Sunday, October 15, 2006

Chavez, Morales May Have Company

Ecuador is going to the polls today and may add a skeptic of U.S. policies to the growing Latin American roster of populist leaders.

In his unlikely race to power, Rafael Correa is as anti-establishment as any politician on a continent where populists have surged by spewing invective against market reforms and the Bush administration. The leftist economist has called President Bush "tremendously dimwitted," threatened to default on Ecuador's foreign debt and promised to tighten ties with President Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan firebrand, an alliance that sends shivers through foreign oil companies here.

But as Ecuadorans prepare for a presidential election on Sunday with ramifications far beyond this tiny country, it remains unclear if Correa, the front-runner among a dozen candidates, would be a strident nationalist in the mold of Chavez or a center-left pragmatist like Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has mixed market orthodoxy with far-reaching social programs.

Trained in Belgium and at the University of Illinois, Correa, 43, is a former finance minister and university professor. His associates and some influential business executives who oppose him say he is a brilliant thinker who, though deeply concerned about the poor, is unlikely to follow the same path as Chavez. Yet, in a deft campaign in which he has hammered the much-reviled political class, Correa has cast himself as such a radical that Wall Street has winced with every point he has risen in the polls. ...

American officials have remained quiet about their preference for a candidate here; anti-American sentiment runs high, and officials have been careful to avoid a backlash. But a win by a leftist with ties to Chavez -- particularly in a country where American oil companies have significant investments -- would be a setback for Washington.

"Hugo Chavez is a friend of mine," Correa told a group of foreign reporters on Thursday.

"We have always said we are part of the trend that is cutting throughout Latin America," he added. "We are looking for a united Latin America that can confront a globalization that is inhumane and cruel."

In the campaign, Correa has lashed out against "corrupt mafias" and those multinational companies he contends have made Ecuador one of Latin America's most poverty-stricken and politically unstable countries. Beating his belt against the roof of a car -- his slogan is " dale correa ," or, roughly translated, "beat with a belt," a wordplay on his last name, which means belt -- he promises to thrash them and the old political guard. Under his government, he says, a constituent assembly would rewrite the constitution, which could dissolve the National Congress. ...

Correa asserts that he wants to have good relations with Washington. But he said his government would not renew a lease, set to expire in 2009, that the United States has to run the Manta military base. He also said that his government would not negotiate a free-trade agreement with the United States, unlike Ecuador's neighbors. He said he would renegotiate existing contracts with foreign oil companies and did not rule out defaulting on Ecuador's $10 billion debt if social needs outweigh the country's servicing obligations. His advisers have warned that a Correa government would be tough on foreign companies and multilateral lenders.

"Here, the rule of law and the constitution are constantly being broken by the mafias and some transnational companies," the candidate said. "The transnationals of the north will have to obey the law."

Correa has 31 percent support, leading his nearest rival, banana tycoon Alvaro Noboa, by 6 points, a Cedatos Gallup poll showed on Saturday. To win in the first round, Correa needs to garner 40 percent of valid votes, which means blank or voided ballots will be excluded, while finishing at least 10 points ahead of the nearest rival. A second round, if needed, would take place Nov. 26.


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