During a recent trip to Ecuador I learned much about President Rafael Correa; why he is popular and why he will most likely be reelected. Though it’s easy to caricature him as a Chavista populist, it was difficult to find serious and fair-minded voices in Ecuador that would say he is anything other than extremely shrewd, sane, pragmatic, and predictably unpredictable. In contrast to Hugo Chavez, he is making good use of high oil prices fixing roads and infrastructure, subsiding energy, improving the delivery of basic services and raising educational standards, and providing transfers to the nation’s poorest citizens. To be sure, this government is nationalistic, interventionist and heavy-handed. Correa is no conventional democrat as his attack on the press eloquently demonstrated.
There is however method to President Correa’s heavy-handed tactics. They are arguably necessary in a country where few institutions work and vested interests, including foreign ones, regularly make use of raw power via marches, manipulation of the media, and corruption. Weak chief executives of any stripe would not survive in Ecuador. In fact, they have not. U.S. officials are fretful of Correa who consistently resists closer ties with Washington. In fairness though, it is easy to understand his mistrust given that the United States has demonstrated a willingness to stir up trouble for leftist governments in the region, both historically and recently.
The Ecuadorian military for its part is concerned with Correa’s government’s willingness to meddle in military management. It is aware of this game and jealously guards its prerogatives. The brass seems to have developed a good working relationship with the poet-cum-defense minister, one of Correa’s right-hand men. The military and Correa desperately need each other. In Ecuador one is hard pressed to find an institution that works as well as the military, even though it is small and stretched much too thin. The military, moreover, supports many institutions that flatly do not work well or simply cannot be relied upon such as the police. Ecuadorian citizens understand this, it seems, and support the military just as they support the government. Notwithstanding formal civilian control over the armed forces, my sense is that no one believes this. Military officers, for their part, understand Correa’s popularity and that much of his policy agenda is a welcome one for the beleaguered country. They sympathize, moreover, with the president’s desire for sovereignty and agree that strained relations with Washington are due to longstanding differences as well as the government’s populism.
Finally, if I understood the signals correctly, the military will not support Chavismo in Ecuador. They support the president and civilian control, but they respect the latest in the plethora of Ecuadorian constitutions. Indeed, they helped to write it. “This too shall pass” they seem to say to all who will listen, including the president who they expect will serve his final term after the anticipated victory. The question I have is whether Correa will till the soil for institutional changes that would permit him to run again after what should be his final term in office. Many observers believe that he will but I’m not so sure. One can, I think, reasonably hope that he realizes that Chavismo cannot work without a critical mass of support from within the armed forces. He does not have it now based on what I saw and heard. If so, then, going about the business of getting support from military men might itself trigger an early end to his administration. Ecuadorian military leaders are serious people; they control the only major institution that has functioned reasonably well and will jealously protect it from efforts by the government to politicize it for its own ends.