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Ecuador on the Edge: A Tale of Two Presidential Candidates PDF Print E-mail
Written by Cyril Mychalejko, Toward Freedom   
Tuesday, 21 November 2006 19:00

Source: Toward Freedom

The question of who wins the election race in Ecuador on November 26 may be overshadowed by the uncertainty over whether the winner will actually survive a full term. The politically unstable South American nation has had nine presidents over the last ten years. The current front-runner is Alvaro Noboa, a billionaire banana tycoon who has run unsuccessfully twice in the past. He won 27 percent of the vote in the first-round, edging out Rafael Correa (and 11 other candidates), a U.S trained economist who ran on a platform that attacked Washington's neoliberal policies, as well as the traditional corruption plaguing Ecuador's political system.

Correa was widely seen as the front-runner heading into the Oct. 15 vote, which made Noboa's victory by an estimated four percentage points a welcome surprise for Washington and Wall Street.

As in most political elections, money will have a huge influence in the outcome—and Noboa has a lot of it. "Being a billionaire in Ecuador is really about owning the country," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington.

Noboa has handed out money to voters and will undoubtedly have more access to media and other resources than Correa. Noboa has tried to brand himself as a populist, who will use his business experience and free market policies to create jobs, wealth and access to social services for the millions of Ecuadorians living in poverty. Unlike his opponent, he would embrace Washington and free trade. But even though he touts his business experience as a benefit, it could turn out to be a liability.

Noboa amassed his fortune largely by owning the fourth largest banana company in the world, which sells its bananas under the Bonita label. In July of 2002, The New York Times published a story, "In Ecuador's Banana Fields, Child Labor Is Key to Profits", that revealed the widespread use of child labor at Noboa's plantations. (Human Rights Watch also documented this.) This was just before that year's election, which Noboa eventually lost to Lucio Gutierrez. But child labor is just the tip of the iceberg. In May of that year Noboa hired and ordered armed thugs, some concealed with masks, to attack striking workers at his Los Alomos plantation. The workers went on strike after Noboa fired union leaders following the Ecuadorian Labor Ministry's decision to legally recognize three new unions representing about 1000 banana workers—which was the fruit of months of organizing.

More recently, a 2005 government investigation uncovered that Noboa was using shell companies to skirt around labor laws. In addition, the government determined that several of Noboa's companies owed millions of dollars of back taxes.

If the Ecuadorian media decides to hammer Noboa on these issues it could turn the tide of the election, especially since recent polls have him comfortably ahead of Correa. At the same time, the media outlets (many in the U.S.) that have referred to Noboa as the "billionaire populist," might want to review his business record before blindly applying labels based on his empty campaign talk.

Correa, on the other hand, has rarely been defined by the media here as nothing more than a "Chavez ally". But to be fair, much of that is his own doing, as throughout the campaign he has highlighted his admiration and respect for the Venezuelan president and his policies. He has also adopted Chavez's bombastic rhetoric when criticizing Bush. Correa has called the U.S. president "tremendously dimwitted" and suggested that Chavez was wrong to call Bush the devil in his much publicized U.N. speech.

"Calling Bush the devil is offending the devil…[because] the devil is evil, but intelligent," said Correa. COHA's Birns believes that Correa would have been better off leaving Chavez's name out his campaign.

"It has been suggested that leftist candidates in Peru and Mexico lost their respective races because of being demonized for close relations with Chavez, a Latin American leader who is as popular as he is polarizing," said COHA's Birns. "I think Correa engaged in a tactical mistake by associating his political race with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. In this election Chavez didn't say a word, which was impressive."

But on a policy level Chavez and Correa's (proclaimed) rejection of free trade, World Bank and IMF polices and distrust of transnational corporations resonates well with many voters in this impoverished country. Correa's rapid ascension from long shot to front-runner in just a few months is a testament to this.

In March countrywide protests broke out which forced outgoing president Alfredo Palacio to declare a state of emergency. Protestors demanded that the government end negotiations with the U.S. over a proposed free trade agreement and expel California-based oil company Occidental Petroleum. The Palacio administration eventually sent Occidental packing, as protestors sustained pressure on the government for months. The protestors demanded that the government nationalize the oil industry, spend more on social services, and reject the FTA to protect the country's agricultural sector.

Correa has used these demands, which were largely galvanized by the country's powerful indigenous social movement, as pillars of his platform. In addition, during his short tenure as economic minister, Correa publicly butted heads with the World Bank, which prompted Palacio to demand his resignation. In addition, he has stated during his campaign that he would half the level of debt repayments to the IMF in order to spend more on social programs—a truly populist proposal.

"The world is recognizing that the (International) Monetary Fund and World Bank have not been a part of the solution, but rather the problem," said Correa. "Life and national commitments come first, before the pockets of creditors and supposed international commitments."

Correa would also renegotiate contracts with oil companies in order for the government to gain a greater share in the profits. If the companies don't like it then expect state-owned Petroecuador to take over the oil fields. If elected, he also plans to review contracts in the extractive industries that are opposed by local populations.

Conn Hallinan, a foreign policy analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF), believes that if Correa wins and follows through with his campaign promises that there could be a target on him. "I think the U.S. has since the coup against Chavez been following a policy of intervention in Latin America, more so than we have seen in many years," said Hallinan.

In a recent column titled "Hunting Hugo", Hallinan writes that the "U.S. Southern Command, the arm of the U.S military in Latin America, concluded that efforts by Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia to extend greater control over their oil and gas reserves posed a threat to U.S. oil supplies." This would make these countries a threat to our national security. The article goes onto examine how Chavez is in Washington's crosshairs and concludes his article by suggesting that "the people the [Bush] administration has recruited to target [Chavez] are just the kind of operatives who won't shy away from anything up to and including, the unthinkable: assassination."

Although Ecuador contributes far less oil to the U.S. than Venezuela, and is not really a significant regional player, the fact that the country is on Southern Command's radar is reason to worry.

That's not to mention Correa has also said that he would not renew the country's agreement with the U.S. to use its Manta air base, which Washington alleges to use to fight its "war on drugs" in the region through Plan Colombia. He said he believes that the base is a threat to Ecuador's sovereignty and would only extend the agreement if the U.S. allowed Ecuador to have a base in Miami. And it should be noted that a UN Working Group is quietly investigating whether a private firm run by a former DynCorp employee used the Manta base to recruit Ecuadorians and Colombians as mercenaries to fight in Iraq. A report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in 2007.

Finally, Correa is determined to hold a constitutional assembly, much like the one that happened in Bolivia, in order to rewrite the constitution. But the country's constitution, though not perfect, is largely viewed as progressive. The problem has been the failure or refusal of the State to enforce it.

Right or Left, or Right or Right?

Noboa has been viciously attacking Correa, taking a page from Washington with his use of Cold War rhetoric. He has called him a "communist devil" with a "dictatorial position" who would turn Ecuador into Cuba. It has also been reported that Noboa would cut off ties with Venezuela should he win.

This kind of talk plays well in the U.S. press, which often regurgitates similar claims directed at Chavez by the Bush Administration. It also allows the media, here at least, to frame the discussion around whether Correa will be a responsible leftist, more along the lines of Brazil's re-elected and market-friendly president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, rather than adopt the unacceptable policies Venezuela and Bolivia have taken.

"Chavez's economic policies are not extreme, but rather are similar to the New Deal," said FPIF's Hallinan. "The fact that the media and the general population views Chavez as extreme shows how far the political spectrum has gone to the right in the U.S."

The two paths Ecuador could take in its upcoming election couldn't be more different. But then again, in regards to Correa, they have heard his type of talk before—like with ousted Gutierrez, who ran a similar leftist/populist campaign but whom did a 180-degree turn once elected and embraced the Washington, the IMF and neoliberalism. Gutierrez swept into office largely with the support of the country's indigenous population, who were left reeling and are still recovering from his betrayal.

"Never again are they going to allow such a loose understanding guide a participated electoral performance," said Birns.

This explains why Pachakutik, the political arm of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), rejected a proposal from Correa to form an alliance where he would guarantee them the vice presidency. Instead Pachakutik chose to run Luis Macas as their presidential candidate. Macas, when asked why he didn't accept Correa's offer, revealed the profound distrust the Gutierrez debacle instilled in the indigenous population.

"First of all, we don't know who Rafael Correa really is," said Macas. "Just like we didn't know who Lucio Gutierrez really was."

If Correa has a chance he better hope they get to know him, because if the indigenous vote doesn't turn out in full the election result is going to drive him bananas.

Cyril Mychalejko is an assistant editor at www.UpsideDownWorld.org, a website uncovering activism and politics in Latin America. He recently worked in Ecuador as a human rights observer and journalist.

 

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