Leftist candidate wins Ecuador election

December 6, 2006

The Latin American left had its fifth electoral victory of the year on November 26, when Rafael Correa, a supporter of Venezuelan socialist President Hugo Chavez, won Ecuador's presidential run-off election with the largest margin in almost 30 years.

Correa, a former finance minister and economics lecturer, received 57% of the vote, defeating Alvaro Noboa, Ecuador's richest man, a fierce anti-communist, banana-plantation owner and advocate of neoliberal economics, and despite a slander campaign and outright bribes (including hand-outs of cash, computers and wheelchairs).

The mass mobilisation against Noboa by numerous social movements, and accusations by the New York-based Human Rights Watch and other organisations that the billionaire used child labour and strike-busting gangs on his plantations also helped to turn what looked like a close race into a rout.

Against the right-wing Christian populism of Noboa (who claimed God had sent him to defeat the "communist", "terrorist" Correa), his 43-year-old leftist rival advocated a platform for radical change — a "citizens' revolution" that promises to fundamentally change the Ecuadorian political landscape.

Correa's campaign pledges echoed many of the radical policies being implemented in Venezuela and Bolivia, as well as the demands of Ecuador's powerful indigenous movement for independent national development and social justice. He opposed a free trade agreement with the United States, advocated renegotiating contracts on Ecuador's vast oil reserves, as well as increased social spending on health, education, the environment and housing.

Correa called for raising the minimum wage and the closure of the US military base at Manta.

Significantly, Correa, who describes himself as a "humanist, leftist Christian", has echoed Chavez's call for a "socialism of the 21st Century", advocating both a regional currency and Latin American integration on the basis of social, rather than purely economic, needs. He is also fiercely critical of US President George Bush, the Iraq war, and of "free trade", which he describes as a "fraud".

While Ecuador is the second largest supplier of oil from the region to the US, over 60% of its 13 million inhabitants live below the official poverty line.

The country has long been hamstrung by an enormous foreign debt, amounting to 35% of its GDP, and suffers from a decaying infrastructure. Correa has said that Ecuador may have to default on some or all of its debt in order to provide essential services and repair its infrastructure.

Correa has also proposed renegotiating oil contracts in order to recuperate 85% of profits for social spending, and rejoining Ecuador to OPEC, which it left in 1993. Ecuador's oil industry is nationally owned, but foreign companies such as the US-owned Occidental Petroleum have been exploiting that wealth while terrorising indigenous communities and causing massive environmental damage.

Correa has also pledged to convene a constituent assembly to rewrite the country's constitution to give the president the power to fire the Congress, a body that Correa calls a "sewer" and that 97% of Ecuadorian voters consider to be mired in corruption, and to make all elected officals recallable. He has already initiated a referendum to this end, which would put power in the hands of community-based movements that represent Ecuador's excluded majority, rather than the traditional political parties, run by the small wealthy elite that has dominated Ecuador for decades.

The challenge facing Correa is significant, however, as his Alianza Pais (Alliance Country) movement ran no candidates for the unicameral Congress.

Facing a hostile Congress controlled by his right-wing opponents who could block proposed legislative reforms, and possibly impeach him, Correa is reaching out to potential allies in other parties who favour systemic change.

Correa's policies place him on a direct collision course with Ecuador's racist and wealthy elite, a course that he can only maintain with the support of the popular movements, which have overthrown three presidents in the past decade.

The strongest of these, the CONAIE federation, which represents the country's 40% indigenous population, has lent Correa conditional support. Its reservations stem from the betrayal of the previous president, Lucio Gutierrez, who broke similar promises, and was overthrown in April last year.

Many Ecuadorians remain sceptical about the ability of electoral politics to bring about meaningful reform — despite compulsory voting, 10% of ballot paper were left blank. Since his election, however, Correa has maintained his radical stance. He has promised to halve the presidential salary, and warned that if Congress tries to block proposed reforms he will convoke mass demonstrations to force it to obey the popular mandate

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