When Ecuadorians went to the polls on Nov. 26 they collectively said no to neoliberalism as they voted overwhelmingly for maverick candidate Rafael Correa over billionaire banana tycoon Alvaro Noboa. The choice between Noboa and Correa was a choice between the past and the future, a future that undoubtedly makes Washington very uneasy as yet another country in Latin America elected a left-of-center candidate.
Noboa represented Ecuador’s (and Latin America’s) oligarchic past. The man who owns the fourth largest banana company in the world and who amassed his wealth off the backs of children and by violently confronting striking workers and unionists, expectedly promoted free market policies to "save" the country from its pervasive poverty. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Ecuador has had negative growth of GDP per capita over the last 25 years. Ecuador’s growth, or lack there of, is not an exception but rather the rule for Latin America, which has suffered abysmal growth rates, as well as seen increased poverty and inequality since adopting neoliberal (or free trade, free market) policies beginning in the late 70’s and early 80’s.
Despite this downward trend, Noboa promised voters that he would continue down this path of misery by signing a free trade deal with Washington. He even suggested that he would invite the California-based oil company Occidental back into the country. Occidental, which was hugely unpopular with Ecuadorians (as are many foreign corporations), had been expelled in March for violating Ecuadorian law.
While Noboa represented the hopes and dreams of Washington and Wall Street, Correa’s campaign was essentially shaped by the social movements, his presidency is owed to them, and ultimately whether he lasts a full term will be determined by them. (Ecuador hasn’t had a president last a full term in over ten years.)
Correa’s policy positions reflect demands that Ecuadorians were vocalizing through protests in March that essentially shut down the country. Led by social movements such as CONAIE, the protestors demanded that outgoing President Alfredo Palacio end negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States, that the government expel U.S. oil company Occidental from the country, as well as start spending more on social programs and infrastructure projects. Ecuador spends less than eight percent of its GDP on social programs.
In turn, Correa has consistently said (during the campaign and after he was elected) that he would oppose free trade with the U.S. and renegotiate contracts with foreign companies in the extractive industries.
He is also expected to restructure debt repayment to the IMF so that his government can spend that money more appropriately on social programs that would raise the standard of living.
"With this level of debt, we cannot move the country forward," said Correa at news conference in Buenos Aires two weeks ago. "A country that spends twice as much on foreign debt than it does on education cannot develop."
On Dec. 10, Correa, while visiting Peru’s free trade-friendly president Alan Garcia, told Peru’s Radioprogramas radio that he would not sign a free trade agreement with the U.S. because it would be "tremendously harmful" to Ecuador.
Correa’s evaluation mirrors that of a 2005 report by the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), which states:
"The Ecuadorian agricultural sector loses in any scenario. This includes the improbable case in which the U.S. eliminates subsidies, supports and maintains its tariffs at zero. The net effect is marginally negative, but will impact especially subsistence and medium size producers in rice, corn (white and hard), meat and some dairy products."
Correa, like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales, has called for uniting Latin America through regional trade agreements like Mercosur, that promote cooperation rather than competition.
"This integration must be based on a new model, on complementary coherence, replacing the absurd model imposed by the North of competing with one another," said Correa during a recent visit to Venezuela.
He has even suggested creating a highway-waterway trade route from Ecuador Pacific coast to Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. This projected $2 billion project, which Correa believes could replace the Panama Canal, displays his commitment to this unifying vision. But if pursued, it would likely face hurdles because of the environmental impacts it would have on the country’s Amazon region, where the country’s indigenous—who helped elect him—are never shy about mobilizing to voice there opinions.
Correa has also said he will cancel a lease for the U.S.’s Manta military base on Ecuador’s Pacific Coast when the agreement expires in 2009. The base is allegedly used for Washington’s "war on drugs", though a U.N. investigation recently reported that a private security firm was using the base to recruit and interview potential "mercenaries" to be sent to Iraq.
In addition, Correa is one of a growing number of Latin American voices critical of Washington’s "war on drugs". Ecuador is in a dispute with Colombia over aerial coca fumigation along the countries’ shared border, something supported and financed by U.S.-created Plan Colombia, despite the environmental, social and human-health problems fumigation causes.
Should Correa follow through with these ideas after he takes office on January 15 he will undoubtedly run into interference from Washington. But that might be the least of his worries.
Correa will have his hands full in Quito. Not coming from a traditional political party, which was part of his appeal for many voters, he has no political base in Congress. This will make it difficult for him to push through progressive legislation, unless of course he is able to hold a special assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution, something he called for during his campaign. This will undoubtedly meet outright opposition in Congress because it could effectively dissolve the governing body and give more authority to the executive branch. What Correa has to hope for is that civil society will back him up—in the streets if necessary—and demand that Congress bend to its will.
Ecuadorians could take a lesson from Bolivians, who in November marched on La Paz to demand land reform legislation. This essentially gave Bolivia’s Morales a mandate to push legislation through the Senate, even as opposition party members boycotted the Nov. 28 vote.
Correa recently remarked after his victory that, "We are just instruments of the power of the people. This is a clear message that the people want change."
If Ecuadorians truly want change they have to be guiding it—not just on Election Day or to overthrow an unworthy president—but every day if necessary.
Cyril Mychalejko is an assistant editor at www.UpsideDownWorld.org, an online magazine uncovering activism and politics in Latin America. He can be reached at Cyril(at)upsidedownworld.org.