Ecuador's Leftist Front-Runner

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 15, 2006

QUITO, Ecuador, Oct. 14 -- In his unlikely race to power, Rafael Correa is as anti-establishment as any politician on a continent where populists have surged by spewing invective against market reforms and the Bush administration. The leftist economist has called President Bush "tremendously dimwitted," threatened to default on Ecuador's foreign debt and promised to tighten ties with President Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan firebrand, an alliance that sends shivers through foreign oil companies here.

But as Ecuadorans prepare for a presidential election on Sunday with ramifications far beyond this tiny country, it remains unclear if Correa, the front-runner among a dozen candidates, would be a strident nationalist in the mold of Chávez or a center-left pragmatist like Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has mixed market orthodoxy with far-reaching social programs.

Trained in Belgium and at the University of Illinois, Correa, 43, is a former finance minister and university professor. His associates and some influential business executives who oppose him say he is a brilliant thinker who, though deeply concerned about the poor, is unlikely to follow the same path as Chávez. Yet, in a deft campaign in which he has hammered the much-reviled political class, Correa has cast himself as such a radical that Wall Street has winced with every point he has risen in the polls.

"It is hard to say who he is," said Ramiro Noriega, a literature professor at the University of San Francisco in Quito, where Correa taught until his political career took off.

"My impression is that Rafael at this stage, in these last few weeks, is the candidate, using a discourse to meet the electoral needs," said Noriega, who often spoke about politics with Correa and considers him a friend. "And it's hard to say how much of this is part of his earlier discourse."

If he wins, the Correa who emerges will be watched closely by the Bush administration, which is locked in an ideological battle against Chávez. The Venezuelan leader has opposed the United States on nearly every initiative in Latin America, and he counts Cuba and Bolivia as close allies.

Chávez is now counting on wins by Correa and, in next month's presidential election in Nicaragua, former guerrilla leader Daniel Ortega. But Magdalena Barreiro, a former finance minister who, although she admires him, has concerns about a Correa presidency, said Correa has grand plans of his own.

"Rafael will not be happy being president of Ecuador; he wants to be a Latin American leader," said Barreiro, who was a vice minister for finance under Correa before serving briefly as finance minister. "The relationship with Chávez is symbiotic. Chávez needs another foothold in Latin America, and Rafael needs Chávez to help him project his leadership in Latin America."

American officials have remained quiet about their preference for a candidate here; anti-American sentiment runs high, and officials have been careful to avoid a backlash. But a win by a leftist with ties to Chávez -- particularly in a country where American oil companies have significant investments -- would be a setback for Washington.

"Hugo Chávez is a friend of mine," Correa told a group of foreign reporters on Thursday.

"We have always said we are part of the trend that is cutting throughout Latin America," he added. "We are looking for a united Latin America that can confront a globalization that is inhumane and cruel."

In the campaign, Correa has lashed out against "corrupt mafias" and those multinational companies he contends have made Ecuador one of Latin America's most poverty-stricken and politically unstable countries. Beating his belt against the roof of a car -- his slogan is " dale correa ," or, roughly translated, "beat with a belt," a wordplay on his last name, which means belt -- he promises to thrash them and the old political guard. Under his government, he says, a constituent assembly would rewrite the constitution, which could dissolve the National Congress.

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