by Michael K. Smith
Don't look now, but there's a Ph.D. economist running the government in Ecuador, and for once the doctorate degree does not stand for "permanent head damage." A self-described "humanist" and "Christian of the left," Rafael Correa is well embarked on a program of people-first social development designed "to overcome 20 years of a long and sad neoliberal night." He blames the "Washington Consensus" - U.S.-backed free market policies - for the region's economic ills, states forthrightly that dollarization has been the worst economic mistake in Ecuadorean history, has cut ties to the IMF and World Bank, is restructuring the national debt, has threatened to sue private banks for charging what he regards as exorbitant interest rates, and set up a Truth Commission to look into human rights abuses of the 1980s and 1990s. In the Cold War he would have been denounced as a Communist; today, he's denigrated as a "populist" and "authoritarian," as though there were something wrong with decisive leadership on behalf of a democratic majority.
Unenthused at the greed-is-good ethic championed by the "Colossus of the North," one of his first decisions after taking office in January was to double cash transfers to the poor, from $15 to $30 a month. He also declared a state of emergency in Ecuadorean health, education, and agriculture, helping unblock hundreds of millions of dollars in reserve funds formerly set aside to pay the public debt, but which now, in Correa's words, "pay the social debt." Naturally, Ecuadorean bonds took a beating on Wall Street, and the new president was soon asked what he intended to do about nervous investors. Correa responded: "If country risk goes up because of speculators worrying over our ability to pay the debt, I don't care. The country risk I care about is children suffering. If they're (investors) nervous, let them take a Valium."
In short, his anti-imperial heresy was apparent from the beginning, when he promised to tighten banking regulations to prevent capital flight, as well as retrieve $2 billion he said Ecuadorean banks had on deposit in the U.S.. "They want us to get on our knees begging for foreign investment when our own banks send money to Miami," he said. "We're financing foreigners and that's unacceptable." He promised to "put a tax on foreign speculation . . . including capital flight," but indicated direct foreign investment in Ecuador was welcome and said he had no plans to seize private property. "The only ones seizing anything," he pointed out, "are the bankers and financial speculators when they froze banking accounts in 1999."
In foreign relations Correa has aligned Ecuador with proponents of "21st century socialism" in Latin America, calling Hugo Chavez his friend, but rejecting any notion that the Ecuadorean people aren't to be masters in their own house. In fact, corrupt influence on national policy continually arouses his wrath. In early May he warned that tax evasion would no longer be tolerated and asked for support from the people to put an end to it. On a Saturday morning radio address he observed that in Ecuador "someone begins working in customs and in two months has more cars and houses, and everyone knows that he's stealing, but nothing happens." He said that the most honest countries are not those with the most police and anti-corruption laws, but those that make social pariahs of people who put their consciences up for sale. He also attacked the endemic corruption in the Ecuadorean Parliament, helping to mobilize popular support for a referendum calling for a Constituent Assembly, which passed by an 82% majority in April. Members of the new body will be elected this September 30, after which a new Constitution is to be drawn up. This is necessary, Correa maintains, in order to depoliticize the state, reorganize the Congress, and establish systems of autonomy.
Initially, Correa anticipated that the Constituent Assembly would serve alongside the existing Parliament, but in recent months he has concluded that the plutocratic body is beyond redemption and simply has to be dissolved. He has repeatedly berated it for being obsolete, horrifyingly corrupt, a den of thieves, controlled by a political mafia, and a disgrace to the country. He's so disgusted with its performance that he says he has no further interest in what it does, that he plans to work exclusively with the 58% majority that elected him. Recent polls put Correa's approval rating at 63%, although in his July 21 radio address Correa claimed an independent foreign polling firm reports that 82% rate his performance as either good or excellent.
Unlike Democrats in the U.S., who collapse at the first sign of Republican attack, Correa rises to the occasion when targeted by his opponents. In April, his chief legislative antagonist, Luis Almeida, attempted to embarrass him by announcing that Correa's father had been imprisoned for smuggling drugs to the U.S.. Correa responded with a lesson on capitalist economics. "I don't have anything to hide from the Ecuadorean people. I had a very hard childhood, and, at five years old, my unemployed father was imprisoned for three-and-a-half years for transporting drugs into the U.S." Dismissing Almeida as a "bastard" for attempting to use such forty year old news to political advantage, he pointed out that a five-year-old boy has no responsibility for what his father does, and then flatly refused to apologize on his father's behalf. "I don't condemn my father, I think he was a victim of the system, like so many others; my father wasn't a criminal, he was unemployed and desperately seeking to feed his family." He added that those who merit condemnation are not the small fry who rot in jail for years for the "crime" of trying to support their children, but the huge drug barons who traffic with impunity.
In May, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte paid a diplomatic call on Correa. While Ecuadorean protesters chanted "assassin" at Negroponte, who directed Washington's terrorist war against Nicaragua in the 1980s and is currently a key player in the "war on terror," Correa informed him that it was necessary to end the mercantilism characterizing U.S.-Ecuadorean diplomatic relations. Correa explained to the blood-soaked "dignitary" that Ecuador's planned Constituent Assembly was designed to recover Ecuadorean national sovereignty, as well as democratize and depoliticize the Ecuadorean state. His Secretary of State, Maria Fernanda Espinosa, told him that Correa didn't accept the principles of "Free Trade," and that the signing of a free trade agreement would be very damaging to small farmers and other Ecuadorean interests. She added that Correa insisted on the fact that Ecuador was embarked on a path of authentic social transformation and that there couldn't be political democracy without economic democracy. Since these are policies all too reminiscent of the Sandinista Nicaragua Negroponte worked so diligently to destroy, one can only hope that Correa's security is as tight as IMF loan requirements.
In a meeting with European Union ambassadors the day after his discussions with Negroponte Correa stated that the logic of mercantilism - the endless drive for profit and increased market share - was "one of the principal enemies of development." He denied that the Constituent Assembly was intended to allow him to rule by decree, as he had been accused of trying to do, but rather, would draw up a new Constitution that would reform political and economic institutions so that there would be governability and accountability, a real democracy, and a more just and participative economy. Justice, democracy, accountability, and public participation in government. Has he no shame?
No friend of Big Oil, Correa has undertaken a campaign to return national oil wealth to the people, rather than foreign investors. He objects to the practice of foreign oil companies taking four barrels of oil for every one they leave to Ecuador, and is fighting to reverse this ratio, which was the prevailing ratio 36 years ago when Ecuador first started producing oil. He has also accused Texaco of crimes against humanity for its pollution of the Amazon, which he says is 30 times worse than the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. He is backing a $6 billion lawsuit against Chevron (formerly Texaco) on behalf of indigenous people victimized by the pollution. On another oil front, he says he would understand if one of his cabinet ministers resigned in protest at a decision to drill the ITT reserve in ecologically sensitive Yasuni National Park, which may have to be done because of the large majority of Ecuadoreans forced to live in poverty. "Poverty is the principal danger to the environment," explains Correa, who is calling on the international community to compensate Ecuador for not drilling the ITT reserve.
As in Venezuela, media elites in Ecuador are aghast at Correa's program and attack him at every opportunity. In return, Correa denounces them as corrupt and habitual liars. On the dispute between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Radio Caracas Television, he says if an Ecuadorean T.V. station had supported a coup in Ecuador he wouldn't have waited for their license to expire before yanking it away from them. During the 2002 anti-Chavez coup, which RCTV backed, the network aired cartoons, giving no news about the kidnapping of Chavez.
Finally, Correa has a sense of humor, which is a refreshing surprise in a profession addicted to sound bite choreography. He once joked that the U.S. could keep its Air Force base at Manta as long as Ecuador could have a similar base in Miami, and called George W. Bush "a tremendously dimwitted president who has done great damage to his country and to the world." Asked his reaction to Hugo Chavez calling George W. Bush the devil, Correa conceded it was unfair - to the devil.
Correa's Vice-President, Lenin Moreno, stated recently that "the principal objective of the Ecuadorean government is to redistribute the wealth with equality and make participants of those groups that have always been marginalized." Moreno observed that Correa's efforts have won the confidence of Ecuadoreans and once again made the people believe in the presidency. In a region of the world that has experienced more than its fair share of Washington's policy of "Killing Hope," as dissident author William Blum calls it, that's no small achievement.
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