Is Another Chavez On the Rise in Ecuador?

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Ecuadorean Presidential Candidate for the Movement Country Alliance Rafael Correa

If the Bush Administration was starting to think that it didn't have to worry as much about Latin America's leftist tilt led by radical Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, it may have to think again. In recent months, as left-wing, anti-U.S. candidates in Peru and Mexico lost presidential races, the Bush Administration had reason to feel that perhaps the region's so-called "pink revolution" was ebbing like a low Caribbean tide. But this Sunday's presidential election in Ecuador may well raise it again: the likely winner is Rafael Correa, a fervent anti-yanqui nationalist and Chavez ally.

Correa, 43, is not a military firebrand like Chavez, an indigenous standard-bearer like Bolivia's Evo Morales or a former factory worker like Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. In fact, five years ago he received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Illinois, and he was briefly Ecuador's finance minister until he was removed last year for publicly excoriating the World Bank. Soon after, Correa launched his leftist Alianza Pais (Country Alliance) Party and positioned himself as the political outsider for the 2006 presidential race. It was a smart move in an impoverished nation whose Congress is best known for its bribery and embezzlement scandals — a country that has seen seven different presidents in just 10 years, three of them forced out of office by popular uprisings. Polls show Correa with 37% of the vote in a crowded field, 11 more points than he had last month and 16 ahead of his closest competitor, former Vice President Leon Roldos. To avoid a Nov. 26 runoff, Correa will need to win more than 50% on Sunday, or 40% with a 10-point victory margin.

At campaign rallies, supporters shout "Dale Correa," a play on Correa's last name that means "Give them the belt!" On the stump in the rural highlands town of Latacunga last week, the dark-skinned but blue-eyed Correa spoke in the indigenous Quichua language: "The political and economic elites have robbed everything from us, but they cannot steal our hope. We will take back our oil, our country, our future!" And like Chavez, Correa wields his tongue like a belt at the U.S. Asked about Chavez's recent "devil" diatribe at the United Nations, Correa told an Ecuadoran TV network, "Calling Bush the devil offends the devil. Bush is a tremendously dimwitted President who has done great damage to the world."

Bush-bashing is just one part of an election very much defined by U.S.-related issues. One is whether Ecuador will keep letting the U.S. use the Manta air base on the Pacific coast for drug surveillance flights — or if Ecuador will even continue to assist Washington's drug war, particularly the multibillion-dollar Plan Colombia. (Correa says he would not renew the Manta treaty when it expires in 2009.)

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