Latin America & Caribbean

Ecuador: Stability but at what price?

Quito's Plaza Grande square with its Spanish colonial architecture is dominated by the presidential palace, Ecuador's flag fluttering above
Image caption Quito's Plaza Grande square with its Spanish colonial architecture is dominated by the presidential palace, with Ecuador's flag fluttering above

Ever since Nelson Zapata started shining shoes in the shadow of Ecuador's presidential palace 33 years ago, 13 heads of state have ruled this Andean country.

One acting president lasted just six days. A few managed to complete their terms. Two were ousted by popular revolts, and one by a coup.

Mr Zapata never liked any of them, until Rafael Correa took over in 2007.

"He is a good president," says Mr Zapata, one of the dozens of shoe shiners that work around Quito's colonial-style old town and make for colourful subjects in tourists' pictures.

"People keep voting for him because he is doing a good job," he said.

Many Ecuadoreans agree with Mr Zapata.

After winning last February's presidential elections with a 35-point lead over his main opponent, Mr Correa has become the first president in Ecuador's history to rule for three consecutive terms.

Oil discovery

The political stability brought in by Mr Correa is in deep contrast with Ecuador's past with its deep social and economic divides and the social unrest and economic instability of the past few decades.

This had its roots in Ecuador's transition from a largely rural, undeveloped country with an elite land-owning minority to one where oil discoveries in the 1960s injected a different dynamic into the economy.

Image caption Rafael Correa has been sharply critical of those in the private media who question his policies

Many rural poor migrated to the Amazon in the east to work in the oil fields, and oil exports quickly became the main source of income for the country, making it South America's second largest oil exporter.

The economy grew, but Ecuador remained of the poorest countries in South America while the land-owning elites remained in power. As with other countries in the region, Ecuador lived through a period of military rule in the 1960s and 70s, though without large-scale human rights abuses.

In the late 1990s, a combination of factors led a major economic crisis. Low prices for oil, together with agricultural damages caused by El Nino-powered floods dealt the country a body blow.

It triggered a period of great instability. In 2000 the country was forced to adopt the US dollar as its currency to avoid hyperinflation. Hundreds of thousands of Ecuadoreans migrated abroad, mainly to the United States, Spain, and Italy. Seven presidents came and left in 10 years.

Mother nature

By 2006, the ground was ripe for someone promising social reform to take over. A US-trained economist, Rafael Correa was elected on a promise to redistribute wealth.

"The country had always been in the hands of a small group of people," says Ralph Murphine, a political consultant who advised Mr Correa during the 2006 electoral campaign.

"Correa saw a great opportunity in this," says Muphine, adding that it was modelled on the approach taken by Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan president who Correa is often compared to..

Help by the high oil prices of the late 2000s, Mr Correa built roads, schools and hospitals, and invested in social programmes, offering free education and healthcare.

He also increased efforts to expand the monthly cash payment known as Bono del Desarrollo Humano ("human development voucher"). Around 1.2 million people in this country of 14.5 million receive some benefit from the $50 (£32) payment.

In a nod to Ecuador's indigenous population, which voted for Mr Correa in great numbers, a new constitution, approved in 2008, recognised the rights of nature, a concept which comes from the indigenous notion of Mother Nature, or Pachamama.

Mr Correa also made Kichwa and Shuar, the two most-widespread indigenous languages, official languages, alongside Spanish. These were significant steps in a country with a huge biodiversity and with 14 indigenous nationalities.

Media battles

Mr Correa's policies have had some results. Poverty rates have dropped significantly, from 37% in 2007 to 27% in 2012, according to official statistics.

Yet, critics say political stability has come at a high cost, while certain principles set out in the constitution have not been respected.

Members of the opposition on both sides of the political spectrum say Mr Correa has concentrated power in his hands, filling the courts with allies, while clamping down on political opponents and private media.

Rights campaigning group, Amnesty International, has said the government has misused anti-terrorism laws dating from the 1970s military dictatorship to incarcerate indigenous leaders protesting against the exploitation of natural resources.

Mr Correa also made negative international headlines for pursuing, and winning, several libel lawsuits against private media. The government says it is battling media organisations that have tried to undermine reforms that threaten the interests of the elites.

When it comes to the economy, critics say that the current levels of high spending are not sustainable and are only possible thanks to the high prices of oil.

After defaulting on its foreign debt in 2008, Ecuador turned to China to borrow money. It now owes the Asian superpower some $3.4bn (£2.1bn) at high interest rates.

The government says it is going to develop tourism as an alternative source of income, but critics say Mr Correa has not moved far from an economic model based on extraction of natural resources.

Further reforms

Image caption There have been street protests against plans to mine for copper in the Amazon

New oil and mining projects are expected in previously untouched areas of the Amazon basin, causing much discontent among indigenous leaders, who had supported Mr Correa in previous elections.

Several Chinese companies have signed contracts with the Ecuadorean government to exploit natural resources, such as copper.

From his vantage point under the porches of Quito's Plaza Grande, Mr Zapata says this criticism is of little importance to him.

"Mr Correa looks after the poor," he says, recalling the first time he entered the presidential palace.

It was in 2010 and Mr Correa invited all the shoe shiners to have lunch with him in the palace. Mr Zapata had never set his foot in there before, and was very grateful.

"Even if it's only with a meal, he does what he can. Every time he walks in front of the palace, he waves at us," he says.

So far, Mr Correa has managed to address social and economic issues that were long overdue, making certain steps towards a more equal and more modern country.

He has pledged further reforms that critics worry will deepen his control over media and the courts.

His next challenge will also be to look for someone who may take over from him in 2017, as the constitution does not allow him to run again.

So far his popularity remains high, but it remains to be seen whether by the time his mandate ends his choices will have given Ecuador a more prosperous future in the long run.