By Dr. Larry Birns
The astonishing comeback of Rafael Correa from what appeared to be a definitive first round defeat marks one of the most extraordinary reversals of the political fate of a South American leader within memory. Correa’s victory also represents a significant triumph for the average Ecuadorean who refused to be beguiled by Álvaro Noboa’s well-fueled, so-called populist, but splash-dash campaign. In a poor country like Ecuador, Noboa’s unparalleled expenditure of money some of it handed out personally by him was a hardly-concealed effort to buy an election. Meanwhile, Correa ran an issue-oriented campaign centered on alleviating the dead-end plight of the nation’s poor.
As important as any other aspect of the presidential race was that its outcome represented a stinging defeat for Washington’s Latin American policy, which already had hit rock bottom throughout the Bush presidency. Key U.S. policies like free trade, privatization and market integration, anti-drug trafficking, increased regional military presence, and the pursuit of isolating Cuba and Venezuela, were being challenged and dismissed as being irrelevant.
The White House has touted recent elections in Mexico and Peru as a sharp defeat for the “Pink Tide” movement of left-leaning governments in the Americas (Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Uruguay, Argentina and, to an extent, Chile). But the more recent victories of leftist candidates Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua (after a blatant intervention scheme led by U.S. Ambassador in Managua Paul Trivelli), and now Rafael Correa in Ecuador, represent a humiliating rebuke for Washington’s chief goals.
Another major winner in yesterday’s vote was Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Although Chavez was somewhat restrained in getting involved in the Ecuadorian race, the same was certainly not true about Correa, who made repeated complimentary references to the Venezuelan president throughout his campaign.
In Mexico and Peru, Chavez had played the role of poison pill, fatal in his ability to inadvertently strike dead his electoral allies in other countries through guilt by association. In Ecuador, to the contrary, he proved to be an imposing plus factor in Correa’s victory, a fact that cannot make the State Department’s Nicholas Burns, a key administration functioning when it comes to Chavez bashing, other than completely frustrated.
The Correa victory is much more meaningful because his campaign was pegged in favor of an autonomous path of development, including a more muscular Latin American definition of its sovereignty than was the case with Daniel Ortega’s win in Nicaragua. Ortega’s victory was much more muddied by his two-tier policy of presenting himself as both a friend of business, the Church, and Washington’s free trade policies, while at other times projecting himself as a prospective candidate of Pink Tide dissent, and that his victory should be seen as a challenge to U.S. hegemony.
But there was nothing ambiguous about Correa’s victory, which must be seen as yet another piece of evidence that the U.S. continues to pay a heavy price for the near fatal damage done to its good name throughout the hemisphere by Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, during their archly controversial reigns as State Department’s assistant Secretaries for Western Hemispheric affairs. The arrogance that the two displayed to Latin America’s opposition to the Iraq war and an insistence that their brand of raw ideological extremism be disseminated throughout the continent alienated many of Washington’s closest allies.
During his tenure, Secretary of State Powell yielded to hard core White House partisans in reluctantly accepting Reich and Noriega to serve under him. The fact that they at all times had an independent and politicized access to the top tiers of the administration through their Miami connections, allowed them to advance a rightwing agenda outside of the State Department’s formal chain of command. This process continued with Secretary Rice’s ascension to the State Department, but with even more gusto, since her congruency with the spirit of Reich’s and Noriega’s view of the region, if not their antagonistic style, was not in doubt. Particularly, policy regarding Venezuela and Cuba has continued almost unmodified under Thomas Shannon, who is the first career foreign service officer in the Bush administration to head up the Western Hemispheric Bureau. Shannon, unfortunately, mainly followed the substance if not the style featured in the Bush administration’s first term.
As an extension of the Bush administration’s Opera Bouffe approach to Cuban policy, one can only point to the shameless antics of head of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana, Michael Parmly, whose talents seem to lie in the direction of low theater and whose juvenile pranks emanating from his base in the Cuban capital cannot possibly be confused with professional diplomacy. In addition, the conduct of U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Paul Trivelli, who repeatedly has intervened in the internal affairs of Nicaragua, acting as the major domo in efforts to unify the conservative opposition to the eventually victorious, Daniel Ortega, reflected Washington’s traditional scorn for Latin America’s self-dignity.
The importance of the Correa triumph can be found both within and outside of Ecuador and deserves being dealt within each arena. Opposing Washington’s free trade model as well as not renewing the lease of the Manta air base were among his specific pledges. By not fulfilling his platform, he will risk being ousted by the indigenous population as was the case with the country’s last democratically-elected president, Lucio Gutierrez.
What the Correa victory will mean for the future of Latin America’s ties to Washington and what role the Pink Tide movement will have for the hemisphere is of the utmost importance. Initially, the Correa victory will provide renewed momentum to the moderate leftist, New Deal-style leadership, which characterizes most of South America. After setbacks in Colombia, Mexico and Peru, the Pink Tide grouping seemed to have lost its spirit, not counting the more radical initiatives being put forth by Venezuela and Bolivia. Because of Washington’s preoccupation with Iraq and the mid-term elections, Latin American countries were able to pluralize their relationship with other parts of the world and think globally, not just hemispherically. As a result, we may be witnessing a decline in the centrality of a hemispheric orientation as represented by the OAS and an increase in importance of outward looking associations like the Ibero-America Summit and the budding Brazil-South Africa-India and China ties. Because of timing and the immense achievement of overcoming his enormous first round deficit, Correa’s electoral victory may be one of the most important hemispheric political events witnessed in the past several years.
Dr. Larry Birns is Director of The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. Email email@example.com.