- The Washington Times - Monday, October 9, 2006

GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador

A painting of Jesus looks down on former President Leon Febres Cordero’s king-size bed. On the floor are eight pairs of cowboy boots and a pile of saddles. Hanging on the wall are two repeating shotguns and two submachine guns.

Mr. Febres Cordero has survived five bypass heart operations, two bouts with cancer, three bullet wounds and a chain-smoking habit. At 75, he might be expected to take to a rocking chair, but the political power broker known as “the owner” of Ecuador has no intention of fading away.

He is the most influential politician in this small, unstable Andean nation, an old-fashioned bare-knuckled “caudillo” (political strongman) making his weight felt by backing Cynthia Viteri, 40, a former congresswoman, as Ecuador’s first female president.

But his Social Christian Party faces a mounting challenge from Rafael Correa, a leftist firebrand in the mold of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has surged into the lead in the final days of the presidential race.

“A communist,” snaps Mr. Febres Cordero. “A political dinosaur,” responds Mr. Correa, 43, an economist.

No one is likely to win outright in Sunday’s vote, but if Mr. Correa gets to the November runoff and wins, he will join Mr. Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales at the cutting edge of Latin America’s leftward tilt. Having referred to President Bush as “dimwitted,” Mr. Correa is clearly not seeking friends in the White House.

But the four-way presidential race is far from decided. Instability and economic turmoil have so tarnished Ecuador’s democracy that a third of the voters are undecided, and another quarter plan to spoil their ballots as a protest, opinion polls show.

Mr. Febres Cordero remains confident of victory for the pro-business Miss Viteri. Concern that Ecuadorans aren’t ready for a female president doesn’t faze him.

“They had better be ready, because if you compare Cynthia with the men she is competing against, she is worth more than all of them put together — being much younger but with professional and political experience, a congresswoman, beautiful, with style,” he told the Associated Press in the study of his home in Guayaquil.

Mention “Leon” to Ecuadorans and they know immediately you mean Mr. Febres Cordero. He sports a mane of white hair, befitting his name, which means “lion.” A glass eye has replaced one lost to cancer, but the good eye often unnerves adversaries with its penetrating stare.

Mr. Febres Cordero’s four-year presidential term ended in 1988, but as the combative leader of the rightist Social Christians, Ecuador’s largest and best-organized party, he has dominated Congress and the courts for the past 15 years. He normally controls about a third of its 100 seats, and given its fractured makeup of more than a dozen parties, that is enough to guarantee him a virtual veto over legislation.

“He’s the last caudillo. There won’t be any more like him,” said Blasco Penaherrera, his admiring former vice president.

In a country divided by geography and regional loyalties, Mr. Febres Cordero’s stronghold is Guayaquil, the nation’s financial center on Ecuador’s muggy Pacific coast.

Most of his enemies are 160 miles northeast of here, in the Andean capital, Quito, where trucker German Carrera dismisses Miss Viteri as the creation of Mr. Febres Cordero, who “does as he pleases. He makes and breaks presidents.”

Miss Viteri denies she is Mr. Febres Cordero’s pawn, saying, “In my government I will give the orders.”

Mr. Febres Cordero bristles at accusations that he acts as if he owns Ecuador, responding, “If I had the influence that people say I have, the country wouldn’t be in the shape it is in.”

Ecuador’s democracy has been plagued by instability since it was re-established in 1979 after a decade of dictatorship. The nation of 13 million has had seven presidents in the past 10 years, including three forced from office by street protests and flawed congressional impeachment proceedings.

Mr. Febres Cordero is one of three presidents in the past 27 years to finish their terms. A U.S.-educated mechanical engineer and wealthy businessman, he was the first Latin American president to champion free-market economics in the 1980s, and won warm support from Ronald Reagan.

He survived politically despite an earthquake that crippled oil exports for six months, an incipient leftist insurgency, two military rebellions and a kidnapping by renegade paratroopers who killed three of his bodyguards. He was released 11 hours later after being roughed up.

He was constantly at war with Congress, facing down an impeachment effort by rallying the military’s support, and surrounding the Supreme Court with tanks to stop judges chosen by Congress from assuming their posts.

“Exercising leadership, my friend, is not done with smiles,” he said. “Smiles are good for wooing a woman, but not for governing.”

His opponents accuse him of using his party’s control over the judicial system to harass his enemies by having them arrested or driving them into exile.

A prize-winning sharpshooter in his younger days, Mr. Febres Cordero carried a pistol as president. When he goes out, he carries under his shirt a miniature .38-caliber automatic the U.S. Secret Service gave him when he visited the White House in 1985.

“My best friends are my cigarettes and my pistols. They don’t ask for anything and they’re always ready,” he said with a big grin. “I’m armed all the time because I’ve been shot at all my life.”

To prove it, he showed the bullet wounds he sustained while campaigning for Congress in 1970. He tugged aside his collar to reveal a scar on his left shoulder and pulled up the cuff of his left pants leg to show where a bullet hit below his knee.

A third shot, he said, hit him in the lower back but missed vital organs.


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