Ecuador, Ever Unstable, Prepares for New Leader’s Plans

Por Venezuela Real - 15 de Abril, 2007, 18:23, Categoría: Prensa Internacional

The New York Times
April 15, 2007

QUITO, Ecuador, April 14 — The past few weeks have been unkind to Ecuador’s Congress. A court fired 57 of the legislators. Mobs beat some of the expelled lawmakers in the street. When Congress finally convened this week, someone lobbed a tear gas canister near its chamber, forcing lawmakers to flee.

The future looks dimmer still for Congress, one of the most reviled institutions in chronically unstable Ecuador. If President Rafael Correa gets his way in a referendum on Sunday, his supporters will soon start rewriting the constitution to weaken congressional power and enhance state control of the economy.

Critics of Mr. Correa, who has been emboldened by a 70 percent approval rating and his alliance with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, call the move a power grab. But Mr. Correa is a political newcomer lacking Mr. Chávez’s control over abundant oil revenues, and he faces an array of challenges that make amassing much greater authority daunting.

“Correa is trying to fix a mistake with another mistake,” said Ramiro Crespo, president of Analytica Securities, an investment bank based here. “His lack of respect for political institutions is troubling, but Ecuador’s internal conditions may prevent him from getting too far.”

Unlike other oil-exporting countries, Ecuador is not benefiting greatly from high oil prices. Economic growth in the last quarter of 2006 slowed to 2.2 percent, well below the 4 percent growth in the previous quarter, after output declined in oil fields seized by the government last year from Occidental Petroleum of Los Angeles, which was Ecuador’s largest foreign investor.

Confusion over Mr. Correa’s economic policies has also unsettled investors, with banks lending less to builders and other companies. Mr. Correa, 44, an economist educated in the United States and Belgium, has criticized Ecuador’s use of the dollar as its currency, a policy adopted in 2000 to halt a plunge in the value of the previous currency, the sucre. And he signaled a desire to restructure the country’s foreign debt.

Such talk, however, looks more like bluster since Ecuador recently met its obligations with foreign creditors. Mr. Correa said a new constitution would not reverse current monetary policy. And while Mr. Correa opposes a far-reaching trade agreement with Washington, he favors preferential treatment for exports to the United States like flowers and tuna.

“Correa has shown flashes of moderation and pragmatism,” said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy center in Washington. “He’s also been adept at appealing to a widely felt grievance against corrupt politics and disgust with the political class.”

Such sentiment existed, of course, in Venezuela and Bolivia, other Andean countries that convened assemblies to rewrite their constitutions after populist presidents were elected. Analysts contrast Mr. Chávez’s success at consolidating power in Venezuela with the troubles faced by President Evo Morales in Bolivia, where a constitution-writing assembly has been stalled by fractious delegates and regional power struggles.

Mr. Correa, hampered by slowing economic growth and entrenched business interests in Guayaquil, a city on the coast, could face similar challenges if the vote to rewrite the constitution is approved. But just three months into power and lacking a solid base in Congress, Mr. Correa has little choice but to move forward with the plan while support among voters is high.

Polls this month put support for a “yes” vote on convening a constitution-writing assembly well above the majority needed for approval. But heavy spending on advertising by business groups opposed to the measure created doubts on the eve of the referendum on whether it would pass with a wide margin.

Small right-wing parties tried linking Mr. Correa to Mr. Chávez with the slogan “No to 21st-Century Socialism,” an allusion to Venezuela’s experiment with nationalizations, state cooperatives and efforts to curb American influence in the developing world.

Indeed, Ecuador is an important front in Mr. Chávez’s ambitions to lift Venezuela’s regional influence. Venezuela has offered help to refine some of Ecuador’s crude oil and has supported Ecuador’s plan to return to OPEC, which it left in the early 1990s after it fell behind in paying dues.

And Ecuador has loudly supported a plan to create a regional development bank called Bank of the South, which would be backed mainly by Venezuela and used to blunt the influence of the World Bank in Latin America. Brazil, which has been slow in supporting the bank, said on Saturday that it would become a member.

Echoes of Mr. Chávez’s policies here, like a vague proposal by Mr. Correa to “regulate” news organizations, have raised concern in some quarters. Still, Mr. Correa, while opposing the renewal of an agreement allowing the United States to maintain a military base in Manta, a coastal city, has also adroitly resisted the Venezuelan largess offered to countries like Bolivia and Nicaragua.

“There is a disproportionate image of Chávez’s influence on him,” said Adrian Bonilla, director here of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences. “He is more autonomous.”

Carla D’nan Bass contributed reporting.

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