Rafael Correa, An Anti-Obama in Ecuador?

Latin American elections always seem to get it these days. Western journalists cannot deny an opportunity to pass without throwing some stones. So it was hardly surprising when the words “dictator”(Reuters, BBC) and “handouts”(USA Today, CBS News) were thrown into the hastily assembled reports on the election in “tiny”, read: insignificant,[i] Ecuador and the results turned out to be heavily in favor of the “anti-American” candidate.

It’s interesting to look at each of these terms to see the duplicitous nature of Western reporting. For example, the word dictator should hardly apply to Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian President comfortably reelected. That is unless you enjoy the use of hyperbole for dramatic effect. As they say, if it bleeds… and Latin American blood is always especially crimson in the grey of the New York Times and its counterparts. Except President Correa in Ecuador has killed no one. He has started zero wars, tortured or killed zero citizens, and while he may have a “pugnacious” (Reuters again) attitude how else could one realistically expect a politician to survive in the 21st century.

Here’s what you need to know. Rafael Correa was a nobody on the political scene in Ecuador when George W. Bush was being inaugurated for the second time in Washington 8 years ago. I know. It’s not polite to bring up such ugly episodes in US history but allow me to refresh your memory for a second. Bush just beat the current Secretary of State John Kerry in the November election and presumed he had a mandate. He was talking about going after Social Security. The left, right and center were paying close attention. It turns out though, that Bush’s victory was an incredibly narrow one, with allegations of strange occurrences in Ohio, people being forced to wait in line for hours around the country and corporations spending ever more on getting their representatives elected.[ii] All in all, the result was a US democracy looking less and less like an established fact, and more and more like some kind of disturbing case of regression back into the “good old days” of black, brown, poor, and those with some form of exploitable vulnerability being prevented from voting because they were black, brown, poor or vulnerable. No matter though. Both Kerry and Bush were rather familiar politicians, both extremely wealthy, both went to Yale and both even played in the same dark dungeons there.[iii] How nice!

Meanwhile, Rafael Correa was a nobody on the Ecuadorian political scene back then. Journalists would have found no reason to write about him, negatively or otherwise. Then, the Ecuadorian people had grown tired of dirty politics and politicians once and for all it seemed. Various social groups came together including natives from the highlands and lowlands and leftists who were inspired by Chavez in Venezuela, Lula in Brazil, Kirchner in Argentina, and Morales in Bolivia. They decided to throw out a president they called Sucio (Dirty) Lucio. Lucio Gutierrez was an alright guy in their eyes back in the year 2000 when he was in military fatigues and had decided to lend his hand to the social movements that were stirred up by a terrible economic crisis that featured dollarization of the economy. If you live in the US and wondered what happened to all your dirty old dollar bills, then dollarization could help you understand.

In 1999, the country was told by economists from the US and those benevolent monetary institutions, the IMF and World Bank, that its sucre currency was especially filthy lucre and needed to be thrown out. In turn, they could start using the US dollar and be happier for it. One problem though was that anyone with any small amount of savings in the bank were practically wiped out. So along came Sucio Lucio with some supporters behind him, ready to say ¡Ya Basta! but it turned out that he was only playing nice. Actually, Sucio Lucio was destined for bigger and better things than low or highland “Indians”. He had a date with George W. from Yale. How exciting!

Eventually, the people of Ecuador were stirred up once again and decided to take to the streets one more time. The legislature would have to take decisive action. The rest, as they say, is history. Lucio Gutierrez would be removed from office, albeit in a very civilized way, and his vice President Alfredo Palacio would take over. The man who would temporarily be in charge of the government in Quito was a medical doctor by trade. He would reportedly told BBC Journalist Greg Palast, our former boss, that if the IMF really made the Andean country pay the debt they said Ecuador owed, then they would not survive. This story isn’t about him though. It’s about the colorful and confident, if not pugnacious, finance minister he chose for a brief stint in 2005. This man subscribed to the views of Ha Joon Chang and other heterodox economists who pointed out that the West was “kicking away the ladder” when it came to advice on how to run an economy. His name was Rafael Correa!

Correa would then go on to run for president himself and surprise everyone by whipping the ever-persistent banana magnate and #1 wealthiest man in the country. Alvaro Noboa is the man behind Bonita bananas and he believed Ecuador should proudly continue in the path of the banana republicanism that it was known for. He felt so strongly about this that he was to run for president five times and not be deterred by his lack of success.[iv] Correa disagreed and so did the Ecuadorian people. The West was, wait for it now, flabbergasted. How could this be? Oh, that’s right! It was because Latin Americans like to elect populists who in turn like to screw up economies, and then who like to head for Miami or Zurich or some other safe haven. So the story goes.

Correa was not your typical populist in the sense that he actually knew a bit about what he was doing. He had studied in the US but he didn’t leave with tears in eyes, saying he’ll never forget those wonderful Yankees. He came back home like many Ecuadorians would love to do, and he did so with a plan. [Note: the country’s economy has been tragically dependent on remissions, with Ecuadorian migrants propping up the likes of Western Union and filling the squares of Madrid, Rome and other European cities on Sunday to celebrate their only day off.]

Correa’s plan was to save the economy of Ecuador by putting into place the economic programs so rarely enacted but superior in every way to the IMF Structural Adjustment Plans (SAPs) that economists love to talk about. There would be no more borrowing to pay off loans. There would be no more privatizing to place premiums on necessities such as water, electricity, gas and oil. Correa would reverse course and, six years later, Ecuador is celebrating their democracy with pride. While I do not wish to be overzealous and depict a knight in shining armour, most of the people are very happy with their president. They respect him and they even care about politics with him at the helm. This includes young and the old, the poor and the middle class, the black, brown and white.

I know. You’re thinking I’ve heard all this before. Obama was standing in DC reciting his passionate inaugural speech only weeks ago. Tears, though not as many as in 2008, were flowing and Obama supporters were saying it was time to get busy. Electoral politics is a sham but let’s give the Ecuadorian people and the government some credit here. The election appeared well-organized and peaceful. The winner was an incumbent with a plan to continue to try to revitalize the economy by giving ordinary everyday people a chance at living a life devoid of the desperation that comes with deep impoverishment. They are investing in social programs like healthcare, education, grassroots cooperatives, and even trying to mitigate serious environmental problems. In an article in The Guardian, the Indian economist Jayati Ghosh has called Ecuador the most radical and exciting place on earth as a result.[v]

Since Correa first took office in early 2007, he got a lot of interesting things done. He defaulted on Ecuador’s debt (that his predecessor swore would be the death of the country).[vi] He kept his campaign promise to evict the United States military from their base at Manta. He set about correcting some serious problems with the constitution by leading a team to draft a new one. This new constitution would be the first to provide rights to the environment, that is, rivers, lakes, and forests in Ecuador have rights and can be legally defended. He also sponsored a plan to keep the oil in the soil with the Yasuni Initiative, a plan to attract investors whose funds would be used to not extract oil.[vii] The plan and the constitution were hailed as trailblazing. Imagine all that from a dimunitive nation like Ecuador. He also declared solidarity with the plaintiffs in the Amazon against a shameless US corporation[viii] (Texaco, now Chevron), whose refusal to act with minimal responsibility when drilling for oil and to clean up after itself has led to serious problems with the land and its inhabitants.[ix] He even invited Julian Assange to come down and live, so he could be sheltered from those countries (Sweden, Australia, the US) willing to destroy liberties to avoid the frightening idea of the free flow of information.

This is not to say that all is rosy. There are plenty of problems that must be dealt with. As in Venezuela and the United States, crime is a serious problem. People are worried about the executive branch having too much power. Mining in the country is deemed necessary by the government but the people that live in areas that will be affected need to have a seat at the table. Furthermore, Correa’s style can offend. His former ally, Alberto Acosta, broke with him because he feared that the president’s ego and quest for power was becoming too much. The progressive constitution the country’s assembly had written was being manipulated by the president in a quest to maintain and increase his power. He was backing down on some of the promises he made about the environment and was increasingly intolerant of dissent. Acosta was challenging him from the left and we can hope that the pressure he applies will keep the president in check and even set agendas like third parties should be able to do. Acosta, who called Correa “the sun-king of the 21st century” claiming that he controls everything,[x] appeared not to have a significant following in the election with only 3.4% of the vote, less than the banana magnate Noboa and Sucio Lucio Gutierrez (yes, both really did run again). His main competition, Lasso with around 22.5% of the vote, was a banker and it was really no contest at all.

It does seem that Correa has broken a lot less promises than President Obama. It also appears that he is probably not going to lock up whistleblowers, kill his own citizens, make a mockery of the citizens’ increasingly undermined civil liberties invade countries for “humanitarian purposes” like Bush and Obama have done. Rather, it seems like he is willing to stand up and count when it matters, like when an oil company poisons a significant portion of the country (BP flavored shrimp anyone?) or when bankers try to get their way by ruthlessly insisting that austerity simply must be carried out. There is an alternative and there shall always be one. Promises should be kept sometimes at least. ¡Viva la revolucion ciudadana in Ecuador and everywhere!

Adam Chimienti is a teacher and a doctoral student originally from New York. He can be reached at ajchimienti@gmail.com. Carmen L. Arias can be reached at karmenarias@gmail.com

[i] The Washington Post and Daily Mail, amongst others, recently used the adjective tiny, to describe Ecuador, roughly the size of Nevada.

[ii] For a summary of these problems that for the most part have yet to remedied see http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/24/national/24vote.html

[iii] Remember Skull and Bones: see this 60 Minutes “Skull and Bones,” http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-576332.html

[iv] Alvaro Noboa likes to fashion himself as a philantropist http://www.alvaronoboa.org/2011/03/alvaro-noboa-helping-hand.html but critics contend that he uses the social funds for political purposes when running for office according to his Wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%81lvaro_Noboa#cite_note-9. Human Rights Watch has cited him for widespread abuse of labor and for child labor. See http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2002/04/24/ecuador-widespread-labor-abuse-banana-plantations

[v] Jayati Ghosh. “Could Ecuador be the most radical and exciting place on earth?” The Guardian 19 January 2012 online at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2012/jan/19/ecuador-radical-exciting-place, accessed 18 June 2012.

[vi] For more on the default and the reasoning behind it see Neil Watkins and Sarah Anders. “Ecuador’s Debt Default,” Foreign Policy in Focus December 15, 2008 at http://www.ipsdc.org/articles/ecuadors_debt_default_exposing_a_gap_in_the_global_financial_architecture accessed online on 18 May 2012 and an article titled “Ecuador declares foreign debt illegitimate,” published as an entry in the series Project Censored. Accessed online at http://www.projectcensored.org/top-stories/articles/10-ecuador-declares-foreign-debt-illegitimate/

[vii] John Vidal. “Can Oil Save the Rainforest?” 19 January 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jan/20/can-oil-save-the-rainforest, accessed 19 January 2013.

[viii] According to a transcript from an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! on 29 June 2009, http://www.democracynow.org/2009/6/29/ecuadoran_president_rafael_correa_on_global, accessed on 21 September 2012.

[ix] William Langeweische. “Jungle Law,” Vanity Fair May 2007, http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2007/05/texaco200705, accessed 1 October 2012.

[x] See BBC News Election coverage http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-21379601

Adam Chimienti is a teacher and a doctoral student originally from New York. He can be reached at ajchimienti@gmail.com.