Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Rafael Correa in Ecuador swept into power promising to use the wealth of natural resources in their countries to help address widespread poverty and stabilize the economy. Both improved situations enough to win reelection, but both also seem to have a strong grip on power and willingness to curtail democracy when it suits them. Here are recent developments regarding leadership and questions about democracy in both countries.
Rafael Correa secured re-election by a comfortable margin on Sun., Feb. 17, 2013. He took in about 56% of the vote with his nearest competitor getting 23%; there were 7 candidates overall. Correa’s re-election is seen as stamp of approval of his programs to reduce poverty and inequality by building up social institutions and infrastructure, which he plans to continue. After improving access to education and health care and building or improving thousands of miles of roads and highways, Correa pledged to reform the news media, land regulations, and the penal code in his new term. It does appear that Correa has achieved a measure of stability in Ecuador, which had seen seven presidents in the 10 years before he arrived.
But some are wary that he has abused power. Critics claim Correa has governed with “aggressive tactics” that “undermine democracy,” including: expanding presidential power, weakening the independence of the courts, and lashing out often at perceived enemies, including political opponents and the media.
His decisive victory for a third term has also been taken as indication of the weakness of opposition in Ecuador, which could not unite to throw support behind one candidate. There is also concern that Correa will use his win as a mandate to further consolidate power and limit media expression and dissent.
A national Ministry of Health official told the New York Times he voted again Correa because of disagreement over the president’s management of Ecuador’s health system. It’s a good sign that a citizen was able to express discontent about the government to the press. But this official did not provide his name in fear of reprisal for identifying himself as voting against the president. This is not a good sign.
Ecuador’s constitution — passed under Correa’s guidance in 2008 — includes presidential term limits that would prevent him from running again when his new term ends in 2017. For democracy’s sake let’s hope he adheres to this rule.
Speaking of side-stepping the constitution…
After undergoing cancer treatment in Cuba and being off the radar for several months, President Hugo Chavez returned to Venezuela this past Monday, Feb. 18.
So is everything back to normal now in Venezuela? Hardly. Far from the triumphant homecoming in full view of TV cameras you would expect, Chavez instead “sneaked” into Caracas in the middle of the night and was immediately whisked off to a military hospital.
So the presidential inauguration and swearing in, which was supposed to take place Jan. 10 after Chavez’s reelection as required by the Venezuelan constitution? Nope, that hasn’t happened yet. The extent to which Chavez is really involved with running the country? No one knows. Who really IS running the country (discussed here in one of my previous posts): hand-picked successor Nicolas Maduro? A group of loyal Chavez government officials? Someone else no one knows? Anyone’s guess. Will an election be held within appropriate timeframe, and will it be fair? No clue.
In sum, to what extent will democracy be circumvented to keep Chavez and his supporters in power? Sadly, this question (along with many others) still does not have a clear answer.