In My Opinion

Ecuador: Dictatorship of the 21st Century?

Many people are surprised by Rafael Correa’s sweeping victory in Sunday’s Ecuadorean presidential election, despite his government’s massive corruption scandals and his record of repression against the media and political opponents.

But if you look closer, it shouldn’t be surprising at all.

On the contrary, it would have been amazing if the result had been any different.

That’s what I concluded after talking a few days after the elections with former Ecuadoran president Osvaldo Hurtado, who has just published a new book entitled Dictatorships of the XXIst Century. The book’s title mocks Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Correa and other autocratic presidents’ claims that they are building a “Socialism of the XXIst Century.”

I asked Hurtado how Correa had won with 57 percent of the vote, even after several much-publicized corruption scandals.

In case you missed the recent headlines from Ecuador, Correa’s cousin Pedro Delgado resigned as head of the Central Bank Dec. 19 after press reports that he had lied about having an economics degree. More importantly, Delgado allegedly used a government agency created by Correa to give loans to government friends for projects that never materialized.

That was only the latest corruption scandal involving Correa’s inner circle. The president’s own brother, Fabricio Correa, has publicly confirmed that he received huge government contracts — for as much as $300 million, according to press reports — from the Correa administration and that the president was aware of such transactions.

Still, none of this seems to have hurt the president, because of an economic boom spurred by soaring world oil prices and Ecuador’s dollarization in recent years.

“Ecuador is going through what may be its most prosperous moment in history,” Hurtado told me. “Wherever you look, there are new buildings, brand-new luxury malls, and more cars on the streets.”

Hurtado noted that the boom started years before Correa took office in 2007. World oil prices have risen from about $9 a barrel in 1999 to $100 a barrel today, and “in fact, poverty had gone down more rapidly before Correa took office, than after he took office.”

Interestingly, Ecuador’s rich seem to have voted for Correa in about the same proportion as the country’s poor, Hurtado said.

In addition to Ecuador’s oil-driven prosperity, Correa won because the election rules were tailor-made to help his candidacy. The president controls all government institutions, which has allowed him to spend freely on self-aggrandizing propaganda and to impose growing controls on the media, Hurtado said.

Under Correa’s election laws, Ecuadoran media were not allowed to publish “biased” reports on any candidate, which amounted to a de facto censorship of any story critical of Correa, or of his government.

Also, Correa has invoked an imaginary international media conspiracy to close down or take over several formerly independent radio and television stations, and has intimidated newspapers by filing lawsuits that may drive many of them out of business.

Hurtado told me that “unlike the dictatorships of the past, which took power with a coup d’etat, closed down the Congress and replaced the president, the dictatorships of the XXI Century ignore the constitutional order under which they were elected and create a new constitutional order that allows them to stay in power forever.

“After a while, they become dictatorships,” he added.

What should pro-democracy people in Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and other autocracies do? Hurtado responded that there is not much they can do, except participating with one single candidate so as not to divide the opposition vote.

“The answer should come from the Organization of American States (OAS,) since these governments are violating several articles of the Inter-American Democratic Charter,” Hurtado said. “But unfortunately, the OAS has remained silent. There seems to be a double standard, in which the OAS lashes out against dictatorships of the right, but not against dictatorships of the left."

My opinion: I agree. These narcissist-Leninist autocracies have been in power for several years now, and they all seem to follow the same manual: their leaders run for office as anti-corruption and pro-democracy crusaders, and as soon as they are elected, they change the rules of the game to grab absolute powers.

They may not last forever, because Chávez’s illness, for example, declining commodity prices, and disastrous economic policies may further weaken them in the near future. But for now, nobody should be surprised by Correa’s “sweeping victory.”

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

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