THE LATEST bizarre twist in the drama of Hugo Chavez unfolded Monday when the populist ruler returned to Venezuela in the dead of night after two months of incommunicado treatment in a Cuban military hospital. Apart from a couple of tweets, Mr. Chavez has yet to speak or show himself in Caracas, and it’s not clear if he has returned to rule or die. Either way, Mr. Chavez’s role as leader of the anti-democratic Latin American left appears to be up for grabs — and not for the first time, one of his acolytes is trying to fill the vacuum.
That would be Rafael Correa, the 49-year-old president of Ecuador. On Sunday Mr. Correa claimed a landslide victory for a new term that will keep him in office until 2017, a decade after he first took power. Like Mr. Chavez’s own reelection in October, Mr. Correa’s was eased by a steeply tilted playing field. Following the Venezuelan caudillo, Mr. Correa won votes by spending billions in oil revenue in an unsustainable spree.
And even more than Mr. Chavez, the Ecuadoran ruler strong-armed his country’s media into becoming his personal propaganda apparatus. Mr. Correa’s government, which inherited one radio station in 2007, now runs five television channels — including two confiscated from private owners — four radio stations, two newspapers and four magazines. If that were not enough, the president regularly employs a law allowing him to commandeer the national airwaves at any time of his choosing, for any purpose.
Meanwhile, Mr. Correa has intimidated Ecuador’s independent media into virtual silence. Since May, the government closed 11 other radio stations that did not toe its line. A law forbidding biased reporting on political campaigns and allowing dissatisfied candidates to sue over alleged violations forced the media into pallid and skimpy coverage of the alternatives to Mr. Correa, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists — even as government media blatantly ignored the rules.
Journalists who try to oppose Mr. Correa are made to pay. A newsmagazine that urged voters to vote down a referendum giving the government still more control over the media was fined $80,000 for violating the law against electoral propaganda. Last year the Ecuadoran group Fundamedios recorded 173 “acts of aggression” against journalists, including one killing and 13 assaults.
With reelection behind him, Mr. Correa clearly intends to step up this crusade. He is pressing yet another new law that would create a board to supervise media and impose fines and other punishment for alleged misdeeds. He’s also pushing the Organization of American States to neuter its independent rapporteur on press freedom, who, not surprisingly, has been critical of Ecuador.
Mr. Correa’s defenders like to argue that he is more moderate than Mr. Chavez and unworthy of sanction by the United States — which continues to grant Ecuador free-trade privileges. When it comes to media freedom, that assessment is wrong.