Ecuador's political juggernaut faces re-election

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 14, 2013 at 10:39 am •  Published: February 14, 2013
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QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — On a campaign stage, Rafael Correa is a dancing, singing, swirling tornado of energy. Ecuador's president doesn't make promises. He's way past that.

With characteristic bravado, Correa instead reminds the enthusiastic crowd in a northern Quito suburb of the nearly 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) of highway he's improved, of the schools and hospitals built during his six years in office.

Loathed by civil libertarians and free-market champions, but embraced by beneficiaries of state largesse, the leftist economist appears ready to coast to a second re-election on Sunday.

Correa, 48, has brought political stability to a traditionally unruly nation that cycled through seven presidents in a decade, from 1997-2007. If re-elected, this four-year term will be his last unless the constitution is changed.

Correa's "21st-century socialism" is a tamer variation of that practiced by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Yet Correa has been just as intolerant of dissent as Chavez, keeping a tight lid on public discourse and the press.

Meanwhile, Correa has overseen Latin America's most generous public spending regime, keeping his support high by introducing low-interest mortgage for new homeowners, state-bankrolled study abroad and welfare payments that now reach nearly one in five Ecuadoreans.

The bulk of his backers are poor and lower-middle class Ecuadoreans who in 2010 represented 37 and 40 percent, respectively, of the country's population according to the World Bank.

Correa doesn't take those supporters for granted.

Every Saturday and a few nights a week, Correa pre-empts commercial TV and radio stations to spread his "citizen's revolution" and verbally skewer his "oligarch" enemies. It's the kind of prerogative of power wielded regularly by Chavez's government and Argentina's president, Cristina Fernandez.

Opposition journalists, meanwhile, have been slapped with criminal libel charges for calling Correa a dictator. Indigenous leaders have been prosecuted for sabotage for protesting the government's refusal to consult with native peoples over water rights and its insistence on opening Ecuador to large-scale precious metals mining.

Correa has set back the rule of law two decades by packing the courts with loyalists and politicizing them, said Grace Jaramillo, an Ecuadorean political scientist studying in Canada.

"Without an independent judiciary, anyone who opposes the government runs the risk of becoming prey," Jaramillo said.

Human rights groups including Amnesty International say Correa has criminalized peaceful protest. Yet only a handful of activists could be considered political prisoners, and they get scant local attention.

The media instead has focused most of its attention on Correa as the number of news organizations in state hands has grown under his leadership from just one, Radio Nacional, to five television stations, four radio stations, two newspapers and four magazines.

Correa also typically draws a lot of attention from supporters, with a crowd of 5,000 fixated on the tall, dynamic leader at the January rally in northern Quito.

"Do you want the old country of school and hospital strikes to return?" the president asked in a typical call-and-response exchange. "Do you want a country run by the very people who ruined the country?

"Nooooooooooooo," they replied.

"You know that here are the people who have always kept their promises, who will never fail you," Correa said.

Veronica Bermudez, a 53-year-old housewife at the rally, is among the enthusiastic supporters.

"He gives us money. He gives us free health care. He worries about the education of our kids," she said. "How can I not love him?"

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