Ecuador's populist leader still strong
President Rafael Correa is expected to win big in today's vote. He talks like a leftist, but many say he doesn't act like one.
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At the same time, Correa has maintained his distance from leftists in the region. He has not joined the Bolívarian Alternative for the Americas, for example, a Chávez alternative to free-trade policies he says are dictated by Washington. And while Mr. Chávez and Mr. Morales have decried international finance institutions, Correa has turned to them for loans, says Mr. Andrade.Skip to next paragraph
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While Chávez talks of 21st-century socialism, Correa comes from a tradition of Roman Catholic humanism. Morales comes from the union movement, as does Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva; Correa tends to rely on a close circle of friends.
"I don't think he's a leftist deep in his heart, but being a leftist pays in Ecuador," says Fernando Santos, a political analyst in Quito. For example, many people say the new Constitution, a far-reaching document passed last fall, is more radical than Correa himself. "He is a person full of conflicts. He is moved by his hatred of the ruling classes, but, as a Catholic, he has to forgive his enemies.… He insults banks every day but doesn't touch interest rates. He speaks like a leftist, but does not act like one."
The inability to pigeonhole Correa is what initially drew many supporters. A former economics professor, Correa was a virtual unknown when he won the presidency in 2006. Voters were seeking a break from mainstream parties. "He is not one of the corrupt politicians of the past," says Mrs. Matailo. "He is giving us back what they have robbed from us."
But such sentiment could change. His policies were formed as commodity prices hit record highs. Now, money sent home from abroad is falling, the drop in oil has shrunk coffers, and, because Ecuador uses US dollars as its official currency, it can't print more or devalue it to boost exports.
"He's been very popular for working toward a nationalist, autonomous policy," says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. "But his popularity could suffer a very significant fall if the economy suffers."
Rosa Gualavisi, who runs a restaurant on the main plaza of San José de Moran, says employment is her biggest concern – one she thinks has gone unaddressed. The rising cost of basic foods means she barely sees a profit at month's end. "Yes, I get a subsidy, but as a woman trying to work, he's hurt me too much," she adds.
Correa also faces new challenges as the party he aligns with, Alianza Pais, is expected to win the most seats in the new legislature. In 2006, Alianza Pais ran no candidates, as Correa said all parties were corrupt. "What's really at stake is how much stronger his Alianza Pais becomes after the election," says Andrade. "It could mean serious trouble, if there is no credible threat from the right or the left. It will be like signing a blank check."
Yet Correa offers a sense of stability Ecuadorians yearn for. The country toppled three presidents in a decade; Correa could be president for a decade. His oratorical skills and charm help. "He is handsome, full of charisma," says Mr. Santos. "He could sell sunglasses to a blind man."•