpopular proposed "free trade" agreement (negotiations stalled earlier this year after indigenous-led protests brought the country to a standstill), and the replacement in 2000 of Ecuador's currency with the US dollar. He also wants to re-negotiate Ecuador's oil contracts with foreign companies to increase state control. 

Worse still for Washington, the more radical Correa gets, the higher his approval rating. Over the last month, Correa's polling has surged from single digits to over 20%, putting him, as candidate for the Socialist Party-endorsed Alianza Pais ("Country Alliance"), just ahead of centre-left former vice-president Leon Roldos, only weeks out from the elections. The centre-right candidates, Social Christian Cynthia Viteri, and neoliberal "anti-corruption" billionaire banana baron Alvaro Noboa, are running at close to 10%. 

The main danger for Correa lies in a second round run-off vote. If no candidate receives over 40% with a 10% margin on October 15, the two leading candidates will contest the presidency in November. Forces concerned about Correa's rise — particularly the increasingly desperate Roldos — are counting on the right-wing votes in the second round to keep Correa out. 

The same thing happened in Peru earlier this year — the conservative vote, plus illegal US funding, came behind the "moderate left" candidate Alan Garcia to defeat radical left-nationalist Ollanto Humala in the second round. However, with half of Ecuadorians still undecided, there is a chance that one candidate may win outright. 

Correa is not relying on the elections alone, however. Having sworn to convoke a constituent assembly to "re-found" the country, his Country Alliance party has initiated a signature campaign to demand such an assembly, regardless of who is elected. The constitution requires 750,000 signatures to initiate a referendum. Correa's party are confident they will get over a million. 

The call for a constituent assembly has been a central demand of the social movements, to which Correa is directing much of his attention. He initially approached the main indigenous federation, CONAIE, for a running partner in the elections. CONAIE, and its political arm Pachakutik, declined, instead standing their own candidate, Luis Macas. 

After the internal crisis caused by their initial support for Gutierrez, the group is cautious about supporting another untested left-sounding politician. 

 First published in Green Left Weekly, September 27, 2006

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