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
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
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
First published in Green Left Weekly, September 27, 2006