Rafael Correa and Twenty First Century Socialism

Gerard Coffey*

It was the decade of the indigenous peoples. The nineteen nineties saw a tide of anger and hope sweep them and everyone else, we imagined, towards a different, more equitable land. But it didn’t quite happen that way. Now new hopes have bubbled up in the form of Rafael Correa, elected President in 2006 on the basis of a radical platform that is challenging entrenched economic power and promising to usher in ‘Twenty First Century Socialism’. Correa’s first major test will come on September 30th when a Constituent Assembly will be elected with the goal of changing the way this small Andean nation works. Things appear to be going to plan, but there are growing doubts about what that plan is all about.

This is not the first time in the recent past that hopes have been raised. A national unity government was installed in January 2000 after a rebellion overthrew the then President, Jamil Mahuad. It collapsed after only three hours when the military withdrew its support under pressure from the United States, which threatened to blockade the country and ‘turn it into another Cuba’. For many the prospect did not seem so terribly threatening.

Two years later, Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez, the military leader of the early stages of the rebellion, entered the 2002 presidential race with the backing of the majority of social groupings including CONAIE, the country’s major indigenous organisation. The ex-military man talked the talk and, allied with CONAIE’s political arm, Pachakutik, topped the first round of voting. He went on to be elected President in the second.

There’s many a slip between cup and lip as the saying goes, and this may be the most generous way to sum up the experience of the Gutiérrez mandate. His dramatic change of direction took most by surprise and it was perhaps inevitable that many (of us), desperate to believe, were loath to admit our mistake: legitimising a neoliberal regime whose president boasted of having signed an agreement with the IMF in ‘record time’ while promising to be the US’ most faithful ally in the region. This was not part of the plan.

Heavily criticised for their role in the Gutiérrez government, it was no surprise that the demoralised indios should play little part in the mainly middle class inspired demonstrations (and withdrawal of US embassy support) that forced Gutiérrez himself to flee in 2004.

When You’re Smiling

Hopes bubbled to the surface once again as Gutiérrez’ Vice President Alfredo Palacio came to power vowing to restructure the nation. In retrospect his administration was more than a little disappointing. While not totally inept, his government was characterized more than anything else by a type of ministerial musical chairs in which many were called but few were retained. Rafael Correa, a relatively unknown economics professor who became the first Minister of Economy of new government, fell into the latter category. A socially progressive nationalist with an interest in the fate of more marginalised groups, he seemed bound to meet resistance. He did, and after three months was ousted, amongst other things for refusing World Bank loans and proposing to raise money by selling bonds to Venezuela. But unlike other disposable ministers he did not return to the shadows.

Whether the Presidency itself was always an objective is unclear, but once out of office the ex minister certainly lost little time in declaring himself to be a candidate. He had the profile: a US educated economist, born and raised in the coastal city of Guayaquil, he was a personable man with a strong commitment to social justice. To top it off he was articulate, good looking and knew how to play the part.

Correa hit the presidential road early. Before most of the other left wing possibles had even declared themselves, or were fighting the Free Trade Agreement and Occidental, he could be seen touring the country shaking hands, talking and smiling, always smiling. His advantage was that of being a newcomer at a moment when all parties and all politicians were being branded, justly or otherwise, as inept.

Even so, others were seen as more likely winners. Correa was clearly middle class and struggled to make a connection with the marginalized districts; he appeared to be toiling in the wilderness, stuck in fourth place. On the left, Luis Macas, the leader of CONAIE and one of its most respected figures, appeared to be a more solid candidate, capable of taking votes from Correa. There was even some suggestion that Correa and Macas might run on the same ticket, but there was never really any serious dialogue (just some tersely worded letters) and a union of the two forces never seemed likely.

Radicalising his position, Correa became more popular. He finished second in the first, and first in the second and ultimate round of voting, trouncing the clown prince of Ecuadorian politics, the neoliberal Alvaro Noboa, also the country’s richest man. After such a long time the political landscape of South America was changing and it appeared that the kind of change which had seemed so close on other occasions, might now, just, be within reach. As for the Macas’ campaign, it started late, dogged by internal differences. He polled only 2.5% of the first round vote.

The major question now was, just how far would Correa be able, and willing, to go. The initial signs were not encouraging, the new cabinet was hardly a group of revolutionaries: some had questionable politics and others little or none. Several were even booed at their inauguration, calling the President’s political wisdom and his agenda into question. There were high notes however. Alberto Acosta, a committed social activist and internationally recognized economist, became minister of Energy and one of the political driving forces of the regime. The cabinet was also noteworthy for the inclusion of several female ministers, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Defense, subsequently killed in an unexplained (military) helicopter crash. No native people were included, so this was clearly not a government of national unity.

In Correa’s defense it is clear that the plan has always been comprised of two halves: before and after the Constituent Assembly. The difficulty, that of getting from the first to the second stage, the before (and during) always likely to be more difficult than the after. Correa’s Presidential campaign tactic of running without a party to back him in Congress, on the basis that the legislative body was not ‘fit for purpose’, proved to be effective but also something of a double edged sword. Unable to get crucial legislation passed, his programme has been characterized by promoting the Assembly and baiting the local oligarchs and the (their) mainstream press. After some political bloodletting from which Correa has not escaped unhurt, a referendum on holding the Assembly was finally authorized, and in April of this year approved by more than 80 % of voters. Present indications are that the government list of candidates will win handily.

Unsurprisingly, the opposition, which now somewhat ironically seems to be coalescing around deposed President Gutiérrez, has been fighting back. The government has been snared by a hostile Congress, but the lack of cooperation may have backfired as the legislative body is one of the least respected institutions in the country and its reform the single most important, and popular, plank of Correa’s political platform. Frequent personal attacks, above all by the media, helped along by the President’s sometimes erratically confrontational style, have been used in an attempt to undermine his popularity. And while his support has dropped, to around 70% at last count, his challenges to the media, the bankers and Congress have raised the profile of issues previously discretely ignored. His often polemical style may even have solidified hardcore support for his program. His courage is evident, even when he oversteps the mark.

The Assembly and Blue Yonder

Courage he may have, but can Correa win a majority in the Assembly? and if so, how will that majority be used? What is the long-term plan?

The first question seems the easier to answer. The bewildering number of candidates (more than 3,000 for 124 seats) and the prohibition on most traditional forms of advertising may favour the traditional parties and already established names, but the overwhelmingly positive response to the Referendum indicates that the government list, headed by Alberto Acosta, is likely to get a majority.

On the negative side, the experience in Bolivia has shown that a majority may not be enough. There, the two thirds majority finally agreed for major constitutional changes mean that Evo Morales needs allies in order to achieve his goals, and the Correa government may well find itself in a similar situation. Even if, perhaps especially if, an overall majority is obtained, the right’s tactics in Bolivia have shown that violence and major disruptions may be aimed to slow or even put an end to the Assembly’s work.

For the long term, there are pointers. Correa is an integrationist – Latin America for the Latin Americans you might say – and as such supports a common currency for South America. He has paid off Ecuador’s debt to the IMF and taken the country into the Banco del Sur, the Chávez backed alternative which is presently grounded on the rocks of Brazilian resistance. Correa has promised not to renew the lease on the American base in the port of Manta when it comes up for renewal in 2009, and has stated his liking for a Quito-La Paz-Caracas axis, while playing safe by simultaneously strengthening ties to Brazil and its drive for Pacific Ocean outlets to Far East markets.

In the meantime there is work to be done at home. The administration’s position isrumored to be divided internally between right and left and it is totally dependent on the President and his public image; it also has many enemies. The relationship with the military, whose higher ranks are holdovers from the Gutiérrez period, is one of mutually cautious acceptance, while the lack of the type of grassroots support that sustains Morales in Bolivia is a real handicap. The Ecuadorian leader has shown a distinct lack of interest in uniting the social forces that might sustain him in difficult times. He seems more interested in keeping them at arms length for political purposes while forming his own grassroots support. Hit out at the Right while letting the Left distance and divide itself.

It’s not a new strategy. The gamble is to maintain high overall public support by appealing to the middle ground. One crucial difference, is that the kind of legislation that might keep some of the more traditional allies onside, even if marginally, can not be passed while the present Congress is in office.

The tactic may still prove workable but Correa needs to be careful not to overstep the mark. The use of force to suppress campesinos demonstrating in the South of the country against mining development was a major error. Many communities are fighting back after feeling the sharp end of the miners pick, but present legislation is of the Father Christmas variety, written a number of years ago under the auspices of the World Bank, and cannot be changed given the attitude of Congress.

Correa has said that Assembly can resolve the problem, but the use of violence against people trying to defend their land has shocked many and lead to increasing levels of scepticism amongst would be supporters.

Perhaps the sceptics are right, Correa and his Twenty First Century Socialism could be anything. He would not be the first to approach the Presidency like a violin, picking it up with the left and playing it with the right. But many (including myself) are still doggedly hopeful that he won’t disappoint, as so many others have before him, and that at worst he may prove to be a social democrat able to remove at least some of the more glaring injustices in this country of so much poverty and inequality. And while Alberto Acosta forms part of the administration, the signs will remain positive.

*Gerard Coffey is an independent journalist. From 2002 to 2006 he was a director of ‘Tintaji’, a fortnightly political journal published in Quito, Ecuador. This is an updated expanded version of an article which appeared in the September edition of Liberation (UK) <www.liberationorg.co.uk>