February 14, 2013 5:16 pm

Firebrand Correa on road to third term

Rafael Correa©Reuters

High in the Ecuadorean Andes, along a new highway leading to the indigenous village of Zumbahua, a billboard reads: “Forbidden to forget. The Citizens’ Revolution built this road.”

This once-isolated cluster of adobe shacks now boasts a free internet point and a school with projection touch-screens – all paid for by the “Citizens’ Revolution” of President Rafael Correa, one of Latin America’s most outspoken leftwing leaders.

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A 40-point poll lead suggests that Ecuador’s voters have not forgotten. Indeed, Mr Correa, a US-trained economist with a doctorate from the University of Illinois, is expected to win a third term in Sunday’s presidential election, and to beat the second-placed candidate – Guillermo Lasso, a banker – by a landslide.

Alongside an expanded power base in Congress, victory will allow Mr Correa to deepen his socialist agenda, and is likely to give the 49-year old a bigger role in the regional ALBA coalition of leftist leaders, especially if the cancer of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela proves to be terminal.

Mamma mia! He and his works are so popular,” says Father Pio Baschirotto, an Italian missionary who came to the region 40 years ago and has since become Mr Correa’s de facto moral adviser.

A savvy political operator, Mr Correa has built a solid support base since he first became president in early 2007 by boosting government spending by 15 per cent in real terms.

Health and education programmes, plus cash-transfer schemes, have cut the poverty rate to 34 per cent of the population, from 52 per cent a decade ago, according to World Bank statistics.

“The recurrent theme in his papers was scepticism of neoliberalism,” recalls Professor Werner Baer, Mr Correa’s doctoral adviser. “He is not against the market, but trying to influence the market – to see what the state can do to create a more equitable society.”

Aggressive anti-US rhetoric, including the closing of a US military base, and Wall Street showdowns, such as a 2008 default on $3.2bn of bonds – which Ecuador subsequently bought back at 35 cents to the dollar – have bolstered his image as a populist crusader, akin to Mr Chávez.

Nonetheless, “Correa is not just political muscle and lots of politicking, like Chávez,” says Franklin Ramírez, a sociologist at FLACSO university in Quito. “Correa is about execution and long-term reforms.”

All this has helped to make Mr Correa Ecuador’s longest-serving president for three decades and brought welcome political stability to one of Latin America’s most fissiparous states. (In the decade before he won power, Ecuador had eight presidents – three of them ousted by popular revolts.)

But that stability also has a dark side. Critics accuse him of bullying and of having a short temper, akin to President Cristina Fernández of Argentina.

Mr Correa once threatened to dissolve Congress and rule by decree if his party did not unconditionally support a controversial law. In September 2010, he was held hostage in what he branded a failed coup after a standoff with the police over pay.

Business leaders call his expansion of the state in the economy “franchise socialism” and accuse it of fostering corruption.

Inevitably, his firebrand attitude has deepened pockets of hostility – and not just among businesses, such as the Brazilian state oil company Petrobras, which pulled out of Ecuador in 2010.

“Correa’s project has become very personalised and authoritarian,” says Humberto Cholango, a Quechua indigenous leader now disenchanted with the president.

The president has also sued critical journalists. According to Fundamedios, a local media body, Ecuadorian journalists suffered 111 “aggressions” from the state last year. That did not stop Mr Correa from giving Julian Assange – the WikiLeaks founder wanted for police questioning in Sweden – refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

“Giving asylum to the standard-bearer of the free press was a stroke of genius to counterbalance Correa’s attacks on the local media,” one government official told the Financial Times.

Another weak point is the economy. Pedro Delgado, the president’s cousin, stepped down as head of the central bank last year after confessing he did not have a university economics degree.

The government has said, meanwhile, that it needs about $6bn to finance hefty public expenditure this year – equivalent to 7 per cent of Ecuador’s forecast gross domestic product.*

That spending has been covered by $7bn of borrowings from China, backed by Ecuadorian oil revenues, which account for 60 per cent of exports – a figure highlighting the country’s vulnerability to oil prices.

The president’s aggressiveness worries Fr Baschirotto. The two men met in the early 1980s when Mr Correa spent a year as a volunteer teacher in Zumbahua. When the president campaigned in the village recently, the Roman Catholic priest took him aside.

“He is a good man,” says the white-bearded priest. “But I told him to ease it down and be careful about amassing too much power.”

* This article has been amended from the original, which had mistakenly referred to a fiscal deficit equivalent to 7 per cent of Ecuador’s $76bn gross domestic product.

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