Ecuador votes to lock in its shift to the left

Ecuadoreans easily approved a new socialist-leaning charter Sunday.

Patricio Realpe/Ap
My vote: A supporter of President Rafael Correa showed a new Ecuadorean Constitution autographed by Mr. Correa on Sunday after the country voted in the new charter.
New clout: President Correa celebrated Sunday after winning broad new political and economic power in a referendum on a new leftist Constitution.
Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

The overwhelming approval by Ecuadoreans of a new Constitution that gives leftist President Rafael Correa a tighter grip on the economy puts the country firmly on a socialist track similar to Hugo Chávez's Venezuela.

"Today Ecuador decided to found a new country," Mr. Correa said Sunday after nearly 70 percent of Ecuadoreans voted for the new charter. "The old power structures have been defeated."

With the passage of the new Constitution, Ecuador became the first country after Venezuela in the region to institutionalize its leftward shift, says Larry Birns, director of the Council of Hemispheric Affairs in Washington.

"This is a lurch to the left on the part of Correa," he says.

But Mr. Birns warns that Ecuador's move does not make it a lackey of Venezuela, which under Mr. Chávez has tried to take leadership of Latin America's leftward shift. "Ecuador is marching in a similar direction as Venezuela, but to a different beat," Birns says.

"Correa is doing it his way."

The Constitution passed by Ecuadoreans, however, is very similar to the Venezuelan charter passed in 1999, one year after Chávez took office, launching his self-styled Bolivarian Revolution.

The new charter

Ecuador's new Constitution grants all citizens the right to water and universal healthcare, pensions, and free state-run education through the university level.

The text allows the government to confiscate fallow land and distribute it to the poor and defines sovereignty both in political as well as economic terms.

Also, as in Venezuela, the Constitution allows for presidents to serve two consecutive terms, which means Correa himself could be in power until 2017.

Gabriela Calderón, an Ecuador-based analyst who edits the libertarian Cato Institute's Spanish-language website, says the drafters of Ecuador's new constitution have taken more than a few pages from Venezuela's leftist charter.

"There are a lot of similarities in the wording on private property, for example," she says.

But she warns that Ecuador's new Constitution is "even more radical than Venezuela's," noting, for example, that the charter strips the central bank of its autonomy.

That provision was one of the constitutional amendments that Venezuelans rejected in a referendum late last year.

The approval of the Constitution "goes in line with the changes that all of Latin America is seeing," Correa told CNN En Español in an interview after his electoral triumph.

However, Correa often makes it a point to distinguish himself from Chávez and says his own "Citizens' Revolution" responds to the demands of his countrymen, not Venezuela's regional agenda.

The passage of Ecuador's socialist Constitution "is helpful to Chávez's regional project but it is not caused by it," says Ted Piccone, deputy director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Both Chávez and Correa are responding to long pent-up demands for change in their own countries."

Correa: a leftist, but no Chávez

Correa has marked differences with Chávez, especially on foreign policy.

Notably, he has kept Ecuador out of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), Venezuela's answer to a US-promoted regional free-trade agreement known as FTAA, and refused to follow Venezuela's lead in reestablishing relations with Colombia after a brief diplomatic crisis among the three countries in March.

His dealings with the United States are less confrontational as well.

Correa has announced since he was elected in 2006 that he would not renew the US's lease on a key Air Force base in Manta, Ecuador.

The new Constitution expressly prohibits any foreign military bases on Ecuadorean soil.

But Correa has not sought to directly antagonize Washington, unlike Chávez.

"Correa is Chávez's ally yes, lackey no," says Mr. Piccone.

Ecuador's approval of the Constitution was watched closely from neighboring Bolivia, whose own efforts to establish a socialist charter so far have been thwarted by staunch opposition and by bouts of unrest.

The text there was passed despite an opposition walkout, and a referendum is tentatively scheduled for February.

Elections in February

Also in February, Ecuador will hold new general elections, to vote for president, members of the unicameral legislature, governors, and mayors under the new Constitution.

There is little doubt that Correa will be reelected to a four-year term, which he could repeat once, giving him the potential to be in power for a full decade.

For a country that has seen eight presidents inaugurated in the past 10 years, that possibility of political stability was tempting for voters, analysts say.

Ms. Calderón says that Ecuador's opposition fears that – with this weekend's resounding victory in the constitutional referendum and Correa's near-certain reelection in February – he may become more radical in his move toward "21st-century socialism" than Chávez, who in his nearly 10 years in power has nationalized companies in the telecommunications, cement, and banking sectors.

Correa on Monday specifically ruled out nationalizing oil companies but said he will "not allow" them to reduce investment levels.

Ecuador's economy depends heavily on exports of oil, with a daily production of about 500,000 barrels.

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