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The Rise of Rafael Correa Ecuador and the Contradictions of Chavismo

It now looks as if Rafael Correa, a leftist candidate in Ecuador, has handily won his country’s presidential election. As of Monday morning, with about 21 percent of the ballot counted, Correa had 65 percent compared to 35 percent for Alvaro Noboa, according to Ecuador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal. If Correa wins, he will preside over Ecuador for a four year term.

It’s yet another feather in the cap for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who had long cultivated the aspiring leader’s support. What’s more, it’s a stinging blow against the Bush administration which now must confront a much more unenviable political milieu in the region. Ecuador now joins other left leaning regimes such as Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Chile, all of which are sympathetic to Chavez.

Bush cannot dismiss the Correa victory as inconsequential: Ecuador is currently the second largest South American exporter of crude to the U.S. The small Andean country hosts the only U.S. military base in South America, where 400 troops are currently stationed. Correa opposes an extension of the U.S. lease at the air base in Manta, which serves as a staging ground for drug surveillance flights. The U.S. lease expires in 2009.

"If they want," Correa has said ironically, "we won’t close the base in 2009, but the United States would have to allow us to have an Ecuadoran base in Miami in return."

It’s no secret that Chavez and Correa had a personal rapport. During a short stint in 2005 as finance minister under the regime of Alfredo Palacio, Correa brokered a $300 million loan from Chavez. As a result of his diplomacy, Correa was forced out of the government. Allegedly, Correa pursued the loan deal behind Palacio’s back. He later visited Chavez’s home state of Barinas, where he met with the Venezuelan leader and spent the night with Chavez’s parents.

"It is necessary to overcome all the fallacies of neoliberalism," Correa has declared. Borrowing one of Chavez’s favorite slogans, Correa says he also supports so-called "socialism for the twenty first century."

Correa: "Whipping" Ecuador’s Politicians, and the U.S., into Shape

Unlike Chavez, Correa does not come from a military background but grew up in a middle class family; the young politician also dresses impeccably. He got his doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois and is a follower of left wing economist and Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz.

To his credit, Correa spent a year volunteering in a highland town called Zumbahua and speaks Quichua, an indigenous language. Natives from Zumbahua remember Correa as a man who walked two or three hours to remote villages in a poncho and broken shoes to give classes.

Correa pursued an amusing campaign. During rallies, he would bounce on stage to his campaign anthem, set to the tune of Twisted Sister’s "We’re Not Going to Take It." As the music blared, Correa would break out a brown leather belt, which he would flex along to the music.

For Correa, the belt became the chief slogan of his campaign: "Dale Correa." In Spanish, the phrase means "Give Them the Belt." Correa promised to use that belt to whip Ecuador’s politicians into shape.

Correa campaigned on pledges to prioritize social spending over repaying debt. He has even stated that the Andean country might want to default. He also declared that he would renegotiate contracts with foreign oil producers doing business in the country. Correa says he wants to increase funds for the poor and opposes a free trade deal with the U.S.

"We are not against the international economy," Correa has stated, "but we will not negotiate a treaty under unequal terms with the United States."

Correa, too, has nothing but contempt for George Bush.

When he was recently asked about Chavez’s "devil" diatribe against the U.S. president at the United Nations, Correa remarked amusingly, "Calling Bush the devil offends the devil. Bush is a tremendously dimwitted President who has done great damage to the world" [after he was defeated by Noboa in the first round of voting Correa toned down his rhetoric, stating that his comments about Bush were "imprudent" and that Ecuador would like to continue its strong tries to the United States]

Noboa Plays the Chavez Card

In an effort to scare voters, Alvaro Noboa, a banana magnate in Ecuador, sought to label Correa as a Chavez puppet. Noboa, in an allusion to Chavez’s military background, labeled his adversary "Colonel Correa."

Correa, the Noboa campaign charged, was being financed by Venezuela. In a bombastic tirade, Noboa even declared, "the Chavez-Correa duo has played dirty in an effort to conquer Ecuador and submit it to slavery." If he were elected, Noboa promised, he would break relations with Caracas.

Correa denied that his campaign was financed by Chavez and in a biting aside declared that his friendship with the Venezuelan leader was as legitimate as President Bush’s friendship with the bin Laden family.

"They have pursued the most immoral and dirty campaign against me in an effort to link me with communism, terrorism, and Chavismo," Correa explained. "The only thing left is for them to say that Bin Laden was financing me."

Chavez, perhaps fearing that any statement on his part might tilt the election in favor of Noboa, initially remained silent as regards the Ecuadoran election. But at last the effusive Chavez could no longer constrain himself and broke his silence.

The Venezuelan leader accused Noboa of baiting him in an effort to gain the "applause" of the United States. Chavez furthermore expressed doubts about the veracity of the voting result in the first presidential run off in October, in which Correa came in second. In his own inflammatory broadside, Chavez accused Noboa of being "an exploiter of child labor" on his banana plantations and a "fundamentalist of the extreme right."

In Ecuador, Chavez said, "there are also strange things going on. A gentleman who is the richest man in Ecuador; the king of bananas, who exploits his workers, who exploits children and puts them to work, who doesn’t pay them loans, suddenly appears in first place in the first [electoral] round."

The Noboa campaign, in an escalating war of words, shot back that the Venezuelan Ambassador should be expelled from Ecuador due to Chavez’s meddling.

Ecuadoran Indigenous Peoples and Chavez

Judging from the early electoral returns, Ecuadoran voters, many of whom are indigenous, disregarded Noboa’s fire and brimstone rhetoric. Indians, who account for 40% of Ecuador’s population of 13 million, are a potent political force in the country. Correa has capitalized on indigenous support. He represents Alianza País, a coalition that garnered the support of indigenous and social movements which brought down the government of Lucio Gutierrez in April 2005.

What does the Correa win mean for Chavez’s wider hemispheric ambitions?

As I explain in my book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (recently released by St. Martin’s Press), Chavez has long sought to cultivate ties to Ecuador’s indigenous peoples. Ecuadoran Indians have long feared that their traditional lands were being exploited to serve a rapacious United States intent on corporate expansion. U.S. missionaries have fueled the resentment. According to indigenous activists, the missionaries hastened the penetration of U.S. corporations. A key example, according to Huaorani Indians, was the petroleum industry which worked with the missionaries to open up traditional lands.

Chavez has done much to cultivate the support of indigenous peoples. He plays up his own indigenous roots, for example. He also expelled the Protestant New Tribes Mission from Venezuela, which he said was collaborating with the CIA.

"We don’t want the New Tribes here," Chavez declared. "Enough colonialism! 500 years is enough!"

In opposing the missionaries, Chavez has echoed the agenda of Ecuador’s indigenous peoples, who called for the expulsion of North American missionaries from their country. CONAIE, Ecuador’s indigenous federation, in fact endorses many of Chavez’s positions such as an end to U.S. militarization in the region and an end to neo liberal economic policies. CONAIE, like Rafael Correa, wants Ecuador to terminate the U.S. lease at the Manta military base. CONAIE, as well as the movement’s political wing Patchakutik, has backed Chavez. CONAIE in fact has condemned the "fascist" opposition in Venezuela and derided U.S. interventionism.

Chavez has not only cultivated political ties with hemispheric leaders but also with social movements from below. In an innovative move, Chavez has sponsored something called the Bolivarian Congress of Peoples in Caracas. CONAIE officials attended the Congress, as did Humberto Cholango, president of the Kichwa Confederation of Ecuador. Cholango remarked at the time, "no one can stop this [Bolivarian] Revolution in Venezuela, we will keep on defeating the Creole oligarchies and the Yankeesthe time has come for South America to rise up to defeat the empireLong live the triumph of the Venezuelan people."

Cholango is an important link in the future Chavez-Correa alliance. His Kichwa Confederation has backed Correa. In a communiqué, the Confederation wrote, "We will not let Noboa, who owns 120 companies and made his fortune by exploiting children in his companies, take control of the country to deliver water, deserts, oil, mines, forests and biodiversity to big private transnational corporations."

Ecuadoran Oriente: Area of Conflict

Chavez has exchanged oil for political influence throughout the region in such countries as Nicaragua, as I explained in my earlier Counterpunch column [see "A New Kind of Oil Diplomacy: In Nicaragua, a Chavez Wave?, November 7, 2006]. In Ecuador, Chavez may opt for a similar strategy but here the Venezuelan leader has to watch out for pitfalls that could reveal serious contradictions within his movement.

With a Correa administration in place, Chavez will be in an advantageous position to advance his plans for hemispheric energy integration. Ecuador’s state oil company Petroecuador has been involved in longstanding negotiations with Venezuela to refine its crude. Ecuador is also interested in acquiring Venezuelan diesel and gasoline to cover its own internal demand. Ecuador’s growing energy ties with Venezuela have been applauded by important figures such as Luis Macas, long associated with the CONAIE.

The dilemma for Ecuador is that, while oil represents about a quarter of the country’s GDP, many disadvantaged communities have been unhappy with development. The north eastern section of Ecuador, the "Oriente," has long been the scene of serious social unrest. I know something about the social and environmental conflicts in the area, having written a couple of articles about the Huorani Indians for the Ecuadoran magazine 15 Dias and the Quito daily Hoy.

In 1992, having just completed a reporting internship at WBAI radio in New York, I headed to Quito. At that time, North American as well as Ecuadoran environmental groups were concerned about Maxus Corporation, a Texas-based energy company. The influential company had the support of the government, the press, and North American Protestant missionaries. The Huaorani had just traveled to Quito, where they had carried out a protest in front of Maxus headquarters.

The Indians demanded that Maxus halt its construction of a highway in block 16, which fell in their traditional homeland. I flew out to the Amazon and interviewed the Indians who were living in deplorable health and sanitary conditions. In my articles, I dissected Maxus’ unconvincing propaganda and warned about imminent environmental problems.

Venezuelan Involvement in the Ecuadoran Oil Industry?

I left Ecuador in late 1993, and not surprisingly the unrest continued. In 2002, the government declared a state of emergency following protests in Sucumbios and Orellana provinces. Protesters hit the streets, demanding greater investment in their communities. Indigenous peoples in the area had long felt that they had not adequately shared in the benefits of oil development. The military used teargas to break up protests which blocked oil wells.

In August 2005 the disturbances continued, with an oil strike hitting Orellana and Sucumbios. At that time, Chavez came to the aid of Ecuadoran president Alfredo Palacios by agreeing to send Venezuelan crude to the Andean nation. At the time, Chavez expressed sympathy with Ecuador "because we [Venezuela] have already passed through this type of thing with the oil sabotage [the oil lock out in 2002-3 encouraged by the Venezuelan opposition]."

Early this year, Petroecuador was forced to suspend exports when protesters, unhappy about longstanding environmental damage, demanded the departure of U.S. oil company Oxy and took over a pumping station vital to the functioning of a pipeline. Protesters, led by local politicians from the Amazon province of Napo, demanded that the government pay them funds for infrastructure projects in local communities.

In March, the government put three provinces under military control when workers initiated a strike for unpaid wages and improved working conditions. At one point, the government declared a state of emergency in Napo, when protesters demanded that the oil companies invest more of their profits in the area.

Guadalupe Llori, the prefect of Orellana, remarked "If we are treated like animals we are going to react like animals. We could join the workers and demand the government respect our rights." Petroecuador technicians and troops finally took control of oil facilities and cleared strikers from vital sites.

In May, Petroecuador took over oil wells belonging to Oxy’s block 15 oil concession; the Ecuadoran state wants the Venezuelan state company PdVSA to refine 75% of the 100,000 barrels per day within the old concession. According to the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, Ecuador is considering Venezuela as a possible partner in the fields formerly operated by Oxy.

Chavismo and Its Hemispheric Contradictions

If PdVSA had a presence in block 15, this would lead to a potential problem for Chavez. Having proclaimed its support for social and environmental justice, as well as indigenous rights, Venezuela would now be operating in an area long marked by social unrest and discrimination of indigenous peoples.

In the short term, Chavez may take some pride in the fact that Bush received another black eye in South America; what’s more Venezuela can now count on Correa’s support as well as the indigenous movement. But in the long term, Chavez could run the risk of alienating many of his supporters if Venezuela is perceived to be an accomplice in misguided development schemes.

In the coming years, will Chavez maintain his political support amongst disadvantaged peoples throughout the hemisphere, or will his popularity be tarnished by oil diplomacy? Up to now, Chavez has certainly used oil as an effective geopolitical instrument, but it may prove his Achilles Heel if he is not careful.

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Beware Venezuela, Here Come the Democratic Hawks: the Return of Tom Lantos

With the Democrats now taking over Congress, the question is: what will the change in leadership mean for U.S. policy towards Venezuela? While it's heartening that some progressive legislators will be headed to Washington, unfortunately some hawkish figures stand to influence Latin America policy. Unless he is upended by Representative Howard Berman, Tom Lantos will become the Chair of the House International Relations Committee.

Lantos, who represents California's 12th congressional district in San Mateo, supported the October, 2002 "blank check" resolution granting authority to George Bush to wage preemptive war. According to John Nichols of the Nation magazine, Lantos is "reasonably solid" when it comes to supporting a liberal domestic agenda. "But," Nichols comments, "It's a different story on foreign policy matters."

Back in 2002 Lantos ignored anti-war activists who protested at his office, preferring instead to pursue a pro-war agenda in Congress. According to Nichols, Lantos said it was his "privilege" to deliver 81 pro-war Democratic votes for Bush. More recently, Lantos has criticized the execution of the war, and claims that the White House misled him about pre-war intelligence. Nevertheless he supports Bush's moves to fund the U.S. military effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, Lantos has been one of the House's consistent backers of the Patriot Act.

Congressman Lantos: Venezuela Hawk

Given his hawkish positions, it's not surprising that Lantos would take an aggressive position towards the leftist government of Hugo Chavez. The bad blood between the Venezuelan regime and Lantos goes back to 2004. Lantos, along with fellow lawmakers such as Republican Henry Hyde, sent a letter to Chavez complaining that the Venezuelan government was abusing its power when it accused Sumate, an opposition group, of conspiring with the U.S. to topple the Chavez regime.

In the letter, Lantos and others admit that Sumate had been financed by the U.S. taxpayer funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) but that this financing would help encourage Venezuelan democracy. Lantos's letter elicited a sharp rejoinder from Venezuela's ambassador to the U.S., Bernardo Alvarez, who commented that the U.S. government was inconsistent when it came to democracy, and that the U.S. was the only country in the hemisphere to recognize the illegitimate Carmona regime which came to power in a brief coup d'etat in April 2002.

Lantos Snubbed in Caracas

Things deteriorated further last year when Lantos was allegedly refused entry into Venezuela and was stopped at the airport. Lantos had gone to the South American country as part of a high-level delegation headed by Republican Henry Hyde, the same legislator who had defended NED the year before.

Lantos and the delegation claimed they were actually harassed and held onboard their aircraft by customs officials at Caracas's Simon Bolivar International Airport. The delegation, which sought to repair troubled U.S.-Venezuelan relations, was set to meet personally with Chavez himself. After two hours, the delegation claimed, they left when government officials said that they could not guarantee that the party would be allowed to disembark or pursue its schedule on the ground. The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry denies the charges, claiming that it never held the congressmen who simply opted to continue on their way.

The incident provided fodder for xenophobic nationalists like CNN's Lou Dobbs, who told his viewers that the Venezuelan government's actions constituted "a Chavez insult to America." El Universal, a conservative Venezuelan newspaper, suggested that Chavez may have wanted to snub the delegation as payback, since the U.S. had refused to grant a visa to many members of Chavez's security detail when the Venezuelan president went to visit the United Nations in New York.

Lantos Goes On the Offensive

Snubbed by Chavez, Lantos went on the rhetorical offensive this past summer. During a hearing of the House's International Relations Committee, the California lawmaker accused Chavez of financing the electoral campaign of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua (the Venezuelan leader has denied the charges). Lantos added fuel to the fire by remarking that in Venezuela, "the basis of democracy is being systematically suffocated by a demagogic leader."

Lantos went on to demonize Chavez for his ties to Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and for creating "a one party state in Venezuela." Lantos added, "To insure the recently elected and soon to be elected Presidents of Latin America are not pressured into accepting the oil slick promises of dictators with dollars, we must reengage with the region."

Lantos's remarks were countered by some other Democrats including Howard Berman, a fellow California legislator. The U.S. was hypocritical in harking on democracy in Latin America, Berman argued. "I was in Nicaragua during the last presidential election [in November, 2001]," he said, "and it appeared to me that the U.S. Embassy was very involved in guaranteeing the defeat of Mr. Ortega."

Berman is currently Lantos' rival to run the House's International Relations Committee. According to a recent article in the Jewish Daily Forward, Berman, who represents parts of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, has often "been less conciliatory to the GOP" than Lantos. "Ousting Lantos," according to the Forward, " could signal that Democrat leaders, including presumed Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, intend to usher in an era of more overtly partisan confrontation."

Lantos and Democrats Provoke Chavez on Media

But in the end, will the new "Madame Speaker" have the nerve to stand up to the hawks in the Democratic Party? She herself called Chavez "a thug" when the Venezuelan leader recently traveled to the United Nations and insulted George Bush. Unfortunately, the Democrats hardly inspire confidence and have more often than not joined with the Republicans in bashing Venezuela. A key example of this is the Democrats' handling of the Venezuelan media issue.

I recently returned from an extended six week trip to Venezuela, where I was struck by the stridently anti-U.S. tone in much of the government media. One edition of the pro-Chavez paper Diario VEA had a screaming headline reading, "General Baduel Warns: Foreign Aggression is Possible." Again and again on Vive TV, a state owned station, the channel would broadcast a short segment showing stark, bombed out images of Iraq.

"Imagine if your city was invaded and destroyed by a foreign army," intoned a solemn voiceover. It had been some years since I'd been back to Venezuela, and the state media had clearly ratcheted up the rhetoric against the Bush administration's foreign policy.

Perhaps more controversially from the point of view of Washington, Chavez has also launched Telesur, a hemispheric wide satellite news station. Oil-rich Venezuela supplies 51% of Telesur's budget, with Cuba, Argentina, and Uruguay providing the rest of the funding. I frequently watched the station during my time in Venezuela and was struck by the coverage of the war in Iraq, which was much more graphic and critical of the conflict than our own U.S. media.

Since its initial launch in 2005 Telesur, which aims to rival other news stations such as Univision and CNN en Espanol, has certainly come a long way professionally. When I had first watched the station in the U.S. via Telesur's Web site, there had been frequent technical glitches. But now, I could scarcely tell the difference between Telesur and CNN from a technological standpoint.

In July 2005, Congressman Connie Mack, a right wing Republican from Florida, sponsored a measure to authorize U.S. supported radio and television broadcasts to Venezuela. Mack, a vocal critic of Hugo Chavez, has said that Telesur spreads "anti-American, anti-freedom rhetoric." Mack's legislation was approved as part of an amendment to the Foreign Relations Authorizations Act. Under the amendment the U.S. government could provide radio and television broadcasts, through the independent Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) for up to 30 minutes a day.

Though the legislation was supported by many Republicans, it also attracted support from Democrats and passed easily in the House. Again, it was Lantos who went on the attack, remarking that as Chavez "ramps up his information campaign, we should be prepared to present balanced news to the people of Venezuela." During the vote on the House floor on Representative Mack's media proposal, no Democrats spoke out against the measure. What's more, according to the Venezuela Information Office based in Washington, D.C., no liberal Democratic legislators have spoken out against Republican legislation designed to set up anti-Chavez media.

Predictably, Mack's amendment spread nothing but further ill will between the United States and Venezuela. Chavez called the amendment "a preposterous imperialist idea that should not surprise us because we know what the U.S. government is capable of." The Venezuelan president vowed to jam the signals if the U.S. tried to transmit broadcasts to Venezuela.

Colombia: An Opportunity for Democrats to Mend Fences with Chavez

Given all of the acrimonious history between Democratic hawks and Chavez, it is going to take a lot to restore trust. But perhaps, if the Democrats start to restrict U.S. aid to the Colombian military, Chavez's paranoia might be allayed somewhat. For years the U.S. has spent billions arming the Colombian military, ostensibly to fight drug trafficking. Chavez regularly denounces the drug war as a thinly disguised excuse to extend U.S. military control over the Andean region (for a more detailed discussion of Chavez's position on the drug war, see my recently released book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S). The Venezuelan president recently charged that the Bush administration might even be considering an invasion of Venezuela through Colombian territory.

While such rhetoric might seem overblown, Chavez has some reason to feel concerned. Paramilitaries allegedly tied to the U.S. funded Colombian military routinely cross over the frontier into Venezuela, creating friction along the more than 1,200 mile border. The Paramilitaries have pursued refugees into Venezuela, where they have killed or kidnapped those fleeing the violence. Even worse, the Chavez government claims that Colombian paramilitaries cross the border and fire on Venezuelan security forces. Ongoing clashes have led to the untimely deaths of Venezuelan military personnel.

Chavez has claimed, plausibly, that he needs to protect the border. In recent years the Venezuelan leader has acquired military hardware from Spain and Russia. Prior to the Democratic takeover, the right wing Republican majority in Congress showed no sign that it was willing to change course in Colombia and vociferously supported President Alvaro Uribe's calls for greater military aid. In a recent move, the State Department inexplicably "certified" that the Colombian armed forces had improved their human rights record, thus freeing up frozen military aid.

To his credit, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont disputed the certification.

As the ranking Democrat in charge of foreign assistance, he temporarily halted the aid. Now that the Democrats have taken Congress, there is a possibility for greater scrutiny of human rights in Colombia as Leahy is now responsible for writing the basic draft of the foreign aid bill each year.

If Leahy and progressive legislators start to limit or put greater conditions on military aid to Colombia, tensions might be lessened in that war torn nation and this in turn could lead to greater peace and stability along the Venezuelan border. If Chavez perceives that Washington is serious about reining in the Colombian military, he might be prompted to reduce his own military expenditures.

Hopefully, Congress may restore some restore some semblance of rationality and humanity to U.S. policy in South America. The Democrats must now choose: will they continue the bombastic rhetoric that we have seen from the likes of Lantos? Will they promote counter productive legislation on the media which will only serve to agitate the Chavez government further? Will they continue to fund the Colombian military to the tune of billions of dollars with little oversight, leading to more strained relations with the Chavez government? In the weeks and months ahead, we shall see which wing of the Democratic Party prevails on these vital questions.

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In Nicaragua, a Chavez Wave?

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