Ecuador: Correa comes in for criticism from the Left

Inter Press Service | 5 December 2008

ECUADOR: Correa Comes in for Criticism from the Left

By Kintto Lucas

QUITO, Dec 5 (IPS) - Criticism of the government of President Rafael Correa, who has been accused of combining left-wing rhetoric and right-wing policies, has grown sharper in the past few months.

"From the start, the government’s policy has been to accompany reforms with a neoliberal measure, or vice versa, following a carrot and stick approach," Professor Alejandro Moreano told IPS.

"How can we interpret these contradictions?" asked the analyst. "Are the leftist measures only a smokescreen for the right-wing measures? Or is it the other way around?"

Major disagreements emerged between different factions of the governing party, Acuerdo País, during the eight-month sessions of the constituent assembly that drafted the country’s new constitution, which was approved by a large majority of voters in a late September referendum.

While the left-wing assembly members argued that companies should be required to obtain the prior consent of local and indigenous communities for activities like mining and oil drilling on their land, the faction of the party farthest to the right backed the president’s proposal, according to which indigenous communities do not have the power to veto mining or other projects.

But one of the biggest disputes was over the renewal of the operating concession for Mexican cell phone giant América Móvil and Spain’s Telefónica.

In the year prior to the renewal of the contract, the Superintendencia de Telecomunicaciones, Ecuador’s telecoms agency, received a large number of complaints about the service provided by the two companies, and even fined them.

On several occasions, Correa suggested that when the contract was up, the mobile phone service would revert back to the state. But after direct negotiations between the companies and the president’s closest advisers, he ended up renewing the concessions for 15 years.

And when the final report of an audit of Ecuador’s public debt, which found that much of the foreign debt was marred by irregularities and even corruption, was announced in November, the president implied that he would declare a default on that portion of the debt, a position that won support among progressives and other sectors both within and outside of the country.

But Correa, an economist trained in the United States and Belgium, later clarified that he would "try" not to pay, because first the legal aspects and repercussions would have to be studied.

The committee set up by the Ecuadorean government to audit the debt reported alleged irregularities committed by former president Gustavo Noboa (2000-2003).

But at Correa’s request, the constituent assembly had granted him an amnesty in a related case, which created a rift with the president of the assembly, Alberto Acosta, and other assembly members.

Now that Correa has asked the prosecutor’s office to investigate those accused of irregularities or corruption in the process of contracting what the audit committee classified as "illegitimate" debt, Noboa’s defenders have invoked the amnesty, arguing that no one can be tried twice for the same offence.

Two days before the final result of the audit was published, more than 15,000 indigenous demonstrators delivered a proposed draft law on water rejecting a government proposal that would open the door to the privatisation of the management of water — which is banned, however, by the new constitution.

Protests have also been held around the country against a draft law on mining presented by the government.

Moreano said "the audit of the foreign debt and the commitment not to pay parts of the debt that are considered illegitimate and illegal is a big step towards asserting Ecuador’s sovereignty.

"How could the government, alongside such a radical and just measure — if it is finally implemented — propose a mining law that runs counter to those same interests?" Moreano remarked.

According to the analyst, the mining industry policies proposed by the government’s draft law run counter to the principle of economic solidarity established by the new constitution.

"The environmental arguments are already well-known: that large areas would be destroyed, and that the mines would use enormous quantities of water at the cost of life and of small-scale agriculture," said Moreano.

"Furthermore, making mining the foundation of the economy would deal a mortal blow to South American integration and to development based on autonomy," he maintained.

On several occasions, Correa has lashed out at those who are opposed to large-scale mining.

"Where does the biggest danger for the citizen revolution lie? In the infantile left, the infantile pro-indigenous movement, the infantile ecological movement, and they have become active again, holding meetings to push for an uprising opposed to mining," the president has stated.

While people are protesting against policies aimed at encouraging the mining industry, the government is again studying the possibility of joining the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), an initiative led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, which groups Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Correa took part as an observer in the late November ALBA summit, where he received support for organising the audit of Ecuador’s public debt, and left open the possibility of his country joining the group as a full member.

But the president had turned down full membership in the past, arguing that the group was mainly set up to benefit non-oil producing countries, through preferential agreements for purchasing oil from Venezuela.

This time, Chávez asked Correa when his country would join ALBA, and the Ecuadorean leader evaded the question. But Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Manuel Zelaya of Honduras insisted.

"We hope you won’t just remain ALBA’s economic adviser," commented Morales at the summit, according to the El Comercio newspaper in Quito. And Zelaya proposed that Correa host the next summit meeting.

Marco Romero, director of the global and social studies programme at the Simón Bolívar Andean University, believes it is healthy for the government to take advantage of different forums in search of support in the face of a confrontation that "will inevitably occur with the capital market" in the case of a default on part of the foreign debt.

But Romero does not believe full membership in ALBA would bring the country benefits, saying it could stand in the way of ties with similar groups or blocs.

The president has ruled out a separate free trade agreement with the European Union (EU), outside of the Andean Community trade bloc, as Peru and Colombia are seeking (all three are members of the bloc, along with Bolivia). However, negotiators at the Foreign Ministry say that if it is necessary to seek a free trade deal separately from the rest of the bloc, they will do so.

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source: IPS