Ecuador Swings Left

— Cyril Mychalejko

WHEN ECUADORIANS WENT to the polls November 26, they collectively said no to neoliberalism when they voted overwhelmingly for maverick candidate Rafael Correa over billionaire banana tycoon Alvaro Noboa. This election undoubtedly makes Washington uneasy, as one more country in Latin America has elected a left-of-center candidate.

The choice between Noboa and Correa was a choice between the past and the future.

Noboa represented 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.

He promised to sign a free trade deal with Washington and even suggested that he would invite Occidental Petroleum back into the country. Yet despite his anti-union, child labor past, the U.S. press consistently described Noboa as a “populist.”

While Noboa represented the hopes and dreams of Washington and Wall Street, Rafael 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.)

His policy positions reflected demands that Ecuadorians were vocalizing through protests in March which 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 and expel U.S. oil company Occidental from the country, as well as start spending more on social programs and infrastructure projects.

In turn, Correa has consistently said that he would oppose free trade with the United States, renegotiate contracts with foreign companies in the extractive industries, and restructure debt repayment to the IMF so that the government can spend that money more appropriately on social programs that would raise the standard of living.

“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.”

Free Trade Formula for Disaster

On December 10, Correa, while visiting Peru’s free trade-friendly president Alan Garcia, told Peru’s Radioprogramas that he would not sign a free trade agreement with the United States 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."

The FTA, by decimating the country’s agricultural sector, would subsequently damage indigenous culture.

Correa has also said he will cancel a lease for the U.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.

These policy positions, should Correa follow through with them, will undoubtedly put this proud friend of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in Washington’s crosshairs. His opposition to capitalist globalization promoted through free trade and the World Bank and the IMF make him a national security threat. A National Intelligence Estimate from April, entitled “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States,” parts of which were declassified and released to the public this year, states:

"Anti-U.S. and anti-globalization sentiment is on the rise and fueling other radical ideologies. This could prompt some leftist, nationalist, or separatist groups to adopt terrorist methods to attack US interests."

But in addition to potential interference from Washington, 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.

Such a move will undoubtedly meet outright opposition in Congress because it could effectively dissolve the governing body. 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 Bolivian president Evo Morales a mandate to push legislation through the Senate, even as opposition party members boycotted the November 28 vote.

Correa remarked after his victory: “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.

ATC 126, January-February 2007