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EL ESPECTADOR

In Latin America, Power Grabs Come From Both Left And Right

Their economic philosophies may differ, but Ecuador's President Rafael Correa and Colombia's arch-conservative former president Alvaro Uribe, share a taste for the perpetuation of power.

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa in Quito on Feb. 23
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa in Quito on Feb. 23
César Rodríguez Garavito

BOGOTA — The more I read about Rafael Correa's presidency in Ecuador, the more he reminds me of our own former president, Álvaro Uribe. Just like Uribe, Correa is concentrating authority and harassing his critics. And as with Colombia in 2010, Ecuador anxiously awaits the fate of a major reform of the constitution to allow the strongman to hold on to power.

Once considered Uribe's regional nemesis, Correa is starting to look like his leftist emulator.

There are however some important differences. In contrast with Uribe, the government of the "citizens' revolution" pursues a progressive economic program in Ecuador, diminishing poverty and inequality while improving healthcare and education.

For better or worse, it is also considerably more efficient than the Uribe government — both at building roads, but also at destroying democratic institutions that might otherwise prevent the leader from gaining too much power.

What Correa is promoting this time around is not his reelection to one more term, but a constitutional amendment to allow him to remain in power indefinitely. He may have learned a lesson from Uribe's failure, twice, to legalize his reelection beyond constitutional stipulations, which is why he has taken control of Ecuador's Constitutional Tribunal. That court will certainly approve within days his proposal to process the Constitutional reforms through parliament (which he controls) and not by way of a referendum as the Constitution demands.

Again, Correa has done harm even Uribe failed to do — and not for want of trying — by disciplining the judiciary and aligning it firmly with his political project. Uribe faced a much more solid and independent judicial system in Colombia, whereas Correa managed to exploit the Ecuadorian courts' loss of prestige to push through reforms that have created a politicized Judiciary Council to govern that branch.

Correa and Uribe — Photo: EFE/ZUMA

As a recent report by Luis Pásara on judicial independence has shown, that Council has moved to dismiss judges that rule against the government's interests, with the dubious argument that they made "inexcusable errors" of interpretation. Under this pressure, the justice system has ceased to be a counterweight to the government, and become its instrument instead.

Among numerous cases of abuse, it convicted three indigenous activists of "organized terrorism" and sentenced them to 12 years' imprisonment for marching against a recent water law; it also convicted a group of high school students on charges of "rebellion," as they protested against their school's name being changed.

Correa is successfully replacing the rule of law with the "rule of opinion" — something Uribe's supporters would have loved to do. We are heading toward a regime where the president uses his electoral majorities, boosted with a good dose of media populism, to erode obstructive "weights" and counterweights.

In the tradition of the presidential addresses and public meetings seen elsewhere in Latin America, in Ecuador there are communal "Saturday meetings." The idea is the same: a weekly show wherein the leader is connected to the masses by television. But in Ecuador, the leader makes it clear that "they" are all against the interests of the fatherland — be they judges, journalists, academics, social movements or NGOs!

It's not surprising that the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which promotes civic education, left the country weeks ago; and that Hoy, one of the newspapers, shut down. Like Uribe, Correa responds to critics by criticizing them back — as he did on television and Twitter after protests about his influence over the judiciary.

But with the same firmness they adopted in standing up to Uribe's authoritarianism, democratic sectors should also distance themselves from its Leftist version, personified by Correa. As we have learned in Colombia, what is at stake is nothing less than the rule of law.

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