Correa, Chavez Comparison Unfair

(International Relations and Security Network, 03/10/2007)


Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa reflects a regional shift to the left of the political center, but he is not "just another Chavez" as many international media outlets have recently suggested.


On 30 September, Ecuadorians chose from among over 3,000 candidates for 130 seats in the country's Constituent Assembly. Although not official, the results point to a solid victory for Correa, whose party, Alianza Pais , may hold between 70 and 80 seats in an Assembly in which no more than 66 seats are required to hold a majority and thus quorum.


The president is set to lead his country into a future where Ecuador stands firm as a country not beholden to foreign investors or foreign power interests. He admits a certain amiable relationship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, but Correa is not likely to lead his county down the same path.


Like his Bolivian counterpart, Evo Morales, Correa places his country and constituency first. He seeks to do away with the clearly corrupt political elite that until his election arguably ruled over Ecuador with a negligence so thorough that the country saw a succession of seven presidents in 10 years.


According to the nongovernmental corruption watchdog Transparency International, Ecuadorians perceive their country as the third most corrupt in the region, just after Venezuela and Haiti.


By mandating that Ecuadorian natural resources return to the control of the government, Correa assures that companies such as Occidental Oil will not take advantage of relationships with corrupt politicians to break contracts while causing significant environmental damage to the traditional homelands of Ecuadorian indigenous tribes. For both reasons, the international oil company has been forced out of the country since Correa's inauguration.


Correa's idea to extend the number of presidential terms that can be served from one to two is consistent with regional norms, not a herald to his Chavez leniencies. It is not evidence of Correa's desire to remain in power beyond his mandate. Before the 30 September elections, Correa staked his presidency on the results, claiming that if his party did not take a majority he would step down graciously. Countries such as Brazil and most recently Colombia afford two terms for their democratically elected leaders.


And Correa has repeatedly claimed that Ecuador will hold general elections for the legislature and executive once the country's new constitution is drafted, voted upon and ratified by Ecuadorians. Elections could happen as soon as the second half of 2008.


The president's desire to dissolve the Congress for the duration of the Constituent Assembly is not a step toward authoritarianism; it is a politically pragmatic decision. He has closely watched Bolivia's tremulous Constituent Assembly and likely wants to avoid the pitfalls that have plagued Morales, including a very present opposition rooted in the legislature that has worked to stymie that Assembly at every turn.


Preempting the possible label of totalitarian, Correa will form a congressional standing committee, formed by current representatives, to maintain the necessary checks and balances of government during the Constituent Assembly.


Labels of "socialist," "Chavez protégé" and "totalitarian" are useful to Ecuador's opposition and international observers who do not take the time to carefully consider Correa's past and the reality of a broken political system in Ecuador.


Correa, as a trained economist with a PhD, knows what it takes to carefully administer an emerging economy. He received his training in the US and worked as the finance minister in his predecessor's administration. As such, he has the unique capability of understanding the finer points of an open market economy. But he also well understands the Ecuadorian reality. There are likely few in Ecuador's traditional political elite class better suited to model the Ecuadorian economy based on the realities of both the global economy and Ecuador's economic strengths and weaknesses.


True, Correa's choice to closely attend to the needs of his impoverished and marginalized constituency may become more of a problem in the future when he is forced to choose between the painful changes likely required for economic growth and his voters' well being. But the idea to nationalize Ecuador's oil and gas assets is the right decision for short-term revenue gains.


What may cause Correa trouble, if Ecuadorians elect him under the new constitution, is sustained economic growth, which should be linked with progressive trade agreements. Correa, like Brazilian president Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva, is smart not to negotiate with the US. Such a free trade agreement, as Correa pointed out in a recent interview with The Washington Post, would negatively affect Ecuador's small farmers because the US maintains unfair and high farm subsidies.


This position, and others that support the needs of his constituency, however, do not reflect a close alignment with Chavez. The Venezuelan president is a hopeless visionary and truly a megalomaniac. Correa is a details-oriented administrator.


The Ecuadorian president has now won a major victory and is well placed to make the country a better place in which to live and work for a majority of Ecuadorians. It is a historic opportunity that both Correa and Chavez have grasped. Correa should prove he is not the Venezuelan president's protégé by not throwing it away.