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Alvaro Noboa is used to losing. Ecuador’s richest man first ran for the presidency in 1998. Although he qualified for the second round run-off, he was defeated by Jamil Mahuad, albeit in an election that many still believe was marred by fraud.
The billionaire banana magnate took another tilt at the presidency in 2002, losing again in the second round – to Lucio Gutiérrez, the young ex-colonel who had help to oust Mr Mahuad in a coup two years earlier.
On Sunday, 56-year-old Mr Noboa hopes to overturn his losing streak and beat Rafael Correa, a radical leftist, in a presidential run-off election. But old habits die hard. For the past month, Mr Noboa has led the polls by a 20-point margin but that gap narrowed sharply last week. The latest polls show Mr Correa only three points behind, placing the two candidates in a statistical dead-heat.
In a poll that gives voters contrasting visions of Ecuador’s future, Mr Noboa is the last hope of the Bush administration, Ecuador’s business sector, foreign investors and holders of Ecuadorean debt.
Whereas his rival – an ally of Hugo Chávez, the militantly anti-American president of Venezuela – proposes to shut down the US military’s base in Ecuador and permanently halt trade talks with Washington, Mr Noboa pledges to cut diplomatic ties with Venezuela and Cuba and improve relations with the US.
While Mr Correa wants to restructure debt, renegotiate contracts with foreign investors in the oil industry and protect sensitive industries through tariffs, Mr Noboa says he will respect all contracts and promises more foreign investment to create jobs. Much of Mr Noboa’s campaign is based on his status as an impresario. He operates 110 businesses in Ecuador and abroad – in sectors that include coffee, cardboard boxes, insurance and banking – and is estimated to be worth $1.2bn.
Many Ecuadoreans who support Mr Noboa cite his wealth as a reason to vote for him, saying he would be less tempted by corruption. But many more have been won over by his bonanza-style campaign. In every village he visits, Mr Noboa gives away computers, wheelchairs and sometimes cash. He also casts himself as a Messiah figure, invoking God’s help and clutching the Bible while on the stump.
His lavish habit is costly. In 2002, Mr Noboa was fined more than $2m for exceeding legal campaign spending limits and this year is facing a fine of $1.2m over a similar charge.
Yet his image as an entrepreneurial superstar is somewhat artificial: his $1.2bn personal wealth owes less to empire-building than to ruthless boardroom manoeuvring. It was Mr Noboa’s father, Luis, who built the family fortune. Luis Noboa was born into poverty and, according to lore, saw his own father killed in a riding accident. As a child he sold rags and magazines. But he was lucky enough to meet, and go into business with, the son of one of the country’s wealthiest families. At his death in 1994, Luis Noboa had built a business worth $800m.
Although three of his siblings were left $150m each, Alvaro received just $7.5m in the will. It took nine years for him to win control of his father’s banana business – the jewel of the Noboa empire – buying out one sister and forcing another off the board.
It is common in Ecuador to suggest that Mr Noboa’s desire to be president is fuelled by his need to prove that he can achieve something distinct from his father’s legacy. Not only is Mr Noboa far from being a self-made man but he also has a dubious record as a business leader. Human Rights Watch and other organisations claim he uses child labour on his banana plantations. Ecuador’s internal revenue service has also accused several of his companies of tax evasion.
Most analysts speculate that, if Mr Noboa wins the election, he will find it difficult to cling on to power in one of the most unstable countries in the region. Both his rivals in the previous presidential run-offs were forced out of office early by massive social unrest.
If that happens to Mr Noboa and – as is the tradition in Ecuador – he flees the country, he could always find solace among the US elite – he counts the actors Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins and members of the Kennedy clan among his friends.
Win or lose on Sunday, Mr Noboa could sooner or later find himself licking his wounds in Hollywood.