Rafael Correa: an Ecuadorian journey

Guy Hedgecoe
29 April 2009

Rafael Correa's landslide election victory on 27 April 2009 makes him the first candidate since Ecuador's return to democracy in 1979 to win a presidential vote outright in the first round. With the opposition divided and the resounding vote confirming his already formidable control of the Andean country, this left-leaning nationalist is the most dominant figure Ecuadorian politics has seen for decades.

Guy Hedgecoe is editor of the English-language edition of El Pais. He founded and edited the Ecuador Focus weekly bulletin, and reported the Andean region from Ecuador for CNN, National Public Radio, the Miami Herald and the Financial Times

Also by Guy Hedgecoe in openDemocracy:

"Losing Ecuador" (26 April 2005)

"Ecuador's energy-fuelled politics" (28 June 2006)

"Ecuador's election surprise" (17 October 2006)

"Ecuador: protest and power" (28 November 2006)

"Ecuador's politics of expectation" (1 February 2006)

"Ecuador's hyper-political wave" (30 September 2008)

The early results gave Correa around 52% of votes and his Alianza País party is close to holding a majority of the 124 seats in the newly created national assembly; it also controls many of the regional and municipal posts which were also at stake in this vote. A late surge by ex-president Lucio Gutiérrez - driven in great part by anti-Correa sentiment - saw the former army colonel take around 28% of votes. Ecuador's richest man, the magnate Álvaro Noboa, came in third with around 11%.

"This revolution is on the march and nobody and nothing can stop us", the 46-year-old president said, moments after exit polls showed he was the clear winner. "The people have given us the most splendorous victory of probably the last fifty years."

Correa's first presidential-election win in October 2006 was notable for his comparison of the run-off against the billionaire Noboa to a David vs Goliath struggle - with he as the biblical underdog. Now, the latest phase of a meteoric political trajectory barely four years old makes him the giant striding Ecuador's political landscape.

A path to power

The road to such dominance has been far from smooth for this child of an upper-middle-class yet struggling family in Ecuador's coastal city of Guayaquil. Privilege and entitlement are concepts he has become acquainted with only since his rapid political rise began. Most of the rest of Rafael Correa's life has been the story of a figure of talent and ambition - invariably the outsider - grasping precious opportunities and overcoming the odds.

An early such chance was afforded him by a family friend who paid for the young Rafael to attend an exclusive school in his native Guayaquil, where he excelled among the well-heeled boys around him. The benefactor's gesture was particularly welcome in light of a domestic situation overshadowed by an incident whose details Correa came to know only at the age of 18.

"I had a very tough childhood and when I was 5, my father, who was unemployed, took some drugs to the United States, was jailed and spent three years in prison", Correa recalled in April 2007 (after an opposition politician tried to embarrass him by revealing the story).

Some of the president's harsher critics have argued that this early trauma spawned in the young Correa a lifelong hatred of the United States and everything it stands for. The facts clearly belie this; the way he sought out and warmly talked with Barack Obama at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad & Tobago is but one indication. But his father's imprisonment and the situation it left his family in do appear to have marked his social outlook. "I have suffered [the problem of small-time drug traffickers] first-hand", Correa has said. "These people aren't criminals, they are single mothers or jobless people who desperately try to feed their families."

Correa rose above the experience to win a scholarship to study economics at Guayaquil's prestigious Católica University. After graduating, and while his contemporaries sought lucrative jobs in the relatively vibrant private sector of late-1980s Ecuador, Correa spent a year with a Salesian Catholic mission in the high-altitude, poverty-stricken area of Zumbahua in the central highlands, teaching local Indians and developing small businesses. His time there consolidated his strong religious faith; even today he keeps a photograph of the pope on his desk (next to pictures of Venezuela's leader Hugo Chávez and Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva).

Among openDemocracy's recent articles on the Americas:

Ivan Briscoe, "Argentina: a crisis of riches" (17 July 2008)

Celia Szusterman, "Argentina: celebrating democracy" (19 December 2008)

John Crabtree, "Bolivia: after the vote" (2 February 2009)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: a state of failure" (17 February 2009)

George Philip, "Hugo Chávez, oil, and Venezuela" (20 February 2009)

Julia Buxton, "Hugo Chávez: tides of victory" (20 February 2009)

Adam Isacson, "Colombia's imperilled democracy" (6 March 2009)

Victor Valle, "El Salvador's long march" (20 March 2009)

Kelly Phenicie & Lisa J Laplante, "Peru: the struggle for memory" (8 April 2009)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "Barack Obama's drug policy: time for change" (15 April 2009)

Ivan Briscoe, "The Americas and Washington: moving on" (17 April 2009)

Antoni Kapcia, "Raúl Castro and Cuba: reading the changes" (22 April 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The Dominican Republic: a time of ghosts" (23 April 2009)

The experience also gave him a working knowledge of the indigenous Quichua language and an understanding of the poverty that afflicts most of Ecuador's Indians, who make up around 40% of the population. Almost twenty years later, it was in Zumbahua that the tall mestizo chose to return and - wearing a poncho and indigenous cap - announce before a crowd of local Indians his decision to run for Ecuador's presidency.

Correa continued his economic studies through a scholarship to Louvain (Belgium), where he met his wife, and then by completing a doctorate at the University of Illinois. The market-oriented ideas of the "Chicago Boys" incubated nearby had been applied by Chile's government in the Augusto Pinochet era, but Correa became more interested in exploring the limits of neo-liberalism and how reforms of this type had hindered Latin America's development.

Those who knew Rafael Correa as a hardworking but unremarkable Ecuadorian economics student found his later transformation into a charismatic politician and "firebrand" national leader truly surprising. But some of the themes of his future political career were already visible in these years. Werner Baer, who taught Correa in Urbana-Champaign, remembers a talented and dedicated young man who understood the subtleties of the market but was particularly fascinated by income distribution. "He was always interested in how you can remedy the tremendous inequities in Latin America", Baer says. Indeed, Correa's doctoral thesis focused on how orthodox, market-based reforms - those rooted in the so-called Washington consensus - had increased the region's inequality.

Correa accepted a post at Quito's San Francisco University: once again in an alien environment, he found himself imparting his equality-based view of economics to some of the country's wealthiest and most pampered youngsters. Alongside this, he embarked on a career advising state and international agencies. The moment was fateful: in 2000, Ecuador's economy had started to collapse under a banking crisis reinforced by low oil prices and revenues, which forced the government of Jamil Mahuad to replace the local sucre currency with the US dollar. The titles of some of Correa's many academic papers from this time reflected his increasing political sensibility: "Ecuador: from absurd dollarisation to monetary union" and "More of the same: the economic policy of the government of Lucio Gutiérrez" are but two examples.

In 2005, Ecuador's political tumult saw its third president in less than a decade ousted amid chaos - this time Gutiérrez himself, helicoptered out of a presidential palace besieged by protesters angry at his administration's nepotism, corruption and meddling in the courts. The vice-president, Alfredo Palacio, succeeded Gutiérrez and offered Correa - who had been advising Palacio - the post of finance minister.

This first taste of political office lasted for just four stormy months, but this was long enough for Correa's "neo-structural" ideology to shine through. He cast doubt on the future of the dollar as the country's currency, ended a rainy-day fund for paying off public debt, and launched verbal tirades against multilateral lending agencies.

In the 2006 presidential-election campaign, Correa transformed himself from an unfancied candidate with little political experience into president-elect. The record of success has continued in the two years of his government: his position has been consolidated in four further victories: two referendums, a constituent-assembly vote, and now this overwhelming re-election triumph. The terms of the new constitution ratified in the 2008 referendums in effect cancel Correa's first two years as president, so he now embarks on a fresh four-year term as empowered as he has ever been.

A test to come

Rafael Correa's high-spending, socially-oriented and verbally abrasive style has flourished in the face of those who see him as a dangerous authoritarian. The long period of soaring oil prices has helped keep public opinion behind him, as has his successful campaign to undermine what he disparages as the "partidocracy" - traditional politicians and their parties.

But the next months are likely to be more challenging. The IMF predicts that the economy, which has been growing consistently in recent years, will contract by 2% in 2009. Correa's decision to default on the country's private debt and offer on 20 April to carry out a massively discounted buyback have won support among most Ecuadorians (who blame the debt burden for many of the country's woes); but this approach has riled Wall Street, and credit lines are closing down. The president's policy stance - anti-corporate rather than anti-American - has already hurt investment, especially in the crucial oil sector.

Moreover, as the force of the global economic crisis heads towards the world's biggest banana producer, Correa could well face a jarring clash between his self-proclaimed "leftist, humanist, Christian" ideology and his US-trained market-savvy over the issue of Ecuador's use of the US dollar as the national currency.

Correa sees the greenback's introduction as "a mistake", though he has repeatedly said that he will keep it. In political terms "dollarisation is very popular because it's seen as one of the few things which work in Ecuador", says Ramiro Crespo of Analytica Securities. Indeed, to break the link could carry the risk of hyperinflation and related maladies. At the same time "de-dollarisation" would allow Ecuador power over monetary policy and (perhaps equally important for this overt nationalist) give the country back a sovereign currency.

After a lifetime as the outsider, Rafael Correa is now on the inside. This is above all the product of his extraordinary life and political talent. So far he has had little reason to compromise his radical, single-minded vision. But in the coming months he is likely to have that resolve severely tested.

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