Contributoria

Article Human Rights & Press Freedom

Rafael Correa: from candidate for change to president for life

Once a darling of the Ecuadorian left, the president's power-grabs and policy reversals have hollowed out his support from the social movements that first brought him to power

An economics professor at la Universidad San Fransisco de Quito entered Ecuador’s 2006 presidential race in 13th place as a radical candidate for change. The nation had seen two major protest movements in the previous two years: the first in 2005 led by students and cities, the second in 2006 led by rural indigenous. Rafael Correa spoke to both movements and articulated their concerns in his maverick campaign.

Now, nearly a decade later, the social movements that lifted him to power have mostly been pushed to the margins and the constitution is being rewritten for the second time during his presidency to allow for Correa’s indefinite re-election.

Correa is currently serving his third term, an impressive feat for a nation that had seven presidents in the 10 years prior to his election. His critics allege that this political stability has come at a cost. According to Carlos de la Torre, a professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky and author of Populist Seduction In Latin America, Correa was elected in 2006 on a platform built in part on the demands of social movements and the left—resisting neoliberalism, convening a Constituent Assembly and not renewing the lease of the Manta military base to the US. But once in power, instead of allying with social movements, Correa used co-optation and selective repression to demobilize and control civil society…The outcome of Correa’s populist polarization and confrontation has been the creation of a soft authoritarian government.

While Correa remains a popular figure in leftist circles in North America and Europe, domestic opposition to his presidency increasingly comes from his left. Alberto Acosta, who was president of the assembly that rewrote the constitution in 2007 and an early architect of the so-called “citizens’ revolution” that began with the 2006 campaign, has become one of Correa’s harshest critics. He compared Correa’s 2013 election victory to playing a soccer match on a tilted field and paying off the referee. Correa had long since replaced the National Election Council and important judicial positions with his allies.

2010 crisis and press freedom

In 2010 the police went on a nationwide strike in response to payment grievances and Correa made a surprise visit to the police headquarters in Quito. He borrowed a megaphone, ripped open his shirt and yelled at the assembled police officers:“Kill me if you like, kill me if you’re brave, instead of being cowards, hiding like cowards!”

The police fired teargas at him and he retreated into a hospital within the police compound. From his cellphone he gave interviews to media, claiming he was being held hostage, and ordered the military to clear police headquarters by force. Eight people were killed.

The nation’s largest newspaper, el Universo, subsequently published an editorial claiming that Correa had blood on his hands and was a dictator. Correa sued the writer and the newspaper’s directors. In an unusual move for a sitting president, he personally attended the trial and the judge ruled in his favor, sentencing the defendants to three years in prison and a $40m fine, which was more than the newspaper was worth.

An extensive 2011 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists outlined dozens more incidents of the president using systemic state campaigns to silence critical journalists and create a chilling effect on the media’s ability to report on government corruption or transparency.

More recently, in 2015, Correa made headlines by using his weekly presidential address to call out some Twitter users who had disrespected him on the online platform. He singled out three users, announcing their twitter handles and real names and addresses, and urged his followers to teach them a lesson. This earned him a segment on the HBO comedy show This Week Tonight by Jon Oliver. The following week, Correa used his presidential address to mock Jon Oliver.

Protest

Before going any further, Correa must be given some credit. Under his presidency poverty rates are down, social spending is up and his government has tried some innovative approaches to old problems. The major pitfall of his administration and legacy is his complete inability to tolerate dissent.

The 2010 crisis is a good example. First he was bold enough to go to a protest that was in many ways against him to chastise the protesters, then when journalists wrote opinions contrary to his own he sued them. These are somewhat dramatic examples, but similar events happen on a regular basis, such as police detaining people when they show their middle finger to the presidential motorcade.

Ecuador has a strong history of political street protest. In the 28 years between the end of the military dictatorship in 1979 and Correa’s inauguration in 2007, dissent in the street was a regular occurrence.

The small Andean nation was particularly vulnerable to blockades of vital mountain passes by protesters. This created a dynamic where if any government angered a large enough segment of the population, they could shut down strategic roads and either force the government to change direction, or, in more extreme cases, to collapse. Social movements were not always strong enough to elect the president, but they held veto power over whoever sat in office. Ecuador’s susceptibility to the power of protest could hinder its progress, but it also kept the worst abuses of government and presidential power grabs in check.

Correa was extremely popular when elected and almost any street demonstration at the time was in favor of the government and used to pressure the opposition. As time progressed, Correa consolidated his power and did not need to rely as much on the street. He also very slowly began to alienate some of his former supporters.

The indigenous movement has a history of clashing with government over mineral exploitation, whether it be mining in the mountains or oil extraction in the Aamazon. Increasingly, the indigenous movement, which once stood firmly behind Correa, has joined the opposition after the president rescinded earlier environmental pledges.

The student movement, also once strongly behind Correa, has begun to fracture. MPD, a small Marxist political party that held influence in many of the nation’s universities and was the only established party to support Correa after his first election, has also joined the opposition. Correa created teacher and student unions that were directly connected to the political party he founded and encouraged the old unions, often affiliated with MPD, to join him, pitting those that did against those still loyal to MPD.

The party has since lost its official standing as a result of new government regulations. “The party is still there, we still meet and do all the same things, we just can’t do it in the open anymore—and everyone regrets ever supporting Correa,” according to one professor at the University of Cotopaxi.

New laws have greatly restricted protest. Before Correa no permit was needed. Now, any group that wants to protest must be granted permission from the government and there are many restrictions, such as the prohibition of protest outside places of business during working hours.

Arrests at protests, once rare, have become much more common and the government has begun building more jails and increasing its prison population. In 2014, three large jails were built, each a small city in itself, with a combined capacity for 15,000 new inmates. The population of Ecuador, at about 14 million, is smaller than metropolitan New York City.

Under Correa’s reign, the nation has changed a lot. Ecuador has become a much more politically stable nation, but at what cost? With significantly weakened press freedoms and social movements, Correa’s soft authoritarianism legacy will have an impact on the nation long after he is gone.

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