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4 December 2006

Defeating the “envoy of God“

Ecuador - Rafael Correa

By Max Ajl

Exit polls and rough counts show a late surge for the leftist Rafael Correa, on course to win Ecuador’s presidential election and defeat his right-wing rival Álvaro Noboa by a margin estimated at 12 per cent.

A vast ideological chasm separated Noboa’s campaign from Correa’s – it was a contest between “two forms of populism, one rightist, one leftist”, observed Carlos de la Torre, director of political studies at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Ecuador.

Noboa, a member of the richest family in Ecuador, banana magnate, and now three-times presidential candidate, adopted a deliberately demagogic approach, invoking religious imagery at campaign rallies and at times falling to his knees clutching a Bible, presenting himself as the people’s saviour – el enviado de Dios, the envoy of God. His electoral tactics reflected this rhetoric: during the campaign he distributed food, clothing, money and computers to the poorest areas that made up his electoral base: classic populism.

Noboa’s platform showed similar ideological commitments: he called for close relations with the US through a free-trade treaty, a programme of neoliberal modernisation, access to microcredit for the poor, 300,000 units of new housing a year, and possibly cutting diplomatic relations with Cuba and Venezuela. As Marco Arauz, the political analyst of El Comerci, put it, his party is “an extension of his economic interests”.

Noboa’s idiosyncratic brand of right-wing populism had kindled fears that his candidacy could bring a deep reactionary current to the forefront of Ecuadorian politics. As de la Torre said, his election would have heralded the arrival of a “banana republic” in Ecuador. Another commentator, Rodrigo Fierro Benítez, said, even more acidly, that “if we do not react with resolve” to Noboa’s candidacy, “our country will start its Africanisation”.

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Correa’s rhetoric is in sharp contrast to Noboa’s. While Noboa made religious invocations, Correa has placidly proclaimed himself a Christian leftist. Instead of disbursing goods to secure votes, Correa has promised price and import controls on basic foods.

Correa’s other policies have been further to the left. As he put it, Ecuador “must transcend, as soon as possible, all the fallacies of neoliberalism”. He opposes free trade with the US, supports nationalisation of the petroleum industry and has called for a constituent assembly similar to those in Bolivia and Venezuela to transform the political arena. He has also supported restructuring of Ecuador’s external debt and has spoken of renegotiations with the IMF and the World Bank.

His oratory has been fiery: responding to questions about his willingness to allow the US a new lease on the military base at Manta, Correa said that he would be willing to do so if the US “would allow [Ecuador] a base in Miami”. He castigated Hugo Chávez for comparing George W Bush to the devil, saying: “Calling Bush the devil is offending the devil.” He added: “The devil is evil, but intelligent.” Yet Correa has taken care to ensure that this rhetorical radicalism is not mistaken for hostility: he has called for bilateral relations, but within a framework of “mutual respect”.

If the preliminary results are borne out by the official count, Ecuador will join what Aijaz Ahmad has termed the “pink tide” flowing across Latin America. Yet it is far from clear that Correa’s reforms will placate the electorate: he will be Ecuador’s tenth president in a period of little more than a decade.

But if his presidency fails to deliver on its promises, more radical change – from the right or the left – might well be lying in wait.