ECUADOR ELECTION – Video Report from London

In the first round of Ecuador’s presidential election no one candidate won outright with more than 40% of the vote. The country is looking for a successor to Rafael Correa and will hold a run-off in April. Here’s my preview video:

Correa cruising on

The Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa, sets off on his landmark third term

This blog will be travelling to Ecuador next month

After blitzing the opposition in a crushing first-round victory in the presidential election on 17 February, the next job for Rafael Correa is to count down the days to yet another inauguration later in the spring. He was so confident of victory last month that he hit the airwaves shortly after polls closed claiming his third win in the battle for the small South American country’s hot-seat.

Rafael Correa seems to follow an interesting policy agenda. It is a concoction of hardline leftist leanings in the manner of his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chávez and softer capitalist schemes. A kind of curious, simultaneous mix of the defence of the protective power of the state and a defence of letting private foreigners tap for resources in the forests.

Many governments in Latin America regularly seem to put themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the issues of ‘public v private’ asset ownership. Venezuela is an example of a country that has scythed a path through private fields and turned the crop over for harvest by state monopolies. Countries like Brazil prefer the state to lead the way overall even if there are gradual moves such as the announcements from the Dilma administration towards favouring some private investment in infrastructure projects like road and airport construction.

Who owns whose natural resources and who does what with them is always a hot topic in the region. Mexico was sure to underline the significance it attaches to this matter: it inked the promise that all its oil shall be owned by the people and for the people into its constitution. In his second term, Rafael Correa gave a Chinese firm the green light to construct an enormous copper mine near the town of El Pangui. Almost a year ago to the day, large demonstrations by indigenous people preceded a march to the capital, Quito, by residents who feared the development would pollute their water supply, among other complaints. A leftist ally of the president, Bolivian leader Evo Morales, has also felt the heat from indigenous groups who he has rubbed up the wrong way with highway construction through their territory. If Correa is to continue to allow foreign powers to dig and drill in his lush Andean lands then how he deals with the local backlash will remain a serious issue in his third term.

Interestingly, road-building has actually been one of the welcomed development projects in Ecuador. Correa is championed as a leader who takes the time to focus on basic projects. Many people have credited him with a policy agenda that looks to build the country up from the ground, via both motorway construction and social support programmes such as the $50 monthly aid stipend for the poorest families.

There have been low points in his presidency. Rafael Correa has had several serious encounters with the media and he has been accused of trying to exert the same sort of state control over the press that he has wielded in other areas of Ecuadorian society. He has not been shy in bringing lawsuits against the media and the most notable case was his dispute with El Universo newspaper in 2011. This case not only drew international denouncements for the attack on the press, but also over the neutrality of the judges involved. (Mr Correa has also been accused of the age-old tactic of stuffing the courthouses with favourable friends.) Enraged by a critical editorial, the president filed a case against the publication’s opinion editor and two directors and the men were found guilty of libel, sentenced to three years in jail and forced to cough up $40 million in damages. The constitutional court that handed down these verdicts later absolved the convicted journalists after Correa triumphantly announced that, despite him supposedly suffering grave damage to his character, he could still summon up the laudable strength to pardon the men.

And despite his friendliness to outside nations when it comes to tapping up natural resources, he has also not been afraid of stepping on other people’s shoes, particularly those of the United States and the United Kingdom, as the Julian Assange case illustrates. The controversial Australian head of the Wikileaks website is currently holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he was given asylum last year in a multi-national row also involving Sweden, where he is wanted over allegations of sexual abuse. Correa took his time considering the matter but in the end was more than happy to step in and waggle his thumb once again in Washington’s face. For his third term, it seems likely that we will see more of the same: more social support for the poor; more permits for foreign investors; and more antagonism of the West. One area of concern is whether we will see more of the worrying attacks on the press. Overall though, his policies have served him well so far. He might as well continue blazing his trail.

This blog will be travelling to Ecuador next month


Impeaching the president of Paraguay

Fernando Lugo has been thrown out of office over a bungled land dispute which left 17 people dead

On June 15 the army was deployed to try to settle a land ownership dispute. The soldiers arrived at a remote reserve north of the capital, Asunción, on a mission to restore order and halt violence between police and farmers who had occupied the estate. In total, 17 people were killed, of whom seven were police officers. President Lugo agreed to get rid of his interior minister and head of police but overall, the leader’s response to the rural violence was criticised for not being quick enough but he has strongly denounced calls that he was politically responsible for the deaths.

Moreover, his general handling of rural unrest in the longer-term was questioned and Lugo has firmly denied any links to the left-wing Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP) which has carried out guerrilla attacks on some village police stations. The general flavour of the whole debate soured and the opposition Colorado Party saw a chance really to twist the knife on Fernando Lugo and cultivated support amongst member’s of Lugo’s coalition in order to secure the confidence vote.

On Friday 22 the Paraguayan Senate ruled by 39 votes to 4 to give Mr Lugo the boot, following a 73-1 majority in the lower house in favour of the impeachment. But just as the senators in Asunción were quick to send the president on his way, governments across the region were quick to condemn the decision and announce their refusal to recognise the new leader.

Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela all denounced the ruling as a ‘covered-up coup’ with the Ecuadorian leader, Rafael Correa, calling the decision “absolutely illegitimate”. Argentina and Brazil have recalled their ambassadors. However, the Paraguayan army has accepted the ruling and the vice-president, Federico Franco, has been formally sworn in as the interim leader until the next set of presidential elections next year. There is no re-election in the small, land-locked, South American state but it is so far unclear whether Franco will stand or will be allowed to stand, given the unusual circumstances of his promotion.

For his part, outgoing president Lugo spoke soon after the ruling:

“Today it isn’t Fernando Lugo who took a hit, it’s Paraguay’s history, her democracy, which has been profoundly wounded… although this has been twisted like a fragile branch in the wind, I submit myself to the decision of Congress. I would like to thank all Paraguayans who stood by me”.

Lugo should be praised for stepping aside so assuredly even though he wholeheartedly rejects any allegation of misconduct in his public office. He called the ruling “unjust” and says he has stepped aside ‘in the name of peace’. The removal of a president is often a messy process, as we are witnessing in the Middle East at the moment and as we saw in Honduras a couple of years ago when President Zelaya was flown out of the country in the middle of the night by the army.

Sometimes having a pop at the politician in the top job can be nearly impossible, as they surround and cover themselves in hidden documents, spin doctors, closed doors and parliamentary privilege. But on other occasions a president or prime minister suffers a blink-and-you-will-miss-it dismissal. The political process this time round in Paraguay was worryingly swift but regional instability could simmer for longer.