Leadership can be hard to assess in politicians even, and sometimes especially, when they are in office. Presidents and prime ministers sometimes seem dwarfed by the magnitude of their role and the responsibilities that come with it. Still, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador is an interesting leader to watch. Shaped, he has said, by liberation theology and the social teachings of the Catholic Church, Correa, a practicing Catholic who calls himself a humanist and 21st-century socialist, has offered Ecuador bold reforms and a new social contract.
Correa is one of several leftist-leaning populist leaders in Latin America intent on carving out an independent path for their country. His decision to offer shelter to Julian Assange in Ecuador’s embassy in London in 2012 drew international attention to him. It also put him at odds with Britain, which at one point threatened to enter the embassy in violation of diplomatic protocol to remove Assange. More recently, Correa offered asylum to the whistle-blower Edward Snowden before backtracking after a call from Washington underscored that an important trade deal between Ecuador and the United States was up for renewal.
An economist who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, Correa became Ecuador’s economics and finance minister in 2005. When after four months he resigned, he was the most popular leader in the government because he refused to heed advice from the International Monetary Fund and championed Ecuador’s economic sovereignty. He won the presidency in 2006 promising economic relief for the poor and a “citizens’ revolution” that would increase citizen representation in decision making.
Correa has insisted that the rights of labor take precedence over capital. As president, he has raised wages, lowered interest rates, instituted a more progressive income tax, improved tax collection, added roads and greatly increased public investment and spending. One of his government’s most significant acts was to repudiate Ecuador’s public debt, then renegotiate on very favorable terms, saving the country billions of dollars and allowing it to triple the amount of money spent in the social sector on education, health and housing.
Not suprisingly, Correa credits his policies for Ecuador’s high growth rate, low unemployment and decline in poverty, but analysts say it is hard to disentangle cause from consequence. A boom in oil and commodity prices has helped Ecuador as well as other countries in the region; and throughout Latin America, poverty and inequality have been declining for the last decade among governments on both the right and the left. A recent report by the World Bank titled “Economic Mobility and the Rise of the Latin American Middle Class” notes that 50 million people in the continent escaped poverty during the last decade. Whereas the number of poor people used to be 2.5 times the size of the middle class, the poor and the middle class now account for roughly the same share of Latin America’s population. This 50 percent reduction in poverty, the study notes, is remarkable progress, the effect of economic growth throughout the region and declining levels of inequality in 12 of the 15 Latin American countries surveyed.
Correa’s biggest achievement may be providing Ecuador with political stability. His election in 2006 followed a turbulent decade in which Ecuador had seven presidents in 10 years. He was re-elected in 2013 by a large majority, the first Ecuadorian president to be re-elected in 30 years.
But Correa has his critics. A law placing restrictions on the press has drawn criticism from journalists. He has been called autocratic by business leaders and by some indigenous groups who oppose the exploitation of natural resources on or near their ancestral lands without their consent. Some leftists also oppose developing Ecuador’s natural resources, a stance Correa dismisses as unrealistic. Concerned about CO<-z8>2 emissions, he has also backed an initiative in which Ecuador would forego extracting oil reserves in Yasuni National Park in the Amazon in exchange for compensation from other countries. And in another bold move, Ecuador has opened its doors wide to immigrants.
Allert Brown-Gort, a professor at Notre Dame University who studies immigration policy, said Ecuador has the most open immigration system in the world today. “This is a spectacular experiment,” he said, one he thinks will be transformative.