QUITO, Ecuador – It would be hard to find someone more representative of this country’s political establishment than Mauricio Gandara, 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,” Gandara said. “Now look what we ended up with.”
In the nearly four years since Correa became president, he has upended the political order in this small Andean nation and managed to confound both his supporters and critics. He is in many 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 Chavez who remains friendly enough with Washington to have chatted with President Barack Obama in October by telephone.
The pile-up of paradoxes reached a climax in late September after he proposed a very unsocialist raft of budget austerity measures to combat the economic crisis, setting off an uprising of police officers that nearly took his life.
But in a wide-ranging interview recently at his palace in this city’s old centre, the 47-year-old president was philosophical about recent events.
“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 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. Correa was shoved and tear-gassed. The government has displayed as evidence bullet damage to the president’s armoured 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, 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 Gandara are spinning.
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 rhetoric. Chavez, 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.
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 centre 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, arguing much of it was invalid. 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.
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 neighbours, Ecuador has not seen the emergence of the large-scale cultivation of coca, the plant used to make cocaine.
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.