Ecuadorian presidential front-runner Rafael Correa wants to whip Ecuador's politicians into shape (FT). While his campaign slogan, "Give them the belt," has caught the attention of voters and the media, he is making investors exceedingly nervous. Correa, a U.S.-educated economist friendly with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, has spoken of Argentine-style debt reform (Reuters), opposes resuming free-trade talks with the United States and wants to shut the only U.S. military base in South America.
On elections held October 15, Correa was narrowly edged out by Alvaro Noboa, a banana mogul and Ecuador's wealthiest man, setting up a runoff between the two candidates (LAT). Neither is much respected by Ecuadorians—98 percent of whom do not have confidence in the honesty of Congress, according to a recent Cedatos poll (PDF). And there is a revolving-door aspect to the presidency: Ecuador has had nine presidents since 1997, and three presidents have been ousted by popular protests in the past ten years. This is perhaps a result of frustration over the failure of oil revenue (Ecuador is the second-largest Latin American supplier of oil to the United States, behind Venezuela) to trickle down to the population.
Ecuador (ElectionGuide) is among the twelve Latin American countries holding presidential elections in the past year (BBC). Like the others, it was closely watched in the United States for signs of a leftward tilt. With Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's rising influence and the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia, there has been ample chatter over a populist, anti-American bloc emerging in the region. Jorge G. Castaneda, the former Mexican foreign minister, is among those who think this talk is overblown, saying it ignores the existence of an open-minded and modern left (Foreign Affairs). Yet Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, questions whether the United States is "losing Latin America." He writes in Foreign Affairs that Chavez has made it clear he wants to replace Washington's agenda with his own, one that "rejects representative democracy and market economics."
After Ecuador's vote on Sunday, the next election on the horizon is Nicaragua's. The United States, silent on Correa's candidacy in Ecuador, has vocally opposed Sandinista presidential candidate Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, who has been publicly endorsed by Chavez (Houston Chronicle). While each election is likely to change the political map in Latin America, writes Miami Herald columnist Andrew Oppenheimer, it's unlikely the pro-Chavez candidates will win both. Earlier this year, Peru's pro-Chavez presidential candidate, Ollante Humala, was defeated by Alan Garcia, who is now eagerly pushing forward on a free-trade agreement with the United States.
Humula's loss in Peru makes Ecuador's election all the more important in the U.S.-Chavez tug-of-war for influence in the region. Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, tells the Associated Press a Correa victory would "bring in a new recruit for the Chavez bloc at a time when that bloc very much needs one." Chavez's ambitious foreign policy goals—including a bid for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council—extend well beyond Latin America, but experts agree his influence will only last as long as his oil output—11 percent of U.S. oil imports but half of Venezuela's oil exports—remains high.