My turn? Rafael Correa angles for regional leadership in South America

Just for kicks, this is a writing sample I put together in Feb 2013, two weeks before Hugo Chavez died. 

My turn?

Rafael Correa angles for regional leadership in South America

This week, Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa routed divided opposition to win his third presidential election, finishing thirty percentage points ahead of his closest rival. That victory, combined with the return home from Cuba of Venezuela’s ailing president Hugo Chavez, has South America-watchers wondering: could Correa, a Chavez friend an ally, soon become South America’s leftist rabble-rouser-in-chief?

Correa has reason to lay claim to the title. When he first took power in 2007, eleven years had passed since an Ecuadorian leader had finished out a term, and Chavez had begun trumpeting the coming spread of 21st Century Bolivarian Socialism only two years before. Correa fell smartly in line, importing many of Chavez’s tactics: limiting press freedom, purging opposition figures from Ecuador’s diplomatic corps, and railing against American policy. He has worked to raise his international profile by providing asylum to Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, and tossing out the American military from its Ecuadorian base in 2009. Within the Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), the regional group committed to Chavez’s socialist doctrine, Correa’s clout is growing. He is one of few leaders to see the Venezuelan dictator on his Cuban sickbed and has seen fit publicly to endorse the leadership of Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro. Correa’s selection of Jorge Glas, a childhood friend, as his own vice president will give the charismatic Ecuadorian leader more freedom to focus on foreign policy in his third term.

But it is unclear whether Correa can step into a Chavez-sized regional leadership gap or whether such a gap will exist after the Venezuelan leader’s demise. Maduro, likely to inherit control of Venezuela’s resources and army if not the personal devotion of its people, will work to maintain leadership of the regional bloc. Outside of ALBA, the economies of more moderate neighbours such as Colombia and Mexico have galloped apace, as has their political clout. Mexico, for its part, has been instrumental in the creation of ALBA alternatives such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Pacific Alliance.

If Chavez’s passing does create a gap in South American leadership, Correa faces more local obstacles to assuming the throne. First, Ecuador lacks the deep oil reserves of Venezuela; without the ability to purchase the loyalty of other ALBA members, Correa would struggle to keep them in line. Second, Correa is constitutionally term limited. While changing the constitution has proved no difficulty to date, an attempt to wrestle another term might at last galvanize scattered Ecuadorian opposition and distract the president from his regional ambitions. The colourful Rafael Correa may be Ecuador’s most powerful leader in a quarter-century, but true regional influence will remain out of his reach.

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