- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
Channeling former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel and his famous quip, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa is seizing the country’s latest crisis as an opportunity to consolidate his power with the aim of ramming through a radical reform agenda over the objections of his domestic opposition. Displaying an uncanny instinct for outmaneuvering his rivals — reminiscent of his fellow radical populists Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales — Correa quickly turned around what began as a police protest against cuts in benefits into high drama designed to discredit the democratic opposition and drum up international support for his regime. Citing no evidence, Correa quickly deemed the police strike (an inexcusable abdication of professional responsibility) as a "coup attempt" by the opposition and fanned the flames of crisis and instability by traveling to police headquarters to confront police, tearing off his tie, and challenging them to "kill me" where he stood.
While Thursday’s events were no doubt exploited by sundry opportunists trying to turn up the heat on President Correa, the president’s own inflammatory rhetoric and actions only made things worse. Like Chavez and Morales, Correa has a predilection for unilateral action, belittling his opponents, and creating crisis atmospheres. In recent days, after his proposed economic reforms lost the support of his own party, Correa threatened to dissolve Congress and rule by decree until new elections were held.
After Thursday’s crisis had passed, Correa showed every indication of pressing his advantage. "I’m not going to negotiate absolutely anything," he said, adding, "Nothing will be forgiven and nothing will be forgotten." Central Bank President Diego Borja further tipped the government’s hand by asserting, "This gives us much more energy to deepen changes. Now we can really move the citizens’ revolution forward on all fronts."
Correa continues to maintain high approval numbers and last year became the first Ecuadorean president to win two terms in office. But as Chavez has shown, bombast and confrontation may work for a time as a governing strategy, but eventually people tire of the rancor as their concerns return to bread-and-butter issues that impact their daily lives, like the economy and crime. Correa would be wise to recognize that, and the underlying tensions in his country, and adjust his style accordingly. As for outside observers, they should be wary of falling into the populists’ trap where every presidential action is ipso facto deemed legitimate, and the actions of the democratic opposition to defend their rights are just as readily discredited.