This is a guest post by Stephanie Leutert, a research associate here at the Council on Foreign Relations who works with me in the Latin America program.
In less than a month, Ecuadorians will head to the polls to elect their next president, and will likely usher in another four years for Rafael Correa. For a country that famously went through seven presidents in the ten years before Correa took office, the administration’s longevity is a feat in itself. Many observers attribute his durability to the vast expansion of “bonos” or cash transfers to the poor, which now reach almost one in seven Ecuadorians. Others see his charisma, which resonates with so many Ecuadorians, as the key to his success. But Correa has another more unexpected ace card up his sleeve—the country’s roads.
When Correa entered office in 2007, he inherited a country with outdated infrastructure—roads full of potholes and dilapidated or altogether nonexistent bridges. In response, the new government immediately poured hundreds of millions of dollars into building, fixing, and expanding the country’s transportation infrastructure. By Correa’s third year in office, the amount of money spent on building roads was triple that before his arrival to Ecuador’s highest office. In fact, in 2011 the Ministry of Transportation and Public Works’ budget (dedicated to improving and building roads) roughly equaled the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Healthcare’s budgets combined—some $800 million dollars for transportation infrastructure, poured into an economy the size of Nebraska’s.
These upgrades in roads and bridges boosted Ecuador’s economy. According to the World Bank, from 2007 to 2010 port container traffic more than doubled, as trucks laden with Ecuador’s main exports (oil, bananas, shrimp, and timber) sped quicker than ever to cities and boats headed abroad (substantial investments in port infrastructure helped as well). And roads allowed employers and employees to move their equipment and teams to new sites with greater efficiency. Tourism also likely reaped benefits—as buses are the main transport means for both domestic and international travelers exploring the country.
These infrastructure investments have big political reverberations too. The government frequently touts these achievements, as do Correa’s campaign videos. One such advertisement follows Correa as he bikes along a smooth road, then flashes images of new bridges, alluding to Ecuador’s development. And Ecuadorians have noticed. During a recent trip to Ecuador, more than a few Guayaquil residents mentioned the new transportation infrastructure to me (unprovoked) as an example of a very positive way that Correa has changed their country.
These investments in roads and other infrastructure are important for Ecuador’s long-term development and for its economy. They are also a shrewd political tactic—providing tangible results of Correa’s presidency and benefits that are felt by almost everyone. By appealing to Ecuadorians of many ideological leanings, Correa looks to ride these roads to a second term.