Ecuador Elections: Four More Years for Correa?

Photo by: Rinaldo Wurglitsch “Rinaldo W.” | Flickr | Creative Commons

Like him or not, President Rafael Correa has done what few recent Ecuadorean presidents have done – complete a term in office.  When he announced on November 10 his intent to run for re-election, observers in and outside Ecuador immediately declared him the favorite.  (Correa ran a second time in 2009, without completing his first term, under the rules of a new Constitution.)  Such predictions make it easy to forget how uncertain Correa’s presidency looked when he started it in 2007 – as a 43-year-old, U.S.-educated economist – and how few expected him to succeed.  In the ten years prior, social movements led by workers and indigenous peoples toppled a succession of seven presidents.  Rejection of IMF-led reforms had been both deep and broad in Ecuador, and it was hard for a president to complete a year, let alone a term.

High oil prices have helped Correa succeed by facilitating visible public spending, but that is not the whole story.  By almost all accounts, Correa has been far from perfect – his treatment of the press has particularly troubled rights experts – but he has provided some stability and halted the cycle of mass protests, strikes, and presidential turnover.  With a blend of economic populism and nationalist rhetoric, Correa has turned the same social movements that were once the scourge of Ecuadorean presidents into a base of support.  He has incorporated formerly marginalized people into the “nation” that he claims to defend – what academic Steven Ellner called “a new narrative of nationhood that challenges long-held assumptions.”  He has unified policies such as ending the U.S. lease of the Manta airbase with resource-based economic nationalism.

Though Correa’s reelection next February 17 looks easy, he will face increased tensions in his third term.  Government revenues remain dependent on oil and mining, which are susceptible to price fluctuations.  The expansion of extractive activities in areas inhabited by Correa’s indigenous base could strain his coalition – it has already stirred environmental concerns – and government spending has neglected the need to diversify the economy and reduce its reliance on the extractive industry.  In addition, Correa has benefited from the generosity of Venezuela, but that support could wane as President Hugo Chávez turns inward to deal with domestic challenges.  The opposition, which has continued to present half a dozen candidates for the presidency, will likely begin to unify if it feels threatened by a further concentration of power in the Executive.  To win reelection and govern effectively, Correa will need to maintain the unity of an uneasy coalition, without riding roughshod over the opposition and press freedom. 

Peru: Humala’s Difficult Balancing Act

Photo: Peruvian mine | Mihai (clandestino_20) | Flickr | Creative Commons

Peru’s new cabinet installed in July – President Ollanta Humala’s third since his inauguration a year earlier – faces the daunting task of sustaining national development while increasing social enfranchisement.  The reshuffle came amid loud criticism of a crackdown, which killed five people, on protests against the proposed $5 billion Conga mining project in Cajamarca.  The incident underscored the difficulty for Humala as he endeavors to implement a dual strategy of capitalizing on the growth potential of Peru’s mining industry – primarily gold and copper (60 percent of exports) – while respecting community concerns about the environmental consequences of extraction.  Mining wealth is needed to improve the lives of ordinary people –28 percent of Peruvians live in poverty – but unlike preceding governments this administration has committed itself to consultation with residents of localities that will be affected directly.    The new prime minister has announced suspension of the Conga project until the U.S. mining company involved provides better environmental guarantees.

Humala’s popularity has plummeted.  Despite new laws increasing Peru’s mining revenue, the creation of a new Ministry of Social Inclusion, and a new Prior Consultation Law, indigenous protesters feel betrayed by Humala.  They accuse him of continuing the aggressive extractive policies of his predecessor, Alán García, and insist his administration has not given adequate attention to concerns of local communities on issues such as the integrity of the water supply in zones affected by the mining ventures.  Recent signs of a resurgence in violence by the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas and of setbacks in efforts to curtail the influence of the narcotics trade are also eroding Humala’s support.

Humala narrowly won the presidency as a center-left candidate, committed to creating a framework for the more equitable distribution of the wealth generated by Peru’s natural resources.  Now, some of his political allies say he has courted foreign investment for the mining sector without adequate consultation, and further protests seem likely.  Humala’s challenge is not unlike that of other countries, including Bolivia and Ecuador, trying to balance between these competing interests.  His success or failure will have an impact beyond Peru’s borders, as South American countries dependent on commodity exports struggle to walk the tightrope between satisfying foreign investors and domestic electorates.

FARC Activity

A French journalist has become the latest victim of Colombia’s internal conflict.  The French Foreign Ministry announced that journalist Romeo Langlois was kidnapped by leftist rebels last Saturday following an armed raid on Colombian troops who were attempting to dismantle cocaine laboratories.  Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón told reporters that Langlois had been wounded in the arm during the attack, which left a police officer and three soldiers dead.  Langlois had been traveling with the army to film a documentary about illegal mining and Colombia’s notorious drug trade.  This attack indicates that the FARC, though severely weakened after decades of armed conflict, are still very much a powerful force to be reckoned with.  Analysts suspect that this latest action, coming after a declaration to end kidnappings in February, is a message to President Juan Manuel Santos, who has refused to negotiate with guerrilla leaders.

Chilean Student Protests and Inequality

Photo by Davidlohr Bueso, Santiago, Chile via http://www.flickr.com

Following a year of student demonstrations, Chilean students have renewed their demands for education reform with a massive street protest in Santiago. According to a report from the BBC News, 25,000-50,000 students participated in a march for free education on Wednesday. The protest came despite President Sebastián Piñera’s announcement that a state agency would be created to finance university-level education and that private banks would no longer be permitted to provide loans to university students. Piñera also announced that interest rates on student loans would be reduced from 6 to 2 percent. The student protests are just one of several political issues confronting Piñera, such as the construction of dams in Patagonia and government handling of political protests in the southern region of Aysén. The students’ cause has reverberated throughout Latin America and indicates widespread discontent with high levels of socioeconomic inequality in Chile.