Tag: Rafael Correa

The Ecuadorian Pot Calls the American Kettle Black on Media Freedom

For a time it looked like Edward Snowden, famed NSA leaker, was headed for Ecuador, whose London embassy still hosts asylum-seeker Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. But the leftist government curiously has cooled on Snowden.

President Rafael Correa originally praised Snowden for his leaks, but then back-tracked. More recently Correa indicated that an asylum request would be considered only after Snowden reached Ecuadorian territory or an embassy, and after consultation with the Obama administration. The Hugo Chavez confidante added: “I believe that someone who breaks the law must assume his responsibilities.” 

The suspicion is that Correa decided principle wasn’t as important as his people’s access to the U.S. market. Nothing personal, just business!

Thankfully, President Correa is primarily a problem for his own people, a dangerous demagogue like Chavez who uses nominally democratic means to amass ever more power. The group Freedom House cited Correa’s use of “questionable maneuvers to remove opposition legislators and members of the Constitutional Court.” Human Rights Watch reported that “prosecutors have repeatedly applied a ‘terrorism and sabotage’ provision of the criminal code against participants engaged in public protests against environmental and other issues.” 

Correa also uses his control of the government and the courts to discourage media criticism. Last month the National Assembly approved a new “gag law” which creates a Communication Regulation and Development Council, Office of Superintendent of Information and Communication, and Citizen Participation, and Social Control Council to enforce its provisions.

The government closed a score of independent radio and television stations last year. President Correa also has used lawsuits to punish his critics. One case imposed a $40 million judgment and jail terms. Observed Freedom House: “International human rights and press freedom organizations, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the United Nations denounced the court decision as a clear effort to intimidate the press.”

His attacks on the press dramatically contradict his policy toward foreign leakers. Indeed, observed my Cato Institute colleagues Juan Carlos Hidalgo and Gabriela Calderon de Burgos:

Another, less reported story is Correa’s war against leakers in his own government. Since he came to power in 2007 there have been four well-documented case where the Ecuadorean government either prosecuted or arrested people who leaked information to the media, revealing instances of corruption in Correa’s government. 

Freedom House only rates Ecuador as “partly free.”  As I wrote in my latest Forbes online column:

While [recently] in Ecuador I talked with people who are more classically liberal, favoring limited government, competitive markets, and free expression.  Although they oppose the crony right as much as the populist left, there was a shared feeling of intimidation.  Years ago, when a free market university let Correa go after he chose politics over the classroom, he sent government regulators to the school.  Many who write about the president today say they temper their criticism, lest they face a ruinous lawsuit.

For Ecuadorian President Correa, sanctimony is high art. To him press freedom and government transparency are for other governments, not his own.

Violence and Institutional Chaos in Ecuador

Last Thursday I left home at 7:50am to do a radio interview. Little did I know that I would not be able to get back to work that day until 3:00pm because the national police would block the main avenues and bridges in my city, Guayaquil, Ecuador.

The police went on a national strike burning tires and openly disobeying the government. Grocery stores, drugstores, banks and other shops were sacked for most of the day as a result.  Some disgruntled members of the air force, who sympathized with the police and are in charge of running airports, shut down a few airports including the one in Quito, the capital.

President Rafael Correa was quick to call this a coup d’état attempt. But it was not. All of the military high command expressly supported the President from the beginning. It was a police strike that got out of hand mostly because the authorities with the power to have toned down the situation did the opposite. The policemen were demanding the repeal or reform of a law that reduced their compensation. The President or his ministers could have offered to negotiate the controversial provisions within that law. But the President went to the police barracks and provoked the policemen yelling “If you want to kill the president…here he is … kill him now!”

The policemen physically assaulted the President, throwing a teargas bomb at him among other objects, and he went across the street to the police hospital. There he received treatment and visits from his ministers and top aides, gave cell phone interviews and was at all times protected by his security team. Mary O`Grady in today’s Wall Street Journal and others credibly point out that the president was never kidnapped as he claims.

The political crisis that led to the police strike did not begin on Thursday. Ecuador has lived in constant political tension since before the year 2000, a situation that only intensified with the arrival of Rafael Correa’s government in January 2007. That year, his government was behind the forcible and illegal removal of the democratically elected opposition in Congress in order to approve a constitutional referendum that would give Correa more power. The press then discovered Correa’s Minister of Government holding a secret meeting with alternate congressmen, who serve in place of elected congressmen in case these cannot serve. After this meeting, with the support of the alternate congressmen, Correa got a majority in Congress that he did not have before.

When the Constitutional Court reinstated the opposition in Congress, Correa encouraged his followers to make the Constitutional Court “understand” the popular will and he ordered the police not to provide security to the Constitutional Court. An angry mob then physically assaulted the members of the court. Nevermind, Correa’s new majority in Congress removed the members of the Constitutional Court as they were in the way of a referendum that was clearly unconstitutional. The referendum asked if Ecuadorians wanted to hold a Constitutional Assembly of “unlimited powers” to draft a new constitution. A sizeable majority voted ‘yes’ and Correa’s majority at the Constitutional Assembly began its use of unlimited power by dissolving Congress in 2008.

After regularly disregarding the Constitution and the law for almost 4 years, it should come as no surprise that the policemen woke up one day thinking that, they too, could disobey the law and demand changes by force.

The 30th of September was a sad day for Ecuadorian democracy. The government ordered all media to broadcast state TV programming. We Ecuadorians were forced to watch government officials and sympathizers most of the day until two TV stations disobeyed the order at 9:00pm to show our military opening fire against our policemen, and rescuing a supposedly “kidnapped” President from the hospital. That day there were almost 300 wounded persons and 8 deaths that, most likely, could have been avoided.

There is nothing to celebrate. There is still no rule of law in Ecuador. While the President was celebrating a “victory for democracy” from the government palace’s balcony, the shooting between the military and policemen continued for 20 more minutes and the order to broadcast state TV was still in force. Naturally, state TV was only showing Correa’s address.

The damage is great. We have lost respect of our policemen and our government authorities, who act as if their power has no limits. The Ecuadorians of my generation have never seen this level of violence. We have also never been subjected to such an extreme state control of information, as we were that day.

The Organization of American States was quick to denounce the police uprising and express its support of democracy. But where have the OAS and other supposed defenders of democracy been when Correa has systematically violated the rule of law and undermined democratic institutions?

The institutional vacuum created by Correa’s government has led our society to unacceptable levels of violence. We hoped that the violent toll of the events on Thursday would have made the government change its authoritarian ways. So far, all evidence points to a radicalization of the government, which was already stigmatizing the opposition and harassing the independent press, and now seems set to exploit the day’s events to further undermine democracy.

What will it take for the OAS to denounce violations of the rule of law under Correa’s government?

A Columnist Sentenced to Three Years in Prison in Ecuador

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has long labeled the free press as his “main enemy.” His attitude has unfortunately resulted in official intolerance of individuals critical of the government.

The latest example is that of Emilio Palacio, the editor of the op-ed page of El Universo – the newspaper with the highest circulation in the country – who was sentenced on Friday to three years in jail for an op-ed he wrote in August 2009. Palacio accused Camilo Samán, director of a state-owned bank, of having sent protesters to El Universo’s offices after the newspaper reported on possible acts of corruption at the bank. The President has repeatedly stated that Palacio should be punished for what he wrote. In a country where everybody knows that the courts are not independent of political power, it’s not surprising that the ruling went against the editor.

I have known Palacio since I began writing op-eds for El Universo in late 2006. Although we hardly ever agree on policy issues, I certainly don’t believe he (or anyone else) deserves to go to jail (and possibly pay a fine of $3 million) for expressing an opinion. (The court actually found Palacio guilty of libel, but even if we were to agree with that finding, the punishment surely does not fit the crime.)

Correa’s government has accused at least 31 people of offending “the majesty of the presidency,” jailing many of them for short periods of time. To do so, the President revived a law that the first military dictatorship of the 1970s put into place that made such an offense a crime and that was never taken off the books.

The government regularly vilifies its critics including journalists, university students, businessmen, and indigenous leaders. For example, during his weekly national radio shows, the President has attacked Carlos Vera and Jorge Ortiz, the two most popular news anchors in the country. The government’s frequent nationally televised messages (that every TV station on public airwaves is forced to broadcast) usually have the sole purpose of attacking a person or group that opposes official policy. Sometimes these messages were broadcast during Vera’s and Ortiz’s programs, thereby keeping their viewers from watching them. In 2008 Correa took over several privately owned TV and radio stations. Last year, he apparently had his eyes set on Teleamazonas, another TV station on public airwaves. In December, the government shut down Teleamazonas for three days and now has a frivolous legal case pending against it.

Sadly, Correa is following the pattern of his fellow populist Hugo Chávez in curtailing freedom of speech, though receiving virtually no international scrutiny.

Question Regarding Obama’s Signals Toward Latin America

How come President Obama can find time to call and congratulate Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa on his reelection (someone who has said that he prefers “a thousand times” to be a friend of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez than to be an ally of the United States) but can’t find time to meet with, or at least issue a statement supporting, Cuban dissidents at the White House as his predecessors did?

Obama Congratulates Correa

The White House announced today that President Obama called Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to congratulate him on his recent re-election and “to commend the people of Ecuador for their commitment to democracy.”

I’ve lauded Obama before for avoiding picking fights with Latin American populist leaders such as Correa. But I think that trying to befriend them sends the wrong signal to defenders of democratic institutions throughout the region. After all, a year ago Correa confessed that he wasn’t a democrat if that represented allowing the opposition to participate in the debate for a new constitution. More recently, he stated (in Spanish) that he preferred “a thousand times” to be a friend of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez than be an ally of the United States.

Obama should pick his friends in Latin America more carefully.