Friday, April 30, 2010

Politics in Ecuador

Every Saturday at 10 a.m. Rafael Correa, Ecuador's president, gives a weekly televised talk to the public about what has transpired the previous week. Elected in 2007 with 80% popularity, Correa represents the socialist trend that has been occurring throughout Lain America during the last decade. While he is not as far to the left as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, he maintains close ties with him, as well as with Raul Castro, a fact that worries a great deal of middle and upper class Cuencanos .

I try to listen to Correa's weekly address when we are home Saturday mornings and have been really impressed with the content and the tone of his speeches. (I first heard his speech back in January and wrote this at that time). What I found interesting in his last speech was he gave an extremely detailed description of how he had spent the previous 2 weeks (he was in Russia and England and missed a Saturday in Quito), spelling out literally what he did at what hour and with whom he met. It occurred to me that he needs to build trust and confidence with the Ecuadorian people since the politicians that preceded him were so corrupt. He said several times in his speech "these trips abroad are exhausting for us but very important for diplomacy". At one point, he said "Don't think we just watch movies on the plane; we are always working - rewriting speeches, reviewing itineraries, briefing one another on different areas...". Although he is enjoying the support of the majority of the people, he still needs to defend himself as a politician because there is an inherent mistrust of government here. My sense is that one his goals in these weekly public reports is to be 100% transparent with the Ecuadorian people- something no other past president has done and for that, I admire him.

Correa also used his time to educate the population on different parts of the world and on topics of international interest. I was impressed that he was able to talk to the poeple, not in a condescending manner but rather in an informal, educational way. I felt like I was listening to my neighbor tell me about a recent trip. Some Ecuadorians have criticized him for being too informal; they are so accustomed to standoff-ish, extremely formal politicians that it is really hard for them to hear the president of their country talk in a different way. For others, it is very refreshing and they appreciate Correa's transparency and candidness.

As in so many Latin American countries, Ecuador's political past has been unstable and corrupt. Since 1996, there have been 10, yes 10, presidents. In 2007 Correa defeated Álvaro Noboa, the banana tycoon and Bible-quoting scion of a Guayaquil family who is Ecuador's richest man. Running on a platform that combined nationalistic control of the economy with broadly popular social welfare programs for the poor, Correa enjoyed great support and easily won the election. His "Ciudadania Revolucionaria" (Citizen's Revolution) has included free education for all from kindergarten to the university level, free health care, facilities for handicapped people (his vice president Lenin Moreno uses a wheelchair and is a parapelegic) and increased taxes on imported and luxury goods (this really angers the weaalthy here but, of course, is the right decision and encourages the purchase of domestic products).

Since I've been here, I have heard all kinds of opinions about Correa. In general, the poorer, rural folks adore him for obvious reasons. First of all, he makes an effort to broadcast his weekly speeches from towns and indigenous communities that many people never knew existed and, of course, the local community feels honored and recognized. One campesino recently told my American friend that since Correa has been President, he has not had to make the tough decision as to which of his 7 kids gets to go to school; now they are all enrolled and it costs him nothing! Access to health care is another huge reason why he is very popular with the poor.

Most middle and upper class Ecuadorians will admit that Correa has done one favorable thing for the entire country and that is improving the roads, particularly in southern Ecuador. Traditionally, the politicians in Quito have put the majority of their time and effort into improving the roads around the capital and southern Ecuador (where Cuenca is located) has been left behind. Now there are relatively nicely paved roads in the entire country, thanks to Correa. Both the rich and the poor love that!

Beyond that, however, the middle and upper class folks don't have much good to say about Correa. They feel very nervous about his socialist bent and ties with Chavez and Castro. They now have to pay more for their favorite bottle of wine (imported usually from Chile, Argentina or the States) or their preferred brand of perfume, cigarettes, etc, etc, And of course, they do not like higher taxes. I find those reasons to be quite selfish but, of course, I keep my opinions to myself because I really want to hear what they have to say. Every now and then I will meet an educated middle or upper class person who fully supports Correa (this happened with the couple Don and I met in the Galapagos and spent all evening chatting with) and I find that so refreshing. Generally speaking, these supporters truly want an end to the corruption of the elite classes and the government and they understand that universal access to health and education should be a right and is certainly beneficial for the entire country.

It will be very interesting to see what happens during the rest of his presidency.

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