People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


Vol. XXXIII

No. 20 

May 24, 2009

 

Ecuador: Left Ascendant

 

Yohanan Chemarapally

 

THE Leftward lurch in Latin American politics continues. The avowedly socialist president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa again won an emphatic victory in the general elections held in the last week of April. President Correa already had won an absolute majority in the Constituent Assembly that was elected last year. The other Latin American countries that have elected Leftist governments in recent years are El Salvador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Argentina, Honduras, Guatemala and Brazil. It is for the first time in many decades that a president has been re-elected for a second consecutive term in office in Ecuador.

 

Before Correa came on to the political scene in the beginning of the decade, the tumultuous politics of the country had witnessed as many as seven presidents come and go in the last decade. Correa became the first president to win re-election since 1972. “We have made history in a country where from 1996 to 2006 no democratic government completed its term”, Correa told his cheering supporters after the election results were out.  The squandering of the country’s bountiful natural resources by a greedy elite had alienated the masses from the political system.

 

Correa, a critic of neo-liberalism, had in his short first term in office, refused to pay part of the country’s huge foreign debt payments owed to the international financial institutions.  Ecuador has defaulted on 32 per cent of its $10.1 billion debt. Correa had severed the country’s relations with the IMF in 2007, describing the institution as “exploitative”. In November last year, Correa took the decision to stop the payment of $4 billion in foreign debt after the country’s independent Public Debt Audit Commission had concluded that the debt was illegally contracted when authoritarian governments were in control of the government.

 

The Ecuadorian president had said at the time that the IMF imposes conditions on developing countries while giving loans that benefit bankers and private businessmen at the expense of the poor. Correa has offered to buy Ecuador’s debt back at 30 cents to a dollar. He had also imposed tough protectionist measures to safeguard the country’s economy that was adversely affected because of the drastic fall of petroleum prices in the global market. At the same time he had tripled State spending on education and health care and doubled a monthly payment for single mothers. In his two years as president, half the budget has been devoted to the social sector.

 

In September last year, Correa had successfully got the country’s constitution amended to give the government more powers to implement its socialist project and ensure that the proceeds from the sale of hydro-carbon deposits go to the government exchequer. The government gets 40 per cent of its budget from the petroleum industry. Correa had once stated that the oil multinationals take four out of the five barrels they produce and leave only one for the country. The new constitution gives the president of Ecuador control over the central bank. Under the new constitution, a president can now seek two consecutive terms in office. 

 

Among other important progressive measures, the 2008 constitution guarantees free education through university. The document is being viewed as one of the most progressive in the world. It has guaranteed the rights of the indigenous people, legalised the rights of gay people to a civil union and strong provisions to protect the ecosystem.

 

In the April elections, the 46-year-old Correa won 51.7 per cent of the votes handily defeating his closest opponent, Lucio Gutierrez, a former president.  To avoid a second round run-off, the winning candidate had to cross the 50 per cent mark or get more than 10 per cent votes than his closest rival. Gutierrez, a former army officer and coup leader could get only 28.4 per cent of the vote. In the elections to the National Assembly as well as for governors and mayors, which were held simultaneously with the presidential elections, Correa’s Allianza Pais (Proud and Sovereign Fatherland) Party won the majority of the seats and the gubernatorial and mayoral posts.

 

After his victory, Correa pledged to his supporters that his government would “eradicate misery and leave a more just, fair and dignified country”. Around 38 per cent of the population are mired in poverty and most of them are indigenous people. “Socialism of course will continue. The Ecuadorian people voted for that”, he said. He went on to add that his government had never hidden its “ideological orientation”. He emphasised that the fight for social justice will go on. The subsidies for the poor, along with the substantial investments in the health, education and infrastructure sectors will be continued, the president has promised, despite the difficulties the economy is facing due to the global meltdown. His government had started giving a stipend of $30 a month to 1.3 million of the country’s poor households. Ecuador has a population of 14 million.

 

Correa, a PhD in Economics from the University of Illinois, had first burst upon the political scene when he served briefly as the finance minister in the government of president Alfredo Palacio in 2005. During his five months in office as finance minister, he had focussed on poverty alleviation and economic sovereignty. He had also spoken out against the proposed Free Trade Agreement with the US and had called for closer cooperation with Latin American countries like Venezuela. He quit his post citing lack of cooperation from the president for his economic policies. After his resignation from the finance minister’s job, a poll showed that more than 60 per cent of Ecuadorians trusted him.

 

Correa stood for the presidency in the elections that followed in 2006 and won despite having entered politics only a few years before. His chief rival then was the banana magnate, Alvaro Noboa. Despite trailing in the first round, Correa, to the surprise of many, defeated his rival who had the backing of Washington and a lot of money to spend. After the new constitution was adopted last year, Correa’s first term had to be cut short, as he had to face the electorate to start a fresh term. Noboa was a candidate this year too but managed to get only 11 per cent of the votes.

 

Correa, who is an admirer of Hugo Chavez as well as the Cuban Revolution however prefers to describe himself as a “humanist and a Christian of the Left”. After Chavez had famously compared president George W Bush to the Devil in a speech at the UN summit two years ago, Correa when asked for his reaction had said that the Venezuelan president’s comments were “unfair to the Devil”. However, Correa has not yet joined the expanding regional grouping, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), promoted by Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia. ALBA is being promoted as an alternative to the free trade bloc policies being dictated from Washington.

 

Ecuador had expelled two American diplomats from the country earlier in the year for their “unacceptable meddling” in the internal affairs of the country. The government was extremely upset when it discovered that senior army officials had informed the CIA of an impending cross-border attack by Colombian forces. President Correa has since overhauled the country’s defence set-up, purging key senior officials who had links with the CIA.

 

 

Correa has been viewed with increasing suspicion in Washington after he announced late last year that the lease on the US military base in Manta was not being extended. The US has been ordered to vacate the Manta base by the end of the year. It is considered the most important American military base in the region but Ecuadorians consider the presence of American troops on their soil as a threat to their sovereignty and security. President Correa had pledged to close the base after he first took office in 2006.

 

Correa has further angered the Washington establishment by allowing the Ecuadorian courts to decide on a multi-billion dollar suit against the American owned Chevron oil company. The company has been accused of dumping billions of gallons of toxic pollutants into the pristine streams and rivers of Ecuador’s Amazon forests. Correa has not yet moved to nationalise the country’s oil industry but he wants the current terms renegotiated.