Leftist nationalist assumes presidency in Ecuador, promising major changes

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The Independent US

Nationalist Rafael Correa vowed to put Ecuador's poor ahead of foreign debt payments as he was sworn in as president yesterday, and then raised a sword given to him by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez as he joined a growing club of leftist Latin American leaders.

The charismatic political outsider said he would work for an "economic revolution" that would emphasize the renegotiation of foreign debt, "paying only what we can after attending to the needs of the poor."

Correa, who has a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois, said the end of the "long neoliberal night" was at hand, declaring the free-market policies promoted by Washington since the 1980s had failed to develop Ecuador.

He also vowed to immediately push for a national referendum on rewriting Ecuador's constitution, a step opposed by much of the nation's political establishment.

Strapping on the red, yellow and blue presidential sash and smiling broadly as he waved to cheering supporters in the galleries of Congress, Correa complained that Ecuador has "a perverse system that has destroyed our democracy, our economy and our society."

His remarks drew applause from several U.S. antagonists, from Chavez to Bolivian President Evo Morales and Iran's hardline leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as from more moderate left-leaning leaders from Brazil, Chile, Peru and Nicaragua.

Correa, 43, won a November election runoff pledging to lead a "citizens' revolution" to make the country's democracy responsive to its poor majority.

He became the eighth president in the last decade in a nation marked by chronic political instability since it returned to democracy in 1979.

Correa said a new constitution is vital to limiting the power of the traditional parties that he blames for the country's problems.

"We seek a profound transformation. Our leadership has failed. We want a democracy where our voice is heard, where our representatives understand that they are there to serve us," said Correa, who wore a dark suit with no tie over a white shirt embroidered with Indian motifs.

Referring to Martin Luther King's dream of a United States free of racial discrimination, Correa said, "My dream ...is to see a country without extreme poverty, without children begging in the streets, a nation without opulence but dignified and happy."

He closed his address with a message in Quichua, the language of Ecuador's highland Indians, saying: "A new day has arrived. This government belongs to all men and women. Let us not be frightened. God bless our land!

Correa has rejected a free trade pact with the U.S., saying it would hurt Ecuador's farmers. And he has said he will not extend the U.S. military's use of the Manta air base on the Pacific coast for drug surveillance flights when a treaty expires in 2009.

Correa's view that Ecuador's democratic system benefits parties, not people, attracted voters disgusted with the corruption and greed of the political elite. More than 60 percent of Ecuadoreans live in poverty.

But some Ecuadoreans worry that Correa's real goal is to consolidate political power in the presidency as Chavez and Morales have done. They say he has shown early signs of not respecting the opinions of his political opponents, even moderate ones.

"He is leaving no room to negotiate, to reach an understanding," said Benjamin Ortiz, head of a Quito think tank. "He wants to steamroll over everyone."

His plans for a constitutional assembly could quickly put him on a collision course with Congress, which is dominated by Ecuador's traditional parties. Lawmakers have dismissed the last three elected presidents, violating impeachment proceedings, after huge street protests demanding their ousters.

During his campaign, Correa attacked Congress as a "sewer" of corruption and ran no candidates for the legislature. He said last week that the newly installed congressmen "do not represent anyone other than their own interests and the bosses of their political parties and that is not democracy."

Congressman Luis Fernando Torres, of the conservative Social Christian Party, shot back: "If Correa wants war, he'll get war."

Correa is banking on winning control of the constitutional assembly, which would have the power to close Congress.

On Sunday, Correa urged cheering supporters in the remote Andean village of Zumbahua, where he lived briefly 20 years ago as a volunteer Catholic social worker, to help him "conquer the majority in the assembly, to control it with 70 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent!"

Correa had traveled to the impoverished community for a ceremony in his honor, in which he received a streamer-draped scepter signifying authority in Indian communities. Five Indian priests wrapped him in colorful ribbons, shook sacred herbs over his head and called upon the spirits of earth, moon and sun to provide his four-year term with positive energy.

Thousands of people, most of them Indians, jammed Zumbahua's central square for the ceremony, a mix of Catholic and Indian rituals to mark the beginning of Correa's term.

"I will never fail you," he told the crowd to thunderous applause.

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