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Hillary Clinton tries to fix relationship with Ecuador President Rafael Correa

By Glenn Kessler
Wednesday, June 9, 2010; A12

QUITO, ECUADOR -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reached out Tuesday to one of the left-leaning populist leaders of South America, attempting to edge Ecuador's President Rafael Correa out of the orbit of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

By all appearances, the charm offensive had an impact. A beaming Correa professed admiration and respect for "dearest Hillary" and for President Obama. He said he and Clinton had discussed tough issues -- such as Ecuador's concern over the U.S. military operating out of seven bases in neighboring Colombia -- but said their two countries would have "debate with great openness."

"The new left that I represent is not anti-anything," Correa said at a joint news conference after three hours of talks. "We are not anti-capitalist. We are not anti-American. We are not anti-imperialist. We are pro-dignity, pro-sovereignty, pro-social justice, pro-good life for our people. We are in favor of the good things."

He added that "we love the United States very much," noting that he "spent the happiest four years of my life with my family in that great country" when he earned a master's and a doctorate at the University of Illinois.

The Obama administration has strived to build new ties throughout South America but has encountered turbulence from countries bucking U.S. leadership, as exemplified by Brazil's efforts to undercut the sanctions drive against Iran with its own efforts at diplomacy. U.S. officials say that opportunities exist to improve relations with Ecuador, which had soured under President George W. Bush.

"We see a dynamic and vibrant hemisphere," Clinton told reporters. "We see leaders in Latin America who are trying, sometimes against great odds, to remedy past wrongs."

Correa, who once said Chávez's description of Bush as Satan was unfair to the devil, said that the previous administration had made Latin America "invisible" but that he perceived a change under Obama. He said he believed that if Obama and Clinton had inherited the problems that he had in Ecuador, they would be taking many of the same steps.

Indeed, in the news conference, Correa raised an issue that Clinton had already planned to address in a speech she gave after the talks: tax evasion.

In countries such as Ecuador, Correa said, "a government that tries to impose a tax on the rich is considered communist. If you apply the law equally, you are considered a dictator."

In her speech, Clinton said that Latin American countries must do a better job of collecting taxes from their wealthiest citizens in order to expand economic opportunity. "The wealthy do not pay their fair share," Clinton said. "We can't mince words about this. Levels of tax evasion are unacceptably high -- as much or more than 50 percent in some of the region's economies when it comes to personal income tax."

Clinton also faulted what she called "ineffective and inefficient" tax and budget systems, saying the tax burden falls "too heavily on the lower classes."

"Acknowledging this is not class warfare. It is not even us-versus-them rhetoric," Clinton said. "It is a matter of recognizing that this cannot be a zero-sum-game. . . . We simply cannot support policies that reduce poverty and spread prosperity in the long term if the wealthiest citizens are not doing their part."

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