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Is Ecuador’s Correa Following Chavez?

Ecuador's constituent assembly will be copying a page from Hugo Chavez' playbook.


More than 60 years ago, Dr. F.A. Hayek brilliantly described the final destination of all people living under socialism: serfdom in a cruel totalitarian state. Venezuela is heading in that direction under the leadership of Fidel Castro's star pupil, Dictator-President Hugo Chavez. (...)

Rafael Correa is a U.S.-trained, Ph.D. economist and a radical leftist. Although his designer suits don't quite fit the Castro mold, he has followed the Castro/Chávez playbook since his election in November 2006. Just as Chávez had done in 1998, Correa campaigned on three proposals: convene a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution; eliminate government corruption; and fight against income inequality and poverty.To reverse Latin America's slide toward socialism, the United States must increase its presence through additional support for democratic, market-based institutions.


Correa has already delivered on two other campaign promises. First, he has cut off talks about a possible free trade agreement with the United States in favor of Hugo Chávez's "ALBA" socialist trade scheme.

Second, Correa has informed the United States that in 2009, Ecuador will not renew an agreement that permits U.S. forces to use Ecuador's Manta air base for transnational anti-drug operations. Specifically, the agreement permits "a contingent of about 250 U.S. military personnel, including members of the U.S. Air Force, Coast Guard, and Customs and Border Protection" to use the base "to hunt the skies and seas for traffickers trying to bring cocaine and other drugs into the United States." According to Col. Javier Deluca, the U.S. military commander at Manta, missions from the bases kept 249 metric tons of cocaine from reaching the U.S. mainland in 2006.

This move also keeps with the Chávez pattern. U.S. drug war czar John Walters reports, "Latin American cartels are using commercial airports and ports in Venezuela as a 'safe base' to ship increasing quantities of cocaine."

Ending counternarcotics cooperation could disqualify Ecuador for any extension of Andean trade preferences by the U.S. Congress in February 2008.[5] That would probably be fine with President Correa, since it would make his country even more dependent on Hugo Chávez and Correa's friends from authoritarian capitalist nations such as China, Russia, and Iran. Indeed, Iranian President Ahmadinejad attended Correa's inauguration.

Leading opposition politicians in Ecuador have alleged that Chávez funneled millions of dollars into Ecuador to ensure Correa's election. The news in August 2007 that a Chávez functionary was caught flying into Buenos Aires with $800,000 in cash in his suitcase lends credence to the charge. Many observers believe Chávez is also sending millions of dollars to his friend and fellow leftist, President Nestor Kirchner of Argentina, to finance the Peronist Party campaign of Kirchner's wife, Cristina Fernandez, to succeed her husband in the October 28 election.


On page two of the playbook, Correa followed the example set by Chávez right after he took power in Venezuela in 1999. As soon as Correa took office in January 2007, he began laying the groundwork to bring "21st Century Socialism" to Ecuador. Correa's promise to throw out newly elected lawmakers and write a new constitution mirrored Chávez's original script. It would be the 19th constitution in the 180-year history of Ecuador.  Severe political clashes throughout the spring of 2007 occasionally spilled over into violence in the streets as Correa's political operatives railroaded through the opposition parties in the National Assembly to set the stage. In March, Correa ominously tightened his grip on power by ousting 57 opposition members of Congress who attempted to block an April referendum on whether to elect the constituent assembly. The Economist reported, "Though the congressmen were replaced by alternates they themselves had picked, the new deputies have shown themselves loyal to Mr. Correa rather than to their own political parties." (...)

Correa blames the "political mafia" that controls the current legislature for the country's problems. He has said, "the assembly should have the power to dissolve congress and other elected officials." One Venezuela critic has noted that the single most dangerous export of Castro to Venezuela was the National Constituent Assembly, which "allowed Chávez to subvert democracy with a pseudo democratic mechanism that wasn't even part of the constitution."


Here's what page three might look like in Ecuador. Using the new Bolivarian Constitution produced by the constituent assembly in Venezuela, Hugo Chávez packed the courts at every level with party hacks. He dissolved the National Assembly and, using rigged election rules, his party gained control of nearly every seat in the new assembly, which "in January 2007 granted him 'special decree powers' for 18 months, under which Mr. Chávez is empowered to issue decrees in 11 key areas without having to seek legislative approval."

Chávez is currently choreographing 33 changes to his Bolivarian Constitution that would permit him to remain in office indefinitely. Other revisions to the constitution will allow Chávez to take personal control of the billions of dollars in Venezuela's Central Bank, dictate what is to be taught in private schools, and to practically abolish private property in Venezuela.[14] For the record, Correa maintains that he will not follow the lead of Chávez and will not seek to abolish limits on his re-election.

A big question is whether Correa will be able to meet the political demands of the electorate for more government spending while maintaining a sound economy. The answer could largely depend on world oil prices staying high. Adrian Bonilla, director of the Ecuador branch of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, maintains that Correa is no Chávez. Chávez has basically left the banking system alone, while Correa wants only to regulate--not seize--the means of production. Correa and Chávez share the same rhetoric, but Correa doesn't have the resources. Mr. Bonilla adds that Correa doesn't share Chávez's anti-U.S. views.

Others, however, are far less sanguine about the future in Ecuador under President Correa. Former Ecuadorean president Lucio Gutierrez said that the constitutional crisis may take a turn for the worse. "Violence has been rising in a dangerous way, and it could at some point turn into a civil war," he told Bloomberg News.


The U.S. should do the following:

  • Reiterate to President Correa that the United States expects Ecuador to continue to respect democratic neighbors, continue cooperation on fighting drug trafficking and international crime, and invest in its own long-term stability and prosperity through policies that favor political and economic free choice;
  • Develop new programs to boost personal contact with Americans and counter the armies of Cuban doctors and Venezuelan security advisers streaming into Ecuador;
  • Increase support for civil society groups and beef up public diplomacy efforts to strengthen local voices proposing independent solutions to Ecuador's poverty and governance troubles;
  • Demonstrate goodwill regarding possible resumption of free trade talks if the situation improves; and
  • Redirect security assistance as necessary and adjust strategies if America loses tenant rights at Ecuador's Manta air base for drug interdiction efforts.


The rise of Hugo Chávez marks a depressing return to the days of leftist "caudillos" (strongmen) who ruled Latin America in decades past. Rafael Correa seems an unlikely caudillo, but his actions to date indicate that he is acting more like the regional governor of an Ecuador that will take its place within Hugo Chávez's vision of ruling a "Socialist Bolivarian Republic of the Andes." 

The United States must increase its presence in the region through additional support for democratic, market-based institutions. A strong and resolute U.S. government should seek to avoid repeating past mistakes and encourage true reform in the region.

James M. Roberts is Research Fellow for Economic Freedom and Growth in the Center for International Trade and Economics at The Heritage Foundation.

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