Thursday, November 30, 2006

Ecuador lurches to the left

Although an official annoucement isn't expected until sometime later today, it appears that Ecuador has a new president. Rafael Correa, a former government finance minster with a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Illinois, has apparently won Ecuador's presidential election, defeating right-wing "banana tycoon" Alvaro Naboa, reportedly Ecuador's weathliest citizen, in a run-off last Sunday.

Correa makes it clear that he is a leftist and is no friend of the Bush Adminstration. He says that he considers Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez a "personal friend." He has accused George W. Bush of being "dimwitted." He advocates major reforms in Ecuador, and has vowed to reduce payments on Ecuador's foreign debt (which currently sits at over $16 billion, fully half of the Andean nation's estimated 2005 GDP), which has led to jitters from Ecuador's debt holders on Wall Street. He has pledged to renegotiate the petroleum-producing nation's oil contracts with foreign firms to ensure that a larger portion of Ecuador's oil wealth is returned to the country. He is an opponent of the Free Trade of the Americas proposal put forth by the Bush Administration, and he wants to shut down the US military's anti-narcotics operations at an airbase near the coastal city of Manta.

So what does this mean for Ecuador? And what does it mean for the United States?

Given Ecuador's recent political history, my first question is if Correa will even manage to hold office for an entire four-year term. No elected president has been allowed to serve out an entire term of office since Boston-born Architect Sixto Duran Ballen completed his term in 1996; Ecuador's last three elected presidents were either dismissed by Ecuador's National Congress on the grounds of "mental incapacity" (Abdala Bucaram in 1997) or forced from office by popular demonstrations (Jamil Mahuad in 2000; Lucio Guiterrez in 2005). In this context, Correa walks a fine line; if his reforms are deemed too radical by Ecuador's influential, coastal-based aristrocracy, he could find himself in political jeopardy. Likewise, if he backtracks on some of his pledges or is not able to push forth reforms quickly enough, he could face a backlash from Ecuador's sizable poor, heavily-indigenous, highland-based population.

My second question is if Correa will be able to work within Ecuador's fractured and turbulent political environment to be able to make happen all (or even some) of the changes he proposes. It doesn't help Correa that his political party ran no candidates for Ecuador's National Congress, nor does it help that he's reportedly referred to the national assembly as a "sewer" that needs to be reformed. He has pledged to call for a national referendum to rewrite the constitution, a move that could possibly weaken, or even shut down, Congress. Needless to say, his platform probably won't be met with a great deal of enthusiasm within Ecuador's legislative branch. Conflicts with Ecuador's volatile National Congress have hobbled past presidents, and there's no reason to think that Correa will experience anything different, especially given his professed antagonism towards the national assembly.

But will Correa turn out to be another American-hating leftist in the mold of Hugo Chavez, or will he turn out to be a bit more pragmatic in his approach, as Bolivia's Evo Morales has apparently done? This article seems to suggest the latter. While he wants to renegotiate Ecuador's contracts with outside oil firms, he has indicated that he does not plan to nationalize the nation's oil industry. And, although he is a critic of Ecuador's six-year-old experiment in dollarization, he reportedly admits that it probably would not be feasible for Ecuador abandon its monetary policy at this point in time.

And what does all of this mean for the United States? On a strictly national level, probably not much. The political goings-on in impoverished (and relatively obscure) Ecuador, with is population of 13 million people, just isn't going to have a profound effect on the United States one way or another. The United States is Ecuador's largest trading partner and it can easily be argued the Ecuador needs the United States more than the United States needs Ecuador, regardless of what Ecuador's political leanings might be. The bigger question is what Correa's election means in a regional context; Britan's left-leaning newspaper, The Guardian, suggests that his election is another example of an irreversible, anti-American "red tide" sweeping though Latin America. This may indeed be the case. However, declarations made on the campaign trail are one thing; Correa's ability to push his leftist-leaning agenda through Ecuador's fractured and unstable political environment, let alone his ability to even maintain his office within the white-washed walls of the Palacio de Independencia in Colonial Quito, are another thing entirely.

Correa will be sworn in as president on January 15th. As an interested observer of Ecuador and its politics, I'll continue to pay close attention to what happens in this incredibly beautiful yet profoundly poor South American nation.

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