Saturday, May 2, 2009

Ecuador: Correa says re-election 'a vote for socialism'

Ecuador's left-wing President Rafael Correa was re-elected on April 27 in the small Andean nation.
Correa, a 46-year old radical economist and self-described socialist, won 52% of the vote, 24 points ahead of his nearest rival. He became the first candidate to win in the first round of a presidential poll since Ecuador emerged from dictatorship in 1979.
Former president Lucio Gutierrez — overthrown by mass protests in 2005 against his right-wing policies and corruption — won only 28% of the vote. Ecuador's richest man — banana magnate Alvaro Noboa —got 11%.
In National Assembly elections, held simultaneously, Correa's party Allianza Pais ("Country Alliance") appears to have won a majority 64 of 124 seats. Other left-wing parties —including the Movement for Popular Democracy and the indigenous party Pachakutik — won a further 15 seats.
"This revolution is on the march and nobody and nothing can stop us", Correa said. "At last power is in the hands of its legitimate owners, the Ecuadorian people and above all the poorest of our people."

Correa said the victory showed "a great backing for the political project of 21st century socialism at the national and regional level", referring to the anti-imperialist regional bloc led by left-wing governments in Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia.
The election victories strengthen Correa's project for a "citizen's revolution" to rebuild the country. It was triggered by the adoption of a new popular constitution, approved with more than 60% support in a referendum last September.
The constitution grants new economic and social rights, grants the environment legal rights of protection, and extends the right to vote to soldiers, police and prisoners. It also lowers the voting age to sixteen.
It also includes a democratic mechanism allowing all elected official to be recalled mid-term, like similar constitutions adopted in Venezuela in 1999 and Bolivia in 2009. It allows Correa to run for a second term in 2013.

Correa elected to the presidency in October 2006 promising to bring stability to Ecuador, end the poverty afflicting half the population and to lead Ecuador out of what he calls the "long dark night of neo-liberalism".

Ecuador had no less than eight presidents in the previous decade, none completing their first term. Three were driven out by popular uprisings after reneging on promised reforms and dragging Ecuador deeper into debt.
By contrast, Correa has followed through on many of his election promises. Welfare payments and the minimum wage have been increased. The US has to leave the Manta Air Base, on Ecuador's coast. Since January 2007, government spending on health and education has tripled.
Last December, Ecuador also defaulted on US$3.2 billion in foreign bonds — almost one third of its debt — on grounds the debt, collected by previous corrupt, anti-people governments, was invalid.
Ecuador conducted an audit of its considerable foreign debts, and a public commission found them "illegal" and "illegitimate".
Correa has since threatened more defaults, as well as proposing to buy back all of its global 2012 and 2030 bonds at only 30% of their face value.
Ecuador's economy is heavily reliant on mining — especially oil, which accounts for 40% of its budget. Oil infrastructure has deteriorated after years of neglect, leading to loss of revenue and harmful oil spills in fragile jungle ecosystems.
Despite this, Correa has declared Ecuador's largest oil field — beneath the Yasuni National Park — will stay untouched to preserve the irreplaceable ecosystems in the region.
Nonetheless, Correa has been criticised for supporting expanded mining, especially for copper and gold. Environmental groups and the country's powerful indigenous federation the CONAIE, (which represents the 40% of Ecuador who are indigenous) have launched a series of protests and court cases against new mining leases.
These groups are also angry that local communities have no right of veto over mining projects in their area, which have caused horrific environmental and social damage.
Mining companies often intimidate local communities opposed to their activities.
More than 30,000 people are suing oil giant Chevron for $16 billion in damages after dumped toxins caused cancer, birth defects and huge environmental damage in large swathes of the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Ecuador's weak economy has also made it vulnerable to the global economic crisis. Unemployment has risen to 8.6%.

Correa's response — a US$200 million anti-crisis package — is aimed at securing jobs and creating a further 80,000 positions as well as training opportunities, rather than simply buttressing corporate profits.
Despite these challenges, Correa maintains almost 70% popularity. Political scientist Pablo Andrade said: "The lower classes feel vindicated, as Correa has proven to be a good avenger against the oligarchy."

First published in Green Left Weekly, May 2, 2009.

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