This is a guest post by Gabriel Aguilera, an Assistant Professor of International Security Studies at the Air War College. The views expressed here belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, or Air War College.
During a recent trip to Ecuador I learned more about President Rafael Correa; why he is popular and why he will most likely be reelected. Though it’s easy to caricature him as a Chavista populist, it was difficult to find serious and fair-minded voices in Ecuador that would say he is anything other than extremely shrewd, sane, pragmatic, and predictably unpredictable. In contrast to Hugo Chavez, he is making good use of high oil prices by fixing roads and infrastructure, subsiding energy, improving the delivery of basic services, raising educational standards, and providing money transfers to the nation’s poorest citizens. To be sure, this government is nationalistic, interventionist, and heavy-handed, and Correa is no conventional democrat, as his attack on the press so eloquently demonstrated.
There is, however, a method to President Correa’s heavy-handed tactics. They are arguably necessary in a country where few institutions work and vested interests, including foreign ones, regularly make use of raw power via marches, manipulation of the media, and corruption. Weak chief executives of any stripe would not survive in Ecuador. In fact, they haven’t. U.S. officials are fretful of Correa who consistently resists closer ties with Washington. And in all fairness, it is easy to understand his mistrust given that the United States has demonstrated a willingness to stir up trouble for leftist governments in the region, both historically and in recent times.
The Ecuadorian military, for its part, is concerned with the Correa administration’s willingness to meddle in military management. Although the brass seems to have developed a good working relationship with the poet-cum-defense minister, one of Correa’s right-hand men, the military continues to closely guard its prerogatives. The military and Correa desperately need each other, and in Ecuador one is hard pressed to find an institution that works as well as the military, even though it is small and stretched far too thin. Moreover, the military supports many institutions that do not work well or simply cannot be relied upon, such as the police. Ecuadorian citizens understand this, it seems, and support the military just as they support the government. Military officers, for their part, understand Correa’s popularity and that much of his policy agenda is a welcome one for the beleaguered country. They sympathize with the president’s desire for increased sovereignty and agree that strained relations with Washington are due to longstanding differences and not just the government’s populism.
Finally, if I understood the signals correctly, the military will not support Chavismo in Ecuador. They support the president and civilian control, and they respect the latest in the plethora of Ecuadorian constitutions. Indeed, they helped write it. ”This too shall pass” seems to be the military’s common sentiment, often in reference to Correa, who they expect will serve his final term after the anticipated victory in 2013. The question I have is whether Correa will till the soil for institutional changes that would permit him to run again after what should be his final term in office. Many observers believe that he will try, but I’m not so sure. One can, I think, reasonably hope that he realizes that Chavismo cannot work without a critical mass of support from within the armed forces, something that he does not have now based on what I saw and heard. And going about the business of rallying support from Ecuador’s military men might, in itself, trigger an early end to his administration. Ecuadorian military leaders are serious people; they control the only major institution that has continued to function reasonably well throughout the country’s historical turmoil, and there is no doubt that they will jealously protect it from the government’s efforts to politicize it for its own ends.