Popular, not populist

In this interview with Argentina’s Mario Wainfeld, Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa says, “…the policies of George Bush have been so clumsy in the region that they’ve favored us. The progressive governments have a lot to thank him for, he’s helped us a lot.”

Also in this interview, this breaking news: An Ecuadoran who survived the Colombian/U.S. bombing of the FARC camp in Ecuador on March 1 was killed with a blow from a rifle butt to his neck, not by gunfire or the bombs themselves.

Winning Elections is Not the Same as Winning Power

Mario Wainfeld – Página 12

Translation: Machetera

In an interview with Página 12, Ecuador’s president spoke of his opposition’s coalition, the role of the media and banking. As well, he spoke of the relationship between democracy and power factions, and his socialist project and its limits. Of the influence of the dollar and remittances. Of the relationship between countries in the region, with Colombia, with the United States. And much more, even a goal made in overtime.

Carondelet Palace, the government seat, is located in Plaza Grande, an archetypal colonial plaza. The Spanish interior patios are beautiful, overflowing with flowers. The room in which the interview takes place is, like its surroundings, manorial. The carved wood sets the tone. There are portraits of Simón Bolívar and Marshal Sucre. White roses in full aromatic bloom adorn the table where the voice recorders are set. The interview, a new experience for the writer, is filmed by the government. Once it is published in Página 12, it may be used for internal dissemination. Rafael Correa gives a friendly and concentrated interview. His seduction is in his energy, in the spoken word. He’s courteous, warmly welcoming, understated. His attention is fixed on the reporter (and the camera), his eyes more reflective of his feelings and emphasis than his hands.

How many languages do you speak, President?

I speak Spanish, more or less, still not perfectly. I mangle French a little. And a bit of Quechua, I understand Quechua.

You speak English well.

I speak.

You studied in Europe and the United States; you’ll be in contact with your former colleagues…

Yes.

If one of them were to see you (the Europeans, who are more conceptual, or the gringos who are more empirical) and ask you, “What kind of president are you? You’re changing the Constitution, arguing with the rice producers, telling them that they can’t export freely if they don’t guarantee supply and pricing for the local market, disputing the oil royalties, in conflict with the mainstream media,” how would you answer?

That I’m an idealist with his feet firmly on the ground. We aim high, we know where we want to go, but we’re also pragmatic. We know how to negotiate, we know how to take measures but without losing sight of north. This north: we’re socialists, we want a more equitable society, we want a developed country, with development measured by the amount of poverty.

You won the presidency, through the constituent assembly. Won by a wide margin. In September, there’ll be a referendum to approve or discard the constitution. Is this necessary for governing, and aren’t the elections and referendums to follow, too risky for your legitimacy?

The constitution of ’98 was a neoliberal institution. Its economics were ridiculous. It gave the Central Bank autonomy. The constitution is the pillar of our citizens’ revolution. We are tremendously democratic. The people were asked if they wanted a constitutional assembly: the “Yes” was resounding; 82 percent, against the 11% who said “No.” They were the most democratic elections in Ecuadoran history. Equity in media access was guaranteed. Gender equity was guaranteed. Before, there were “alternatives” but the first three candidates were men, the last three women, although they never made it. Today there’s one for one, we have a constituent assembly with 45% women. Migrants may vote and be elected. Now we’re going to a referendum. The constitution of ’98 was so happily accepted that it was never submitted to the people; ours will be.

You’ve been seen speaking at events in the language of the plains, arriving at the events on horseback, wearing ponchos. Is that populism or caudillismo (strongman behavior)?

I do these things because it’s what the people are looking for, it’s something one has to do. I’m not a caudillo nor a populist. Often in Latin America there’s a confusion between being popular and being a populist. So I’ve indoctrinated myself: to be a technician, not a populist which is to be (truly) sadomasochistic. The more cruel one was with the people, the more technical one was with the packages. But it’s not like that: one can be very technical, very responsible and popular at the same time, because people recognize the authenticity and the delivery. We are a very popular, not populist, government.

I’ve heard you say this week that if the oil companies are very angry, that’s good news…

…It’s said, by way of complaint, “the oil companies are upset.” Well of course, it’s very simple: because we’re doing things well. If they were content, it would mean that they were paying less than market price.

The weight of these powers is important enough to force a permanent conflict with them?

Maybe it’s my way of being that exacerbates the conflict: I’m irascible and direct. But we are realists: winning the elections here is not the same as winning power. The power factions go on, many of them intact. And the struggle is to change this power relationship. The constitution is going to prohibit financial institutions from owning other kinds of businesses outside the financial system. Today, of the seven national television channels, five are owned by the bank. You speak on a regular basis about the interest rate or lowering the costs of bank services…and you’ll see what a campaign you’ll have against that. That’s the big step, changing the correlation between forces. The force should belong to the citizens, the large masses, the population at large, not forever with elite groups. The power factions aren’t going to submissively relinquish their powers forever. Do you think that if I was a president functioning within the status quo, the press would treat me so badly? Would I be the head of my government if I functioned that way?

Could you describe the arc of your opposition, for the Argentine reader?

The party-ocracy, the traditional parties, have been destroyed. It’s believed that there’s no opposition but it’s a big mistake. To the contrary, we have a fierce opposition that comes from the communication media. As Ignacio Ramonet says, they are the guard dogs of the current economic system. In Latin America they’re the greatest defenders of the status quo…businesses that, under the pretext of freedom of expression, defend their private interests. Of course there are exceptions, honorable exceptions. We have economic powers, a bank that knows we’re taking away its privileges which are connected with the communications media. We have certain areas of production that are closely connected with political parties but call themselves business guilds. Big capital. Unfortunately, there are certain intransigent radical leftist groups who’ve always been allied with the right-wing and the status quo. With infantile, ridiculous positions: no payment of external debt, expulsion of the oil companies…everything and nothing. Let the last to leave turn out the lights. All of this creates an important arc of opposition. One of the problems with this country is that there’ve been many groups with veto capacity and none with the capacity of making a forward gesture. Now there is, with 70% of the votes from every corner of the country in the last elections. But these groups are still around, with power.

Could you mention a general goal and objective, in numbers, for the end of your mandate?

We’ve got various indexes in the National Development Plan. Resolving the energy problem…we’re on the right track, we’ve already started four mega-projects and we’re going for three more. Until now only one has been built; that’s the citizens’ revolution. We have clear goals in nutrition, education…Next year we hope to declare Ecuador a country free of illiteracy. Perhaps we’ll achieve that a bit ahead of time.

The Region, Colombia, the FARC, the United States

Regional integration; is it possible today, with the historical confrontational framework, the balkanization?

It’s very likely, very feasible. Unfortunately there’s the Colombia-Ecuador conflict, because of Colombia, but comparatively speaking, this is a period in Latin America with less conflict than ever, above all in South America. There’s more will to integrate. The challenge is for this integration to manifest itself in benefits for the people.

A flag is traditional and useful. But it’s been difficult to translate into cooperation and economic integration. Similar resonances are being heard from different political figures…

This has been an era of change. Progressive governments, empathy between presidents and political decisions, with a newly formed integrative purpose. Not what we saw in the ’90’s, where they wanted to turn us into a big market. We want to turn ourselves into a big nation.

What’s the present situation with Colombia, following the international aggression some months ago?

We were attacked, we have to fix things. We’ve taken a step, repairing relations at the business level. We have a very hot border and it’s good to have fluid communication. But in order to establish full relations, we’re going to demand that this attack be fully clarified. The bombs were North American and, according to the reports from our armed forces, could not have been launched from Colombian planes. Three of the wounded, according to forensic reports, were in all likelihood, killed after surviving the bombing. The Ecuadoran who died there was hit on the neck with the butt of a rifle, not struck by bullets or bombs.

What is the relationship of the Ecuadoran government and its president with the FARC?

During my lifetime, I’ve known someone from the FARC. That’s an outrage: that we should be attacked, then we are slandered and must justify ourselves.

Until what point can Ecuador control that border, in military terms?

Impossible. It’s a very porous border. The United States can’t even control the passage of immigrants into its territory and is building a wall. And there’s no jungle there. Here there are 400, 500 kilometers of Amazon jungle. The world has to understand that the problem is not Ecuador, the problem is Colombia, and every time that a FARC patrol infiltrates Ecuador, it means that it came from Colombia. We have 13 military posts on the border, when we ought to need (in peacetime) a quarter of that. Colombia has two. Colombia’s strategy is to resolve the problem by leaving its southern border unguarded, they want to engage us.

The hypothesis is that Ecuador was a kind of wall…

It’s an anvil strategy: they attack from north to south, leaving their southern border undefended so that we incur the cost. This is also an outrage. Do you know how many Colombians we have seeking refuge in our country? Four hundred thousand Colombians, seventeen thousand with refugee status, with many more applications. The problem is not with the Colombian people, the problem is with Uribe.

In Ecuador there’s a North American military base. You’ve said that next year, the treaty will not be renewed. I’m not a geopolitical expert, but I’m guessing that this might encourage the base to move to a neighboring country. Has your government analyzed this possibility?

It doesn’t concern us. In 2009 this infamous treaty that was signed by the pliant government of (ex-President Jamil) Mahuad in exchange for nothing, will expire. Sovereignty means not having foreign solders on homeland soil. Let them go to a neighboring country. It’s their problem.

One of the current advantages of the region, as you say, is its relative peace. I have the impression that there’s another; after September 11, 2001, the United States began to pay less attention to the region due to its greater interest in the Middle East. This lack of attention, maybe, served us well.

I share that. What’s more, the policies of George Bush have been so clumsy in the region that they’ve favored us. The progressive governments have a lot to thank him for, he’s helped us a lot.

Do you think a new government will be different? Could there be differences depending on whether the new president is McCain or Obama?

I imagine a democratic president could be different. But America has to count on her own strength. It’s up to a certain inconsequential point of view how much the United States can change. Which is not a lot.

Once a current Argentine official, who you know well, told me “Rafael Correa is a son of the middle class, a practicing Catholic, with a university education, who threw himself into politics. Here, in the ’70’s, he’d have been part of the Peronist Youth.” Have they ever told you that?

(Smiling) They’ve never said that to me. I have a lot of admiration for Perón and the Peronist movement…Now, yes, I’m further left than the Peronists.

Peronists can be found anywhere on the spectrum…

But there were and are some right-wing Peronists.

I can attest to that. I thank you and will leave you with the last word, should you wish to communicate something more to the Argentine reader.

Only that in the future, [soccer] games should run out in 45 minutes, not 49. (laughs)

But the overtime was within legal limits, President.

But not four minutes of it…(laughs)

Machetera is a member of Tlaxcala, the network of translators for linguistic diversity. This translation may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source, author, and translator are cited.

One response to “Popular, not populist

  1. Dr. Bill Bushnell

    This is the best English interview with President Correa that I have seen so far. Excellent illustrations of his complex thinking about complicated problems. As a new resident of Ecuador I’m pleased to see that I made the right choice to move from the USA at this time when Ecuador has the possibility to live up to its awesome potential.

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