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

 

Not just a canal, but a keystone

The bridge nation speaks up

Earlier in the month the Panamanian president, Ricardo Martinelli, gave a talk at Canning House (canninghouse.org, @Canning_House) in London called ‘Panama and Central America: Challenges and Opportunities’.

ECONOMY

Mr Martinelli spoke at length and was questioned afterwards on the more difficult topics. The president has Italian roots and he was keen to point to them in the talk, spending nearly half his speech praising immigration to the country and the economic benefits of foreign fingers in the Panama City pie. He told us that 7% of the population was from the US but he also stressed that his nation must not to be seen as a tax-sanctuary and that overseas citizens had pay their homeland due as well as the Panamanian ones.

Martinelli eulogised about his 2% budget deficit and national high standard of living and claimed the only rival to his country in Latin America for economic competition was Chile. He boasted of the 12% growth forecast for next year. He assured the collected that he would try hard to save Panama from becoming embroiled in the financial crisis: “we are almost immune, through being so far away and not relying on one commodity or product.”

INFRASTRUCTURE

Panama is famous for its canal but Mr Martinelli admitted that widening and modernising works were behind schedule. He confirmed the companies involved would lose their cash incentive if they miss the July deadline, (which he confessed was likely), saying “the impact on the economy would be great.” He wanted to show us that there was more to the country’s infrastructure than the inter-oceanic waterway and highlighted the investment in rapid building of cruise-liner ports and the improvements to the capital’s public transport system he had approved.

RE-ELECTION

After his talk, the president was pressed on slightly less comfortable issues than easy national promotion and talk of bilateral trade deals. I wanted to steer him towards talking about his neighbours and pointed out that Nicaragua had recently re-elected Daniel Ortega after the president’s party had secured a modification to the constitution. When Manuel Zelaya, the former Honduran leader, had tried that in his country in 2009 the army flew in during the night and carted him off to Costa Rica. And the intentions of Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan head-of-state, are clear: he would like to stay in power until 2031.

The response of Mr Martinelli was also simple: he is not in favour of re-election – “you should go home after one term”. He was at pains to point out that he was not describing the situation in Nicaragua, but he saw being voted back into office and changing constitutions to allow re-votes as undemocratic moves in a (largely) growing region of democracies. Re-election is outlawed in Panama and Martinelli confirmed it would remain so.

SECURITY

He was also pushed on tax treaties, eco-tourism (a field in which Costa Rica has done particularly well) and security, the most worrying topic in the region. Panama is the link between the north of South America, where the internal problems with criminal gangs are largely subsiding (although international cocaine production continues) and Central America. Here the murders, extortions and abductions are worsening, especially in the ‘Northern Triangle’ of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Panama is a transit country, with gangsters flying over it to land in jungle airstrips or sailing along its mosquito-riddled coasts, bubbling through the mangrove swamps in mini-submarines or speedy launches on their way to Mexico. Martinelli was adamant that his country would not be put at risk by encroaching gangs and outlined the security measures – namely the training of more police and the expansion of surveillance procedures – he was taking to ensure his people (and the foreigners and their multi-billion-dollar businesses in Panama City) were safe.

Mr Martinelli’s country is going places but it needs to shout its little voice louder on the regional stage to confront this problematic issue of criminal violence with its Latin partners. The rising violence is a disease that is borderless that requires international treatment. That Panama is comparatively successful is good for the region but Mr Martinelli must not solely focus economic efforts on the foreign-dominated capital. He must remember the villages and small-holders of the countryside. But he is not doing badly.