Ecuador leader confounds supporters and detractors

It would be hard to find someone more representative of
this country’s political establishment than Mauricio Gándara, an aristocratic
former ambassador to Britain who lobbied for an obscure economics professor
named Rafael Correa to become
finance minister five years ago.

“He came off as well spoken and polite, and his
credentials were impeccable,” Mr. Gándara said. “Now look what we ended up
with.”

In the nearly four years since Mr. Correa became
president, he has upended the political order in this Andean nation and managed
to confound both his supporters and critics. He is in some ways a walking
contradiction: a child of poverty who breached the gates of Ecuador’s
entrenched elite, an economist from a bastion of conservatism who preaches
“21st-century socialism,” and an ally of the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez who remains friendly enough
with Washington to have chatted with President Obama this month
by telephone.

The array of paradoxes reached a climax late last month
after the Socialist president proposed a raft of benefit reduction measures,
setting off an uprising of police officers that nearly took
his life.

But in a wide-ranging interview on Friday at his palace
in this city’s old center, the 47-year-old president was philosophical about
the events of the last two weeks.

“Obviously what I’m doing affects privileges, and we
always knew that there was risk in this project,” he said while sipping mineral
water under a portrait of Eloy Alfaro, a national hero of the turn of the last
century who inspired a guerrilla movement here in the 1980s. “But the only way
of not generating conflict is to do nothing, and I wasn’t elected to do
nothing.”

He has called the police uprising, whose proximate cause
was a law cutting benefits for civil servants, the equivalent of a coup
attempt, and he said in the interview that audio communications intercepted by
intelligence officials revealed plans by rebellious police officers to assassinate
him.

Dozens of rebellious police officers have been arrested
and hundreds more have simply gone back to their posts, feeding government
claims that conspirators are still lurking in the nation’s security forces.

But the searing image left by the uprising was not that
of the protesters but of Mr. Correa, who waded into the angry scrum of
protesting officers at the police barracks in the capital, engaged in a
shouting match with the police, opened his shirt
and dared the officers to kill him
.

They nearly did.

Five people were killed. Mr. Correa was shoved and
tear-gassed. The government has displayed as evidence bullet damage to the
president’s armored sport utility vehicle, including a shot to the windshield.

His combative handling of the crisis seems to have
bolstered his popularity, but critics have accused him of stoking the tension
for political gain.

In the interview, Mr. Correa offered no regrets for his
actions but still seemed shaken.

“I’m shattered by all that has happened,” he said.
“Imagine, five deaths and hundreds of wounded. I come from academia and found
the brutality of these people very dangerous.”

Then the American-educated economist quickly turned to
the populist catchphrases of the Latin American left.

“There is no revolution without counterrevolution,” he
said.

Little wonder the heads of critics like Mr. Gándara are
spinning.

Mr. Correa’s mixture of polyglot academic success,
street-smart political acumen and crude outbursts against his opponents make
him a contender for the region’s most enigmatic leader.

He differs markedly from other Latin American leftists
who share a taste for aggressive verbiage. Mr. Chávez, for instance, emerged
from the ranks of the military, carrying out a failed coup attempt in 1992. Evo Morales was a militant leader of
Bolivia’s coca growers before being elected president.

Mr. Correa, by contrast, seemed to have more in common
with the technocrats who held broader sway in the region in the 1990s, with his
Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, a
Belgian wife and a job teaching economics at San Francisco University, a center
of Quito’s conservative establishment.

But once in office, he led a constitutional overhaul that
raised pension payments for the poor, prohibited discrimination based on sexual
orientation and enhanced his own power, allowing him to run for two new
four-year terms that could enable him to stay in office until 2017.

He clashed with the World Bank, expelling its representative
here, and defaulted on the foreign debt. Challenging the Bush administration,
he opted against renewing an agreement allowing American pilots to operate
antidrug flights from Manta on the Pacific coast, shutting the most prominent
American military outpost in South America.

Despite the police rebellion and recent protests by
student and indigenous groups, polls show that he retains a solid majority of
support and is Ecuador’s strongest leader in decades. He has brought calm and
stability to a country that had eight presidents in the decade before he was
elected, and then, remarkably, he was re-elected in 2009.

Supporters cite his subsidies for the poor, road-building
projects and bureaucracy-streamlining efforts.

“Ecuador’s political class are corrupt pigs,” said Hugo
Caicedo, 50, a parking attendant here. “Correa is finally changing that.”

He has not shied away from making enemies, including his older brother, Fabricio Correa, the owner of an
engineering business in Guayaquil, the port city where they grew up. In an
effort to eliminate the appearance of nepotism, the president demanded that state
contracts obtained by his brother be rescinded, and the elder Mr. Correa has
since become one of the president’s most vociferous critics.

“Rafael is a fanatic willing to sacrifice his own brother
to show loyalty to the revolution,” Fabricio Correa said in a separate
interview here.

But many Ecuadoreans admire Mr. Correa’s remarkable
ability to rise from humble beginnings and claw his way up a highly stratified
society.

In a traumatic episode at the age of 5 that he rarely
speaks about, his father was caught smuggling a small amount of drugs into the
United States and sentenced there to three years in prison. His mother, in
penury, sold box lunches in Guayaquil to make ends meet.

Mr. Correa won a scholarship to study at a private
school, and a path out of poverty.

“Interestingly, my father returned to Ecuador a better
human being,” he said. Still, he added defiantly: “My father was not a
criminal. He was unemployed.”

The episode also seems to have influenced Mr. Correa’s
drug policies. As president, he reduced prison sentences for thousands of
low-level drug couriers.

“American counternarcotics strategy is completely
mistaken,” he said, contending that resources are often used to single out poor
growers and smugglers while kingpins go free. He said that unlike its Andean
neighbors, Ecuador has not seen the emergence of the large-scale cultivation of
coca, the plant used to make cocaine.

Mr. Correa has chafed at some American policies as
president of a country that remains tied to the United States. Ecuador is South
America’s only nation to use the dollar as its currency, part of an economic
stabilization effort, while hundreds of thousands of Ecuadorean immigrants live
in the United States.

Still, he sees nuances where others might see
contradictions, saying his social and economic policies are in fact comparable
to Roosevelt’s New Deal. “If they were in our place, the large majority of
North Americans would do the same thing,” he said, “because they would never
put up with the levels of injustice, inequality and inefficiency that this
country has had.”

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