César Muñoz/ANDES

Will Rafael Correa Inherit the Leadership of Latin American Socialism?

With Hugo Chavez apparently near death, the question of who will inherit his legacy as the vanguard of 21st-century socialism in Latin America is foremost in the minds of many. With Chavez soon out of the picture, and the Castro brothers in Cuba not far behind him, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa – who has an established record of promoting socialism, has effectively challenged conventional wisdom in the region, and who is likely to remain a force to be reckoned with — seems a natural choice to fill that role. During last month’s presidential election, in which he won 57% of the vote, Rafael Correa secured a mandate to advance his “Citizen’s Revolution.” But the headwinds associated with fluctuating oil prices, a worsening foreign investment climate, rising violent crime, isolation from international financial institutions, and a growing domestic opposition will undoubtedly have an impact on his ability to be as successful as he has been in the past. If Correa plays his cards wisely and has a bit of luck, he may still be able to pull it off.

Although Rafael Correa’s record in office is mixed, his popularity is attributable to greater political stability, poverty reduction and greater economic equality. No Ecuadorian president in the past century has remained in power as long as Correa, nor has had the ability to actually implement a long-term agenda. Although nearly one in three Ecuadorians currently live below the poverty line, this is five percent lower than in 2007. And the share of income earned by the wealthiest ten percent declined from 43% to 38% from 2007 to 2009.

At the same time, Correa’s opponents hold his administration responsible for the surge in violent crime since he became president in 2007. According to the Organization of American States, Ecuador’s homicide rate increased 11% in his first 4 years in office.

This occurred despite two police reform measures passed under Correa’s watch. If this rate surges much further, the administration may begin paying a political cost. As Argentina’s skyrocketing murder rate under President Kirchner has been a central rallying cry within that country’s opposition movement, Correa may soon face the same fate.

Correa’s decision to nationalize Ecuador’s oil and gas industries has been a hallmark of his brand of populist socialism. Similar to other Latin American leaders who have increased the state’s role in economic affairs, Correa speaks of a “post neo-liberal” order and has taken on large foreign investors, such as Chevron. This sits well with the public, but has had a negative impact on foreign direct investment in Ecuador, with FDI plummeting 83% between 2008 and 2010. For that, Correa has much in common with Chavez.

Since the 1980s, Rafael Correa has attributed Ecuador’s economic problems to the “Washington Consensus,” and has made achieving greater independence from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund a top priority. In their place, Correa has turned toward regional initiatives, such as the Bank of the South, which aims to provide Latin American states with an alternative source of loans for development projects. He recently angered Ecuador’s financial sector by imposing new taxes on international transactions, with the intention of raising revenues for social programs that cater to the most needy Ecuadorians while limiting capital flight. Correa clearly shored up his primary support base of low-income Ecuadorians by doing this shortly before the February 2013 election.

Between defaulting on nearly $4 billion in foreign debt obligations and unilaterally revising contracts with multinational energy firms, Correa has earned a reputation as a leader challenging foreign powers and seeking to rewrite the rules. Correa runs the risk of pushing Ecuador even further toward isolation, but with China now acting as Ecuador’s main creditor, Beijing helps keep Quito afloat while affording it the luxury of thumbing its nose at the West.

That said, as a U.S.-educated economist, Correa has sought to define Ecuador’s economic relationship with Washington in a manner that balances his idealistic anti-imperialism visions with pragmatism. He is determined to decrease Ecuador’s dependence on the U.S. while establishing deeper ties with China. However, given that the U.S. has for many years been Ecuador’s top destination for imports and exports, he is fully aware that his actions and rhetoric can only be taken so far. If Rafael Correa were to taunt the U.S. and U.S. companies too far, and trade sanctions were to result, Ecuador’s own economic interests would be defeated. This, too, Ecuador has in common with Venezuela.

Rafael Correa has earned a reputation for leading like a maverick, sometimes disappointing more hardline socialists and environmentalists with his policies. His restrictions on freedom of speech have similarly irked human rights organizations, which assert that Ecuador has moved toward authoritarianism. That hasn’t kept the majority of the Ecuadorian public from maintaining support for Correa, however. Over the long haul, more have benefitted from his policies than have suffered from them. If Correa remains in power for the next four years, he will have been the longest-serving president in the history of Ecuador. It is clear that he enjoys widespread support domestically and regionally.

Correa’s vision for a Latin America with greater autonomy from the West and international institutions, while promoting more egalitarian societies, is shared with the leaders of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Argentina. Correa’s track record thus far fares well compared with his counterparts in Caracas, Managua, La Paz, and Buenos Aires. Nicaragua remains dependent on Venezuela’s petrodollars for the implementation of its platform for reducing poverty. Given the country’s size, dependency and small economy, Daniel Ortega’s potential to emerge as a pan-Latin American leader of the Left is certainly limited.

Both Evo Morales and Cristina Kirchner must address growing domestic political turmoil that has become increasingly violent, and appear increasing preoccupied with domestic issues. And Venezuela’s future is uncertain. Therefore, there is every reason to believe that Rafael Correa may be expected to fill the leadership vacuum that will emerge in a post-Castro/post-Chavez era.