Ecuadorians elect UI grad as president

By Emily Sokolik

Five years ago, Rafael Correa was simply a post-doctoral student studying economics in Champaign-Urbana. But last Sunday, he was elected president of Ecuador.

Correa, who was elected Nov. 26, has promised to alleviate corruption in the politically chaotic atmosphere of Ecuador through liberal reform.

Werner Baer, University professor of economics and Correa’s former thesis adviser, has always been taken with Correa’s charm and ability to easily express ideas.

“He was an excellent student, but he never revealed that he had any political ambitions,” Baer said. “I was very happy to find out.”

Correa’s run for presidency, though, came as no surprise to Ruben Proano, an Ecuadorian friend of Correa and a graduate student at the University.

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“If you had lunch with him, he’d always start talking about politics,” Proano said. “He was always reading the newspaper, debating issues and was very politically aware.”

Proano describes the future president as idealistic and passionate, but knows Correa will need more than just strong personality traits to transform the current political situation in Ecuador.

The country has gone through eight presidents since 1996, including three who were thrown out of office. Lucio Gutierrez, a former president elected in 2002, was ousted by Congress in 2005 after public protests. With a weak political structure, Ecuador has been plagued with instability and corruption for years.

“Correa is a new face without any political baggage,” said William Murillo, Correa’s general campaign coordinator in New York. “The country itself is looking for deep and long-term reforms.”

In addition to Spanish, Correa is fluent in English and Quechua, the language of indigenous South Americans in the Andes. Proano said Correa’s knowledge of Quechua may have helped secure him the presidency because of his ability to identify with an often-ignored segment of the population.

“Correa really won the election with their support,” Proano said.

He added that political groups protest the government, which they believe has far too much power, in the capital city of Quito every night.

“He’s going to have a lot of work to fight against the political party system in Ecuador,” he said. “I think he will have to maintain strong relationships with everyone, but he has many problems internally.”

Critics of Correa are also worried about his close ties with Hugo Chavez, the controversial president of Venezuela.

“I doubt he will become another Chavez,” Proano said. “If he aligns with Chavez, (Correa) will lose all that support in Ecuador.”

Gabriel Ocampo, a 22-year-old law student at San Francisco University in Quito, did not vote in the recent elections.

“I don’t agree with his economic policies that would restrain market growth especially because Ecuador is a primary exporter of goods,” he said.

Ocampo, though, supports Correa’s promises to reduce poverty and increase social rights.

Many Ecuadorians expressed similar support for Correa, who defeated his opponent, a banana mogul with ties to the United States, by a wide margin.

“The people are tired of the same old baloney,” Murillo said. “Rewriting a new set of rules will help a lot to create a more just society.”