IRON WILLED

Ecuador 2013 | DIPLOMACY | PROFILE: HE RAFAEL CORREA

The charismatic President of Ecuador has shown he is not to be put upon on the international political stage, and has introduced a raft of much needed reforms at home.

Rafael Correa has spent much of his time carving out an image as a man of the people. Born in Guayaquil to Rafael Correa Icaza and Norma Delgado Rendón, he comes from a modest working class background. Yet he is also a descendant of the Chilean politician, Rafael Correa de Saa y Lazón, who was a member of the revolutionary forces led by Bernardo O'Higgins, and was appointed Minister of Finance in one of the first Chilean governments during the early 19th century. From an early age, Correa has had an interest and a talent for politics. He managed to secure a scholarship to Universidad Católica de Santiago de Guayaquil (UCSG) where he obtained a Degree in Economics in 1987. While there, he was elected President of the Association of Students of Economy, Audit, and Administration (AEAA), and then President of the Federation of Students (FEUC). The later position enabled Correa to officiate over the Private Students Federation of Ecuador. Correa has continued his education throughout his life, attending Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium in 1991 to obtain a Master of Arts in Economics, and later a Master of Science in Economics in May 1999 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In his early career, Correa largely served in the Ministry of Education, from around 1993 up until 2005, when he was appointed Minister of Finance. In 2006, he took the step of running a presidential campaign and set up the PAIS Alliance, a self proclaimed leftist and socialist party with a manifesto built around regional integration, economic relief for Ecuador's poor, and political sovereignty. Another key proposal of Correa's party was to undertake constitutional reform, which was put into affect in his second term as President as of 2012, passing through Ecuador's Constitutional Court (ECC) in a six-to-three vote in favor. The new resolution made the D'Hondt Method of voting constitutional and triggered new elections on February 17, 2013, which Correa won with 57.17% of the vote, while his party won 52.30% of the vote in the National Assembly. He dedicated the victory to the late Hugo Chavez, a man that Correa had often said he admired. Winning the election secured the President's third term in office, which was no small feat since he is the first person in Ecuador in half a century to be re-elected, let alone for a second time.

Rafael Correa's pays close attention to his public image, for which he now appears to be reaping the rewards. When he began his presidency in 2006, he had an approval rate of 73% according to the Centro de Estudio y Datos (Cedatos). In March 2012, that figure had risen to 80.5%, and in April 2013 it had risen yet again to an astonishing 90% approval rate. It is ratings like this, which probably led to Correa considering introducing a law to abolish the limit on political terms, which is currently set at two. Although Correa has publicly expressed no desire to continue after his allotted time ends in 2017, no restrictions and a high popularity rate may change his mind over the next few years. And despite some resistance to an amendment of current term limits, supporters of Correa argue that it is up to the Ecuadorean people to decide such limits and how long a presidential tenure should be.

Under the President's larger-than-life leadership, the country has experienced a period of much needed stability. Increased funds for social programs and high oil prices have helped to reduce poverty across the board, while the rising middle class is benefitting from the increased amount of government jobs that are available. Because of Correa's socialist political views and admiration for Chavez, it is Hugo that he is most often compared to; yet, as The Economist pointed out shortly after Correa was elected for the third time, the two are not to be confused. Correa has imposed price controls on basic goods; however, overall he has created more economic freedom in the economy and not shared Chavez's desire for nationalization.

On the international front, Correa has shown he is not afraid of the major political powers of the world. On June 19, 2012, Julian Assange entered the Ecuadorean Embassy in London seeking political asylum to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted on charges of sexual assault. Despite massive political pressure from the UK, Sweden, and the US, Correa stood his ground and offered Assange asylum in Ecuador; however, the UK police insisted that if Assange left the Embassy he would immediately be arrested. A year later, and Assange is still at the Embassy, and in August 2013 Correa reiterated his and his country's stance on the issue and reaffirmed their commitment to finding a solution to the problem. Almost exactly a year after Assange had entered the Ecuadorean Embassy, Edward Snowdon showed up in Hong Kong asking very similar things of Ecuador. Although Correa was unable to assist Snowdon in this case as he was not on Ecuadorean soil, political pressure was asserted on the country, especially from the US. In a strident step, Correa cancelled a US trade pact to avoid blackmail from the US government over the Snowdon issue. The US had threatened not to renew the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA), of which Ecuador was the sole remaining participant, in July 2013 unless it didn't toe the line when it came to Snowdon. In a statement from the Communications Secretary of Ecuador, Fernando Alvarado, “Ecuador does not accept pressure or threats from anyone, nor does it trade with principles or submit them to mercantile interests, however important those may be." The economic loss to Ecuador from denouncing the treaty was estimated to be around $26 million annually. To help cushion this blow to exporters, in July 2013, the government passed a law with 103 votes in favor and one against to provide $23 million a year to exporters in compensation. Cancelling such a deal with a country as politically and economically powerful as the US solidified people's perception of Rafael Correa as bold leader.

One of the more controversial issues of Correa's presidency has been Ecuador's oil, and in particular Yasuní National Park. In 2007, when Correa first proposed the Yasuní ITT initiative, it was an imaginative and unique way to try to avoid drilling in areas of natural beauty, and was hailed by environmentalists. In 1989, the UN declared the park a biosphere reserve, and Correa put forward the idea that if the Yasuní ITT trust fund was able to raise $3.6 billion from donors around the world then no drilling permits would be issued. However, in August 2013, Correa declared, “The world has failed us," and the plan was abandoned after raising just $13 million. A U-turn is underway in regard to the park and drilling is expected to begin imminently as prospective oil companies line up exploration bids, particularly the Chinese.

President Correa may not be everyone's cup of tea, but no one can deny that today a fascinating character is leading Ecuador.