- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2006

QUITO, Ecuador — Another swing to the left is in the air in South America, with a political ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez favored to win Ecuador’s presidential election on Sunday.

On the stump, Rafael Correa sounds a lot like Mr. Chavez and another Andean neighbor, Bolivian President Evo Morales, with denunciations of President Bush and a rejection of U.S.-backed free-market policies.

But a short stint as economy minister under the outgoing administration of President Alfredo Palacio leads many to think the hot election rhetoric will give way to careful economic policies — as it did in Brazil after the 2002 election of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Mr. Correa, 43, has called for a “citizen revolution” to return the country’s natural resources to the people and root out corrupt politicians.

Though he has not pledged to nationalize the hydrocarbon sector as Mr. Morales has done, he has said he will renegotiate contracts with oil companies, halt free-trade talks and expel the United States from Manta, its only military base in South America.

But Werner Baer, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois, where Mr. Correa received a doctorate, insisted the candidate is “not a radical.”

“He believes in the market, and the market type of economy, he’s not considered a socialist,” he said.

Nevertheless, Mr. Correa’s promises have broad appeal in an impoverished and heavily indebted country where three presidents have been ousted since 1997 and only 11 percent of the public supports the Congress.

“It’s fine to pay the debt, we have commitments,” said Ruth Herrera, a social activist who attended a Correa rally in the mainly indigenous community of Zumbahua. “But you have to pay the social debt to the people.”

Mr. Correa leads the polls in all three regions of the country with an overall 16-point lead over the nearest competitor — former President Leon Roldos, who many say represents the broken establishment. But 41 percent say they are undecided.

“Ecuador is extraordinarily unstable. It’s as close as we can get to a failed state in political-institution terms,” said Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “The people are tired of traditional political parties.”

Guadalupe Villafuerte, 52, began backing the Correa cause during a jubilant campaign rally in southern Quito this week. “When I came here, I wasn’t sure I was going to vote for anybody,” she said, “but listening to this young man, [I believe] he can be our path.”

The growing likelihood of a victory by Mr. Correa, who also has promised a new constitution, has investor ratings tumbling.

An economic collapse in 1999 prompted the government to peg its currency to the U.S. dollar in 2000. But direct foreign investment remains only $30 million per year, and Mr. Correa has done nothing to befriend foreign investors.

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