Thursday, October 2, 2008

Correa and the constitution

For about the last 15 years, Ecuador's politics have been in a more or less constant state of instability. Rafael Correa, if he manages to stay in office for the next few years, will be the first national leader out of the last nine to actually finish a full term (one was removed for insanity, one was overthrown by a left-wing military coup, one was overthrown by a right-wing restoration, one was driven out by a popular rising.....) All in all, it reminds me a lot of how Hobsbawm described "government by pronunciamento" in 19th century Spain. The basic problem, as with Peru or Bolivia, is that the oligarchy and the people are each strong enough to keep the other from governing effectively, but neither are strong enough to govern effectively themselves. Now, Correa offers a chance to overcome that deadlock, by having the courage and vision to effectively confront the oligarchy, and plow away full steam ahead at stripping them of their power and privileges. He realizes that compromise, in today's climate, is no solution at all.

Mr. Correa looks to have, like most Ecuadorians, a good helping of indigenous blood. He is a devout Catholic, and spent some time in his youth working at a welfare center run by the Salesian order. He's fluent in Quechua, a staunch admirer of Hugo Chavez who doesn't shy away from using the word 'socialist', and has called for a socialist revolution to sweep the continent. His background is in economics, with a doctorate from the University of Illinois, and he served as finance minister under the last interim president, Palacios, before resigning after a disagreement over a free trade deal (Correa was against it).

I'm of course a big supporter of Correa and he strikes me as exactly what Ecuador, and the whole continent, direly need. For example, I think that his nationalization of the assets of a Brazilian company Odebrecht, a few days ago (irrigation projects, hydroelectric plants, and airport worth a total of $800 million) was a great move. That company was responsible for the shoddy construction of a dam built last year, which isn't even working any more; some top executives were arrested. It looks like some compensation may be paid, but the company is banned from working in Ecuador in future. This is as it should be. All this type of infrastructure should eventually be owned by the national government. Plants and infrastructure that are necessary to the smooth functioning and industrial development of the country should be made to serve the common good, and not private profit, and all capitalist ownership, in the end, should be eliminated from the Ecuadorian economy. Of course that isn't possible now and won't be for a long time, but this is a step forward towards a society where the means of production are owned by the people- that means by small producers, by cooperatives, and by the state- and that's a good thing. It should start with those companies that have been guilty of crimes, and Odebrecht certainly was. If you commit a crime, then your assets should be forfeit to the state.

Mr. Correa has been accused of authoritarianism, but in Ecuador today, a mild authoritarianism is necessary. The Ecuadorian constitutions have long had a provision banning the expression of contempt or libel against the president, like many other Latin American countries, and that is as it should be- Correa was right to call the press 'a bunch of wild beasts' and to sue the La Hora newspaper for saying that he intended to rule Ecuador through mob violence. That sort of propaganda poisons people's minds against the government and does nothing but destabilize society, and there is a reason it was illegal- Correa didn't make the law. The private media in Ecuador, of course, like elsewhere in the region, is little more than a willing tool of the wealthy and collaborators with foreign powers. They have never had a pretence to report the truth and they should not be able to invoke the 'freedom to speak the truth' now.

Correa's new constitution gives us a lot of evidence about what his vision for Ecuador is, and it's clear his vision is that of a Christian socialist who wants to build a society based on love, sharing and cooperation, not on individual greed and self-interest. Like many of today's left-wing leaders, Correa has abandoned the atheism and cultural liberalism of previous generations of socialists. The constitution explicitly outlaws abortion and gay marriage, saying that life begins from conception, but also encourages birth control and family planning.

Most importantly, in a largely agricultural country, is that Correa's new constitution opens the way not just to greater government control over the economy, but also to greater government control over the distribution of land. It outlaws large estates, dedicates the country to the goal of land reform and redistribution to peasants. It declares that all Ecuadorians have the right to free health care, clean water, and education through high school. And it calls for state control of sectors like telecommunications, water, petroleum, and infrastructure. Perhaps most inrtiguing of all, it says that 'Nature' is a juridical person with her own rights and needs.

All in all, this shows that Correa is simultaneously more sincere, more radical and more courageous than many of us had imagined. God bless him and his plans to reform Ecuador and turn it into a blazing fortress of justice.

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