Ecuador’s Rafeal Correa may be ruining his country’s economy, strangling its news media and daring its military to depose him in a coup, but he certainly hasn’t lost his sense of humor — though a lot of people wish that he had. Last year, when a Panamanian politician wrote on Twitter that Correa was a fascist, the president promptly tweeted back his idea of a quip: “Heil Hitler!”
It’s difficult to imagine another chief of state sending those words out to 2.6 million followers. (Well, maybe Mussolini, though that didn’t end well.) But then, Correa might not be a chief of state much longer.
Voters across South America, weary after a decade or more of economic calamity at the hands of left-wing populist regimes, have sent them tumbling like rows of dominoes the past few months.
Most impressively, the Venezuelan opposition overcame all kinds of official chicanery to put the National Assembly under control of a center-right party that may oust populist homophobe Nicolás Maduro (Epithet of choice against his enemies: “f----t”).
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In Bolivia, voters rejected scandal-plagued leftist Evo Morales’ attempt to change electoral rules to permit him a fourth term, which would have kept him in power until 2025. In Argentina, they rejected capitalist-bashing Cristina Férnandez de Kirchner’s choice of successor and seated a center-right government.
And Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff — all you really need to know about her politics and tenuous grip on sanity is that she used an endorsement by nutjob conspiracy theorist Oliver Stone in her campaign advertising — is teetering on the verge of impeachment over a scandal in the state oil company involving $3,000-a-bottle wine, Rolexes and hookers, not necessarily in that order.
Correa may be next. His ability to play Santa Claus with government jobs and other patronage (between 2007 and 2015, Correa’s administration spent as much money as the Ecuadorean government had in the previous 30 years) has been gutted by falling oil prices, which bankroll 40 percent of the country’s spending.
Without all the freebies, Correa’s third presidential term has turned ugly. The World Bank predicts Ecuador’s economy will shrink 2 percent this year, and Correa’s popularity is going even faster. The research company (CQ) Market says his approval rating has dropped to 31 percent, and only 28 percent of those polled believe what he says.
That 3 percent gap apparently represents Ecuadoreans who detest Correa’s policies but think he delivers solid entertainment value. Along with his springtime-for-Hitler tweet, there’s also the challenge to a fistfight he issued on television last year to a congressman who questioned the value of a government project.
“We can settle this how we used to in my old neighborhood, if he’s got a problem with me, this demented liar, this swine,” Correa declared on TV. Andrés Páez, the congressman, retorted that he’d be happy to throw down with Correa if “he promises not bring his 300 bodyguards.” And, added Paez, “I hope you won’t resort to scratching me with your nails or hitting me with your purse.” (Clearly, Donald Trump is a connoisseur of Ecuadorean politics.)
As the Washington Post summed up, “President Rafael Correa of Ecuador is a studly man of irreproachable judgment and superlative masculinity, and don’t doubt it, punk, or else.”
The fight never took place, but plenty of Ecuadoreans have accepted Correa’s invitation to settle things in the streets; massive demonstrations against the president were a regular event last year, and another is scheduled later this week.
More worrisome: the possibility that the army will come out of its barracks. Correa has been tinkering with, and in some cases delaying, payment of military pensions. When the generals complained a few weeks ago, he fired the entire high command.
A few days later, when Correa addressed an event at a Quito military academy, all retired officers walked out silent protest; the soldiers who remained pointedly did not applaud. Correa, in the face of his rising unpopularity, has already said he won’t run for reelection when his term is up in 2017.
The question is whether he’ll even make it until then.