Latin America
4:17 pm
Mon June 30, 2014

Ecuador's President Tests The Waters On Wiping Away Term Limits

Originally published on Mon June 30, 2014 7:01 pm

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Ecuador has a history of coups and political unrest, but the current president, Rafael Correa, is presiding over a rare period of stability and economic growth. And to keep a good thing going, Correa says he wants to change Ecuador's constitution. He wants to be reelected again and perhaps again and again. His critics say doing away with term limits would put the country's democracy in danger. John Otis reports from the Ecuadorian capital of Quito.

ABDALA BUCARAM: (Singing in Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: That's Abdala Bucaram who briefly served as Ecuador's president in the late 1990s. He was nicknamed el loco, or the crazy man, for his outrageous behavior, like performing Elvis Presley songs in public.

BUCARAM: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: Accused of corruption and mental incapacity, Bucaram was impeached after just six months in office. Over the next decade, Ecuador went through six more heads of state. Some were disposed of so quickly, they were known as Kleenex presidents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RAFAEL CORREA: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: But in 2007, Rafael Correa was sworn in as president. A charismatic leftist, Correa often clashes with Washington and expelled a U.S. ambassador, and he considered offering asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden. But many Ecuadorians adore their president. The Correa government has taken advantage of a spike in oil prices to build hospitals, schools, dams and highways. The poverty rate has fallen from 37 to 27 percent. Last year, voters re-elected Correa in a landslide. I meet some of the president's fans at the Replica Mejia public school located in a Quito slum. It's one of 200 new schools the government is building in impoverished areas.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: Until it opened this year, there were no public schools in this neighborhood. Housewife Jessi Santana says she had to pay a $120 a month - a big chunk of the family income - to send her kids to private schools.

JESSI SANTANA: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: Past governments didn't care about education, she says after dropping off her kids at the new school, but this government does care.

SANTANA: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: That's why Santana says she would like Correa to run for president again when his term expires in 2017. That just might happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORREA: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: The Ecuadorian constitution prohibits presidents from serving three consecutive terms. But in a May speech, Correa called on lawmakers to amend the constitution so he could run for reelection indefinitely.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORREA: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: Let the Ecuadorian people decide, Correa said. Due to a painful history of dictatorships, most Latin American countries banned reelection when they returned to democracy in the 1970s and '80s, but that's changing. 16 countries in the region now allow reelection. Nicaragua and Venezuela have scrapped terms altogether. But like the leaders of Nicaragua and Venezuela, critics say Correa has concentrated power in his own hands. Correa has stacked the judicial system with allies. The national assembly, which plans to begin debating the re-election issue later this year, is dominated by Correa's political party. Meanwhile, the watchdog roll of the news media has been severely undermined by a restrictive new communications law. Under these conditions, Correa would head into the next election with too many advantages, says Quito political analyst Cesar Montufar.

CESAR MONTUFAR: If you are in power for four, eight, 12, 16 years - the whole state structure responds to the leader that runs the country, and the electoral competition is not equal. So it's impossible for a new leader to emerge and win over a president that is already 10 years in power.

OTIS: Pro-government lawmaker Virgilio Hernandez agrees.

VIRGILIO HERNANDEZ: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: In fact, he says complaints about the president have nothing to do with the state of Ecuador's democracy. The opposition's true concern, Hernandez claims, is that it lacks a candidate who could defeat Correa. For NPR News, I'm John Otis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.